The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is facing a round of Assembly elections in which it has been backed into a corner. Desperation is making it fall back on its default options: the illegitimate use of agencies of the state to harass, intimidate and hamstring the parties it is facing off against; and, of course, sectarian polarisation.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in West Bengal, where the party is big on ambition and cocky public certitudes about coming to power for the first time, but way short of what it takes to translate these into outcomes. This is true to a lesser extent in Assam as well, where, though apparently in pole position, its return to power is not done and dusted.
Thus, in these two states, the ruling party’s dirty-tricks department is in overdrive, while it enjoys impunity after having hollowed out institutions and subverted democratic and constitutional conventions.
In Tamil Nadu, the BJP already has a peripheral role. All it can really do is hang on tightly to the coat-tails of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Since it cannot really do much to influence the outcome, though it has a stake in the shape of a victory for the alliance it is part of, it is keeping a low profile.
In Kerala, it has not sniffed a breakthrough moment. One seat in the Legislative Assembly is its best shot. Thus, again, a low profile. In Puducherry, it has splashed the cash from its swollen war chest to unseat the Congress government. It could win the tiny Union Territory, but Puducherry is hardly the centre of nationwide electoral calculations.
The spotlight is on the eastern part of the country. Both Assam and Bengal ran through the first phase of polling on 27 March. The second phase of polling in Bengal is to be held today and in Assam on Thursday. In the former state, the BJP promptly violated the Model Code of Conduct on Sunday by publishing an advertisement, masquerading as news, in several newspapers claiming it would win in all 47 constituencies in Upper Assam where elections had been held.
The Congress has complained to the Election Commission of India against BJP president JP Nadda, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, and Assam BJP chief Ranjeet Kumar Dass and the ECI officials who cleared the advertisement. It has also filed a First Information Report against them for violating section 126 A of the Representation of the People Act, which is punishable with a jail term of up to two years and a fine.
The substance of the complaint is that the Model Code of Conduct and the law prohibit any kind of electoral forecast until the elections are over. General claims of victory are acceptable, but not a claim by anyone that a certain number of seats will be won by a particular contestant.
The ECI had issued a circular on 26 March, saying, “The commission is of the view that predictions of results of elections in any form or manner by way of astrology, tarot card readers, political analysts or by any person during the prohibited period is [a] violation of the spirit of Section 126A which aims to prevent the electors of constituencies still going to polls from being influenced in their voting by such predictions about the prospects of various political parties.”
The track record of the ECI since the current regime came to power in 2014, does not, however, inspire much confidence about punitive action, though Assam Chief Election Officer Nitin Khade has said the matter is under examination.
But the most egregious examples of the ECI helping the BJP contest the elections on a playing field that has been tailored on its behalf comes from Bengal. The first act of fealty paid to the ruling party was the extraordinary decision to schedule the elections over eight phases and almost five weeks--from 27 March to 29 April.
Bengal has 294 Assembly constituencies and 72 million voters. On average, thus, less than 37 will hold elections in each phase. Tamil Nadu has 234 constituencies and 61 million voters. It votes in one phase on 6 April, as does Kerala, which has 140 constituencies and 26 million voters. In contrast, Assam, which has 126 constituencies and 22 voters, votes in three phases.
It is difficult to not conclude that the election schedules make it relatively easier for the BJP’s heavy-hitters, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, to campaign hard in a state where the BJP is on a weak wicket, i.e., Bengal, and in a state where its electability is under serious challenge, i.e., Assam.
In Bengal, apart from the unprecedented eight-phase elections, the election watchdog on 23 March changed the rule that polling agents in a booth had to be from the area covered by it. The new rule allows anyone from the Assembly constituency to be a polling agent. The BJP for all its chest-thumping has found it an uphill struggle to mobilise election agents, which is not surprising given its difficulties in getting 294 candidates to contest. The new rule helps it spread the load.
The ECI’s reasoning that the number of booths has increased from around 79,000 to just over 1,00,000 hardly cuts it. If that had been the reason, it would not have waited till four days before the first phase of polling to announce the change.
There are other issues as well. Not allowing state police personnel within 100 metres of the polling booth and the frequent reshuffling of senior officers reflect an unwarranted suspicion on a large scale of Bengal’s administrative set-up. Alongside, the deployment of security personnel from BJP-governed states like Uttar Pradesh does not look like a move calculated to level the playing field.
Finally, let’s come to Modi’s antics. Visiting Bangladesh to commemorate its liberation 50 years ago is certainly a neighbourly thing to do. But campaigning for a domestic election while on an official trip abroad, which is what he did when he visited Orakandi, the spiritual home of the Matua community in Bengal, is surely an act that should be sanctioned.
Similarly, there seems to be little to commend the ECI’s failure to prevent the Prime Minister from airing his ‘Mann ki Baat’ monologues because they can be, and often are, used for electioneering, as was the case with the 75th edition of the programme broadcast on 28 March.
This election season has once again displayed the impunity with which the BJP can flout rules and bend institutions that are supposed to be independent to suit its purposes. When the Prime Minister and Union Home Minister are behind these manoeuvres, no amount of breast-beating can help.
The only thing that may inspire confidence is a spot of schadenfreude. The extension of the elections over eight phases to help the out-of-state BJP leaders to carpet bomb Bengal seems to be hurting rather than helping the party by exposing the pitiful condition of its state unit. It is also lending credence to the oft-repeated charge that the BJP is essentially a party of “outsiders” and that were it to win, the state would be run from Delhi, for the benefit of the BJP, not the state.
The author is an independent journalist and researcher. The views are personal.