It will be a while before we shall learn if Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s exertions in Delhi have moved the non-BJP political parties closer to any kind of convergence for next year’s Lok Sabha election.
Meanwhile, Union home minister Amit Shah has already declared, with his usual cockiness, that the BJP would win more than 300 seats and Narendra Modi would be back as the prime minister. The BJP is entitled to its tall talk, just as the Opposition is obliged, as per its democratic dharma, to do its best to dislodge the ruling party from the Delhi gaddi.
But before – and, if at all – the various political parties and actors, national and regional, with their respective egos and ambitions can reach any kind of understanding on seat-sharing, a pre- or post-electoral alliance or its leadership, it is imperative for each one of them to address a fundamentally consequential task: how to ensure that the 2024 Lok Sabha electoral battle is fought on a level-playing field.
The BJP is now addicted to crowing grandiloquently about the moral standing of its supreme leader and his agenda. But, every single non-BJP party can cite chapter and verse as to how since the Jan Sangh days the BJP has mastered the art of underhandedness. And, whenever it could get away with any undeserved advantage, it has had no moral qualms in breaking any law, ignoring any advisory or violating any code of conduct. This penchant for abusing incumbency to crowbar its way to a winning margin has almost become institutionalised. Besotted reporters variously call it the BJP’s organisational advantage, ‘political masterstrokes’ or ‘bench strength’ or ‘Chanakayan strategies.’ The 2022 Gujarat election is a case study in how cunning intimidation can yield very rich electoral dividends.
The strategic use of intimidation – leaving aside the debate over electronic voting machines – is so humdrum that disparate political opponents hardly notice how the ruling party carves out a critical advantage even before a single vote gets cast in any assembly or Lok Sabha constituency.
The dice gets rolled with the “capture” of the Election Commission. Hard-boiled observers have noted with admiration the ruling clique’s exquisite ruthlessness in getting Ashok Lavasa, a potentially difficult customer, out of Nirvachan Sadan. Equally breathtaking was the brazenness with which Arun Goel was appointed as an Election Commissioner; this appointment has, thankfully, come under the Supreme Court’s scrutiny.
The BJP’s rivals have reason to believe that instead of acting as a neutral and impartial umpire, the Election Commission in recent years has gone out of its way to give little, but crucial, breaks here and there to the ruling party. The Election Commission gets to assume extraordinary powers over state government officials at election time. A compromised or biased Election Commission can disproportionately swing a Lok Sabha constituency away from the non-BJP ruling dispensation in any state; and, in BJP-ruled states, the local government is allowed the choice of its favourite officers. The BJP’s impressive tally in West Bengal in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll should make an instructive study of the crucial role Nirvachan Sadan can play.
Article 324 gives absolute authority to the Election Commission in conducting polls. If recent experience is any guide, this authority of a pliable commission will be available to the BJP’s election strategists in 2024.
It is imperative that the opposition parties put their heads together now on how to demand neutrality and impartiality from the Election Commission. Since 2014, every non-BJP political party, national or regional, will have a tale of its own to tell as to how this or that vote was stolen away from it.
Even if opposition parties fail to arrive at a working unity, it is in their collective interest to have national workshops of mutual consultation – where individual stories of failure or success, the use at the local level of muscle and money-power before election day, tricks played by staff on duty on election day inside the polling booths, and other abuses get flagged. Then, there is the guarding of EVM machines, as also the need for fair play on counting day and the tabulations of results. Without vigilance and without diligent homework, the opposition can be made to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The BJP always has its tool-kit ready, and it is sharpening its tools for the 2024 election. The least the Opposition parties can do is pool their experiences and resources to prepare a manual for their cadres and candidates, and involve civil society in keeping a watch on the Election Commission’s conduct.
A massive sleight of hand is already in play. An impression is being manufactured in three parts:
(1) the prime minister is loved and trusted by the people, he knows them and they know him and are comfortable with him, he is the only leader the country deserves and needs;
(2) any attempt to question him, leave alone contest against him and Team Modi in 2024 is not only futile but also immoral and undesirable. Ministerial brawlers are calling the opposition mahagathbandan a thugbandan – a gathering of thieves; and
(3) the outcome of 2024 is a foregone conclusion: it is going to be the BJP and Modi all the way.
This humungous enterprise has been speeded up under the garb of India’s G20 presidency. Taxpayer money is being squandered in putting up Prime Minister Modi’s hoardings and billboards on every conceivable space in every nook and corner of the country. A text-book study of how to build a personality cult.
Apart from mesmerising middle class Indians with Naya Bharat’s new global status, this sleight-of-hand is primarily aimed at intimidating any and all election regulators, arbiters or monitors into quietly countenancing Modi’s excesses or violations of the code of conduct.
It is vital that the judiciary not get taken in by all the razzmatazz that is dished out by the ruling clique. The Supreme Court has bravely indicated that it cannot be a silent spectator to the “packing” of Nirvachan Sadan. It is about time the apex court gets around to pronouncing on the legality or otherwise of anonymous electoral bonds.
The Opposition parties cannot achieve any electoral understanding unless they agree on the absolute necessity of resolving that the 2024 mandate must not be stolen. Only then they can proceed to the nitty-gritty of ensuring that in no Lok Sabha seat – not Varanasi, not Gandhinagar – will the BJP get a walkover. At stake is not just this or that party’s electoral fortunes but the survival of our democratic order.