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Why is Narendra Modi Nervous Ahead of India’s General Elections?

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Why is Narendra Modi Nervous Ahead of India’s General Elections?

Possibly for the first time in a decade, Modi’s government finds its image dented by revelations of corruption.

Why is Narendra Modi Nervous Ahead of India’s General Elections?

Train passengers sleep on the floor of a railway station in front of a ‘Modi selfie point’ that boasts the Narendra Modi government’s accomplishments, December 30, 2023.

Credit: X/Prashant Bhushan

One week is a long time in Indian politics. And over just a week in March, the image of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) changed significantly.

On March 14, two former bureaucrats were appointed election commissioners despite protests by the opposition, the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) rules had just been notified and fuel prices were slashed by two rupees (2.5 cents). A confident Narendra Modi government readied itself for the formal announcement of elections.

But by March 21 the script changed dramatically. The Supreme Court-monitored disclosures of the Electoral Bonds, an opaque election funding scheme, damaged the BJP’s self-claimed image as a corruption-slayer. The disclosures revealed that the BJP was not only the biggest beneficiary of the scheme, but also was presiding over the largest “extortion racket.” Despite its best efforts, the Narendra Modi government could not prevent the “complete disclosure” of the details by the Election Commission on its website on March 21.

Confident of sweeping the general elections, the BJP, which won 303 of the 543 elected seats in the lower house of parliament in the 2019 election, has coined the slogan “Ab ki baar, 400 paar” (This time we will cross 400 seats).

Within hours the mood of the BJP leadership had changed. By late evening of March 21, the Enforcement Directorate, a central investigation agency, raided the premises of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who heads the opposition Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and arrested him, late that night in connection with an alleged liquor scam it was probing.

The otherwise divided opposition INDIA alliance rallied in support of Kejriwal, the first sitting chief minister to be arrested. The opposition lashed out at the Modi government for “weaponising central agencies” to target them.

The “timing” of the arrest of a popular opposition chief minister just weeks before voting begins indicates that the BJP “wants a political field empty of the Opposition,” political commentator and Delhi University professor, Apoorvanand said. It is also aimed at scaring and stunning political leaders into inaction, he added.

It is not a coincidence that whenever there is a likelihood of bad publicity for the party and its leaders, the BJP swings into action to divert the attention of the public and mainstream media.

Meanwhile, on the morning of March 21, the Congress, India’s main opposition party, lashed out at the Modi government for freezing its bank accounts on the eve of the elections. At a formal press conference, parliamentarian Rahul Gandhi did not mince his words and said India is no longer a democracy. The vindictive action by Income Tax authorities at the behest of the Modi government is the “murder of democracy,” he said. Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge told the media that the party’s election campaign had been “crippled,” as it had no access to its funds. “There is no level playing field,“ he asserted.

The BJP’s political vendetta has triggered the Congress party to publicly support Kejriwal, its bete noire, who had targeted the then Congress Chief Minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, a decade ago for alleged corruption. It led to the party’s colossal defeat in 2013.

#BJPFreezesIndianDemocracy trended all day on X, formerly Twitter.

Before Kejriwal, the Enforcement Directorate had arrested another opposition leader, Hemant Soren, who resigned as Jharkhand chief minister just before they nabbed him earlier this month on alleged money laundering charges.

Every opinion survey and poll forecast has predicted a third term for Modi. Why then is there panic in the ruling ranks?

The reason could be that possibly for the first time in 10 years Modi’s seemingly unassailable image has been dented.

Modi came to power in 2014 as a Hindu supremacist leader who vanquished the corrupt, scam-tainted Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. Within a decade, the anti-corruption crusader mask is falling off. It is also not helping that the BJP government’s vindictive actions are drawing international criticism.

Germany stated that it had “taken note of Kejriwal’s arrest” and that the chief minister was “entitled to a fair and impartial trial.” A United States spokesperson too stated that it was “closely following” Kejriwal’s arrest case and it “encouraged a timely legal process” for the Indian opposition leader.

An angry Modi government lashed out at what it termed as “interference in its internal matters.”

It would appear that the otherwise unflappable but of late embattled Modi government is resorting to every tactic to cripple its opponents and seal its victory. Gandhi’s long marches across the length and breadth of the country highlighted issues of massive unemployment, crony capitalism and the government’s undue favoritism to business tycoons Adani and Ambani, much to the BJP’s discomfiture. The two “yatras” (marches), in 2023 and this year, have generated considerable public response.

Of course, the BJP will intensify its tried and tested communal polarization tactic to see it through. It can be expected to highlight the recent inauguration of the Ram Mandir to impress Hindu voters.

Yet, this time, victory may not be a cake walk for the BJP.

It may be recalled that in 2004, when a confident BJP under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee launched its “India Shining” campaign, it was complacent that it would return to power. However, it suffered a humiliating loss and the UPA came to power.

However, this time around, although the BJP is sure of winning; panic, even desperation is discernible. No opposition leader or critic is being spared by the government.

Recently, the government set up a “Fact Checking Unit” to check “misinformation” about the government’s policies on social media platforms. However, the Supreme Court put it on hold as it “impinges on the citizen’s right to free speech.”

The Modi regime has suffered a loss of face. However, whether the opposition will be able to capitalize on this remains to be seen. Apart from attacking the Modi government, the INDIA bloc is yet to present a common comprehensive program or vision to voters. Although the Congress has formulated a well-conceived package of five poll promises to improve the situation of youth, women, farmers, workers, and so on, will this resonate with the masses?

The BJP’s successful religious polarization of India and the inauguration of the Ram temple could render all such promises of socio-economic justice and development, meaningless.

After all, the Modi government has over the decade made it amply clear that it is only interested in projecting an image and not in course correction. So when international democracy watchdogs downgraded India’s ranking on global democratic indices—V-Dem Institute has described India as an “electoral autocracy,” a stung Modi government started working on its own Democracy Index rating to improve its global image.