A not-so-level playing field: Our free and unfair elections

Praveen Chakravarty
April 19, 2024

A not-so-level playing field: Our free and unfair elections

“The mother of democracy is in bad shape” said the Financial Times recently, in reference to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s repeated boast. It is now well-known that most reputed international publications and television channels across the ideological spectrum no longer regard India as a well-functioning democracy. Instead, they have pinned various labels on India now – electoral autocracy, one-party democracy, and so on.

It may be tempting to dismiss these as either western hypocrisy or foreign media with an agenda, as most BJP sympathisers do. In an increasingly bi-polar world order of autocracies versus democracies, India’s place uncontestably should be in the group against China, i.e., amidst democracies. The world’s economic and military future will be shaped by these forces. India’s democracy is not just ‘nice to have’ feel-good virtue; the economic future of more than a billion Indians depends on it.

Being a well-functioning democracy not only means holding free and fair elections but also entails the rule of law and respect for the Constitution and institutions. Arguably, India is still a developing democracy and its institutions have never been truly independent. But India’s democracy fulfilled at least the free and fair elections criteria thus far. Unfortunately, even this is shrouded in doubt and disbelief today.

In July 2023, I wrote in these pages that the then recent Karnataka election was “free, but not fair” because the ruling BJP had four times as much money, 1.5 times as much media coverage and used the state government machinery as an extended arm of the party during the elections. Congress had just won the Karnataka election with a 43% vote share, its highest in 30 years. So, there was apprehension that deeming it as a ‘free but unfair’ election undermined the Congress’ victory. But speaking the truth from a winner’s vantage point is precisely what lent it credibility. A year later now, the notion that India’s elections may be free but are unfair has only been reaffirmed and reiterated by many in India and internationally.

India’s elections are free. Voters have the freedom to decide whether to vote or not. They can freely vote for the candidate and party of their choice and if unsatisfied with all options, they can even choose to express their angst by voting for NOTA (none of the above). And their vote is largely kept secret, though modern data technologies and the disclosure of booth-wise voting patterns makes it plausible to impute a household’s voting choice. But by and large, India’s elections satisfy the freeness test.

However, it fails the fairness test. For an election to be “fair”, the most fundamental condition is that all political parties and participants must have a level playing field. Every party must have, more or less, equal access to financial resources, media, and freedom to campaign. Further, elections must be regulated and overseen by a fair and impartial body. It is clear that none of these are true in India today.

The ruling BJP has more money than all the other parties combined, including its principal rival, the Congress. The Electoral Bonds data revealed this fact but that is only a small part of the overall political financing story. What’s worse is that when the Congress party resorted to individual, small-time donations from crores of party workers and sympathisers, the BJP used the Income Tax Department to freeze the Congress’ bank account. Can any organisation function, let alone run a national election campaign, if it’s not allowed to use its own money from its own bank account? Not only did the BJP monopolise all political funding but even barred its principal rival from using whatever meagre funds it raised.

With the national elections underway, a majority of the leaders of the third largest political party (in terms of states governed), the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), have been arrested, including its leader and the Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal. Regardless of the merits of the case for which they have been jailed, how can an election be fair when leading opposition leaders are imprisoned?

The Print reported that a whopping one-third of BJP’s candidates for the Lok Sabha election are leaders that have defected from opposition parties. Political leaders and workers across all parties are being forced to join the BJP and abuse their former party publicly, in return for either freedom from investigation of their past shenanigans or the reward of a parliament membership. If just weeks before the cricket world cup tournament, the Indian team uses its money power and control of the International Cricket Council (ICC) to pull away leading players from other teams to the Indian team, will it be considered a fair world cup?

The role of the Election Commission is to ensure that India’s elections are not dominated by one party and there is a certain balance among all parties. When one Election Commissioner resigns in protest days before the announcement of the national election schedule and two new Election Commissioners are appointed in a surreptitious and urgent manner by the government, there is bound to be suspicion over the neutrality of the Election Commission.

One may ask, if the BJP has monopolised money, media and machinery, combined with a lack of recourse to justice for the opposition parties due to the non-impartiality of the Election Commission and, to boot, growing voter suspicion over the election process using EVMs, why should the opposition parties even legitimise such a farcical election by participating in it? It is seemingly a legitimate and logical question. In fact, this was discussed internally among some opposition parties and radical ideas such as a boycott of the elections were also floated. But rather than a boycott, it is perhaps more prudent to hope that India’s voters know the extreme injustice meted out to the Opposition and will use their ‘freeness’ to punish the ‘unfairness’ of this election by voting against the BJP, as they did in the last Karnataka election.


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