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Election Commissioner O P Rawat surprised his admirers and detractors alike by his outburst at the blatant use of money and misuse of government machinery in the elections.  This was not the Rawat I had known from his days in Madhya Pradesh, where he served in various important positions in the government; he was never known to speak publicly, and that too, in a harsh language, about what he was thinking on an issue. His detractors had, in fact, dubbed him as a ‘ghunna’ (one who keeps his strong feelings about something or somebody within himself).

That even Rawat should have lost his calm can only mean that the electoral process has reached such a low as to require immediate drastic measures to keep the people’s faith intact in the elections. Democracy thrives, Rawat observed, ‘when elections are free, fair and transparent’. Rawat shared his distress in his keynote address at the consultation on electoral and political reforms organised by Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) in New Delhi in August.

He said, ‘it has come to the notice of the (Election) Commission that paid operators run by PR firms are being actively deployed to shape public opinion online. It appears to a cynical common man that we have been scripting a narrative that places maximum premium on winning at all costs to the total exclusion of ethical considerations. In this narrative, poaching of legislators is extolled as small political management; strategic introduction of money for allurement, tough-minded use of State machinery for intimidation, etc, are all commended as resourcefulness’.

He said, ‘the winner can commit no sin; a defector crossing over to the ruling camp stands cleansed of all the guilt as also possible criminality. It is this creeping new normal of political morality that should be the target for exemplary action by all political parties, politicians, media, civil society organisations, constitutional authorities and all those having faith in democratic polity for better election, a better tomorrow’.

Rawat pointed out that ‘although money was necessary for political parties and candidates, experience has shown that there is a real and present risk that some parties and candidates, once in office, will be more responsive to the interests of a particular group of donors rather than to wider public interest. Policy capture occurs when the interests of a narrow group dominate those of other stakeholders to the benefit of that narrow group’.

Referring to the Election Commission’s objection to the Electoral Bonds introduced by the government, he observed that it might lead to the use of black money in electoral politics. Rawat said, ‘the recent amendments in the election and income tax laws make it clear that any donation received by a political party through an Electoral Bond has been taken out of ambit of reporting in the Contribution Report which political parties have to submit to the EC. Implications of this step can be retrograde as far as transparency is concerned. Furthermore, where contributions received through Electoral Bonds are not reported, a perusal of contribution reports will not make it clear whether the party in question has taken any donations in violation of Section 29B of the Representation of the People Act, which prohibits political parties from taking donations from government companies and foreign sources’.

Amit Shah reacts

The Election Commission had, he said, expressed apprehension that the abolition of relevant provisions of the Companies Act of removing a cap of 7.5 per cent of profit for political donations can lead to money laundering ‘by setting up of shell companies for diverting funds for donations to political parties.

Rawat’s plain speaking came apparently in the light of the developments during the Gujarat Rajya Sabha elections in which blatant use of money, government machinery and intimidation was witnessed. BJP president Amit Shah was hailed as the ‘manager’ of the election strategy.

Shah did not take note of Rawat’s speech at ADR event directly. But he reacted to Rawat’s observations in his own way. During his three-day visit to Bhopal a few days later, he opted to have his lunch at the house of Narottam Mishra to the exclusion of all other party leaders. Narottam Mishra, Minister of Public Relations, Legislative Affairs and Water Resources in the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government, is on a stay after he was found guilty of ‘paid news’ by the Election Commission in June and disqualified as well as barred from contesting elections for three years. The stay against the Election Commission’s order did not come to him easily. His prayer for a stay was rejected by the Gwalior bench of Madhya Pradesh High Court, by a single bench of Delhi High Court (where the matter was transferred by the Supreme Court), by a division bench of Delhi High Court where he had appealed against the single bench order. He then went to the Supreme Court which returned his appeal to the Delhi High Court. Eventually a division bench of Delhi High Court granted him stay.

Shah was later reported to have told party men that the BJP had to win all the 29 Lok Sabha seats in Madhya Pradesh anyhow in 2019. He was said to have particularly named Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia who, he said, had to be defeated ‘at any cost’. His reported advice to the members of the cabinet: Never do any work of Congressmen, make them uncomfortable and lure them to the BJP.

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This Editorial in The New York Times sees dark days for Indian Democracy if PM Narendra Modi does not check the Hindu-nationalist militancy:

The murder on Tuesday of the Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh, a fearless critic of rising Hindu-nationalist militancy, has all the hallmarks of a hit job. “The message and not to independent journalists but to all dissenters is loud and clear,” tweeted Sidharth Bhatia, founding editor of the Indian online news site The Wire, “We are watching you and one day we will get you.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has let a climate of mob rule flourish in India, with his right-wing Hindu supporters vilifying “secularists.” The venom that reactionary social media trolls direct at journalists, or “presstitutes” as they call them, is especially vicious, but not entirely new. At least 27 Indian journalists have been killed since 1992 “in direct retaliation for their work,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Only one of the killers has been convicted. Still, Ms. Lankesh’s murder shocked India’s news media and set off protest marches in several Indian cities. “Journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals,” Reporters Without Borders” said.

The government of the state of Karnataka is investigating the killing of Ms. Lankesh, an editor and publisher of a Kannada-language weekly tabloid, who was shot outside her home in Bengaluru. Her family has given the police closed-circuit video of the murder scene, so that the killers, and anyone who may have ordered the assassination, may be brought to justice.

This has not happened so far in the murders of other outspoken critics of right-wing Hindu nationalists. Narendra Dabholkar,  whose campaigns against superstitious practices angered many Hindu religious activists, was shot to death near his home in Pune in 2013. Two years ago, Malleshappa Madivalappa Kulburgi, a former vice chancellor of Kannada University who spent decades debunking peddlers of superstition, was fatally shot in his home in Dharwad.

Ms. Lankesh had voiced concern about the climate of menace against journalists who didn’t toe the Hindu-nationalist line. If Mr. Modi doesn’t condemn her murder forcefully and denounce the harassment and threats that critics of Hindu militancy face daily, more critics will live in fear of deadly reprisal and Indian democracy will see dark days.

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