Vol. XLIII No. 15 April 14, 2019

No Level Playing Field

THE Modi government has enlisted one more government agency illegally to serve its partisan political purpose during the elections. The Income Tax department has been unleashed on opposition political parties and their leaders. The last fortnight has seen a series of raids by IT authorities on leaders of political parties, ministers in non-BJP state governments, businessmen associated with these parties and key aides of chief ministers and ministers in non-BJP state governments.

Such IT raids have taken place against JD(S)- Congress ministers and leaders in Karnataka; TDP leaders and ministers in Andhra Pradesh; an important DMK leader and treasurer of the party in Tamil Nadu and some former aides of the Madhya Pradesh chief minister, Kamal Nath.

What is noteworthy is that these raids have taken place after the notification of the Lok Sabha election. When the election process is on, it is the Election Commission which is in charge of ensuring a level playing field for political parties and the conduct of a free and fair election.

In an electoral system which is enveloped by the deployment of vast amounts of money by candidates and parties, it is no one’s argument that the use of illegal money should not be curbed. But it is the Election Commission which is tasked with this job. The election machinery under the Commission has been trying, though inadequately, to check the flow of cash for elections. It conducts searches and seizes unaccounted money in cash and hands them over to the IT authorities for further investigation.

But the Modi government, bypassing the Election Commission, has deployed the IT department and the Central Board of Direct Taxes to selectively target political parties fighting the BJP in the elections. The IT authorities seem to find only non-BJP political leaders and ministers to target for suspected unaccounted money. So far not a single leader or business supporter of the BJP nor its allies have been subjected to raids during the election process.

These raids serve a two-fold purpose – to dry up the money flow for the election purposes of these parties and opposition candidates and to tar them with the brush of being corrupt and tax evaders.  In contrast, it burnishes the image of Modi as a corruption-buster. Modi was quick to use these raids in the campaign trail. In speeches he has referred to how bundles of money have been found in the houses of “bade log”.

The Election Commission has had a weak response to this misuse of the IT department. It sent a letter to the union revenue secretary in which it stated, “strongly advise that all enforcement actions during the election period - should be distinctively neutral, impartial and non-discriminatory.” It also said that chief electoral officers must be kept “suitably informed” about any suspected use of illegal money in the polls.  The EC should have told the union government that no raid can be conducted on political leaders without its express permission. It is not a matter of suitably informing the chief electoral officer, but of getting prior clearance to do so.

But this tepid response is characteristic of the present attitude of the Election Commission towards the blatant violations of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC)  by the ruling party and the prime minister himself. In a letter to the president, a  group of distinguished retired civil servants and diplomats have drawn attention to what they term “the crisis of credibility ” of the Election Commission, an institution so vital for our parliamentary democracy. They have listed the various instances of the violations of the MCC which called for firm action.

The post-ASAT speech of the prime minister taking credit for the anti-satellite test was let off without even a warning. The brazen speech by Adityanath calling the Indian Army, Modiji ki Sena, was given a mild reprimand. The least that the Commission could have done was to debar Adityanath from public campaigning for a fixed period of time. Since then Modi sought to play the Hindu card blatantly in his Wardha speech of April 1, for which no action has been taken. Unchecked, he goes on to seek votes on the basis of the air force strike in Balakot and in the name of the Pulwama martyrs.

The other aspect pointed in the letter of the civil servants is also relevant. The Commission seems to act promptly in transferring out IAS and police officers in non- BJP ruled states on receiving complaints from BJP and its allies. This has happened in Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Rajasthan.  But no such transfers have been ordered despite serious complaints in Tamil Nadu and other BJP ruled states. In the case of Tripura, a serious complaint against a returning officer who is notoriously biased against the Left Front has been ignored.

The present plight of the Election Commission is a warning of how the Modi government has been weakening the independence and credibility of institutions.

(April 10, 2019)