• By Ali Inan

In the shadow of impending general elections, the political landscape of India is witnessing unprecedented challenges. The leader of the country’s principal opposition party has been removed from Parliament, and an astonishing 146 members have been suspended for challenging the government.

The opposition’s bank accounts have been frozen, while two prominent chief ministers face imprisonment under severe financial misconduct allegations, marking a first in the nation’s democratic journey.

Denied bail, their predicament underscores a broader narrative of crackdowns on dissent. Meanwhile, the ruling party’s financial prowess swells with approximately $1 billion in funds, reportedly accumulated through opaque electoral bonds. In a move that has raised eyebrows, a high court judge has resigned, only to join the political fray alongside the ruling establishment.

The press, too, feels the heat, with journalists critical of the government facing investigations and detentions. The media landscape, largely influenced by powerful corporate interests, presents a hostile environment for opposition voices.

This narrative, unfolding not in countries typically associated with political repression but in India—the world’s most populous democracy—casts a shadow over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assertions of India being the “mother of democracy.” Despite the grandeur of such claims, especially highlighted during global events like the G-20 summit in New Delhi, there’s an unsettling contrast in the domestic sphere. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) faces accusations of undermining democracy through political manoeuvring, coercing opposition through federal agencies, and fragmenting opposition parties by swaying their members, thereby destabilizing state governments.

These manoeuvres not only compromise the electoral process but also erode the democratic fabric by normalizing such disruptions. Even as the electoral code of conduct kicks in, opposition figures routinely encounter legal pressures from central investigative agencies. This skewed battleground, far from the equitable contest envisioned by democratic norms, raises serious concerns about the integrity of India’s elections and democracy itself.

Three pressing issues stand out in this turmoil. First, the financial hamstringing of the Congress party, the main opposition, through the freezing of its bank accounts, which cripples its campaign capabilities. Second, the arrest of opposition leaders under contentious charges stifles dissent and fosters a climate of fear, undermining democratic participation. Third, doubts over the Election Commission’s impartiality and its handling of electoral integrity issues, including controversies over electronic voting machines, further diminish public trust in the electoral process.

The central government’s manoeuvres to influence the Election Commission’s autonomy, notably through legislative changes affecting the selection of commissioners, signal an unsettling trend towards centralizing power. Recent events, like the resignation of an election commissioner followed by the appointment of government-favoured successors, amplify these concerns.

For India to maintain its democratic stature, it’s imperative for its institutions—the Election Commission, judiciary, and the Prime Minister’s office—to uphold democratic principles. However, the trajectory under Prime Minister Modi’s administration suggests a different narrative, one where power consolidation takes precedence over democratic ethics.

The opposition, despite significant obstacles, is called upon not just to vie for power but to safeguard democracy itself. This battle is not merely political but foundational, aiming to preserve the democratic ethos upon which India was built.

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