Earlier this month, JP Nadda, a member of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) proudly proclaimed, “Half of the opposition leaders are in jail, and half of them are out on bail.” When he made these statements in his speech during an election rally, he failed to foresee the logical questions:  Who arrested them? With what proof? And on what grounds? Questions that, if asked, would point toward the BJP’s manipulation of supposedly independent democratic institutions.

 

On the 21st of March, just a month before India’s 18th general election, Arvind Kejriwal, the sitting Chief Minister of India’s Capital (Delhi) was arrested for his alleged involvement in “corruption and conspiracy,” concerning a now-scrapped policy that had ended the government’s monopoly on liquor sales. 

 

Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was established following India’s anti-corruption movement in 2011, and the arrests of its members on the same charges have undermined the party’s reputation and its promises. This arrest by India’s Enforcement Directorate (ED) has been crippling for Kejriwal and his party, not only because he has been in jail for the first round of polls and campaigning, but more so because his inability to make bail seems to implicate him in the accusations levelled against him. This misconception is understandable. We assume that democracy operates under the premise of “innocent until proven guilty”, and thus, Kejriwal’s denial of bail must be proof of his guilt, right? 

 

Wrong. 

 

In 2019, the BJP amended the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) in the form of money bills, thus evading the scrutiny of the upper house of Parliament. Before these amendments, bail was a right meant to protect individual freedoms. After these amendments, the ED was allowed to conduct raids on the basis of mere suspicion and to arrest people who were accused of financial crimes without the chance for bail. It flipped basic legal principles around to operate under the premise of “guilty until proven innocent,” placing the burden of proof on the defendant instead of the prosecution. 

 

In Kejriwal’s case, over two years of investigation and 500 raids have amounted to no proof at all, with the ED being unable to find a money trail or any concrete evidence. His arrest and detainment are backed by the statements of four people, which would be inadmissible in any country with a fair and unbiased investigative committee. 

 

For instance, one statement implicating Kejriwal in this conspiracy was made by a man named Sarath Reddy — the heir to a pharmaceutical company. Overall, Reddy made nine statements in favour of Kejriwal. In November 2022, he was arrested by the ED, and after six months of jail and over two million USD in donations to the BJP, he was freed from custody. A month later, he turned into an approver in the case, providing the statement based on which Kejriwal is currently being held. It is evident that if there is any money trail to be followed concerning corruption in India, it leads back to the BJP.

 

Kejriwal isn’t the only member of the opposition who has been unfairly imprisoned and targeted by the party in power. From 2014 onwards (which is when Modi and the BJP came into power), the number of searches and raids conducted by the ED has increased by over 26 times.

 

 While some might choose to view this increase as a more stringent anti-corruption stance, the truth lies in the numbers. In the 17 years since the PMLA was implemented, the ED has only been able to secure 24 definitive convictions, proving that the primary goal of the ED’s investigations and arrests has been suppression, not conviction. 

 

This relationship between the BJP and the ED doesn’t stop there. An investigation by the Indian Express found that 23 out of 25 cases against members of the opposition on charges of corruption or money laundering were either dropped or stalled after those members left their parties and joined the BJP instead. This sends one of two messages: either most corruption charges and searches are for the sole purpose of intimidation, or, a politician who is allegedly corrupt is absolved of all potential guilt when they work for the BJP instead of against it. 

 

The ED’s reign of repression is only one mechanism at the BJP’s disposal. Outside of charges of corruption, there have been countless instances where members of Parliament have been silenced through allegations of defamation or sedition. There have been over 33 cases of defamation against Kejriwal, and 10 against Rahul Gandhi, another prominent member of India’s disintegrating opposition. 

 

In 2020, a member of the BJP filed a defamation case against Rahul Gandhi for statements that were taken grossly out of context, following which, the court ordered the maximum unprecedented penalty to permanently bar him from Parliament. It ultimately resulted in a stay order by the Indian Supreme Court, which acknowledged that his disqualification from Parliament as a result of the charge would deprive his constituents of representation. In 2023, Mohua Moitra, an MP who rose to prominence for her criticism of the BJP, was barred from Parliament based on a complaint that India’s opposition says was not supported by even “a shred of evidence.” Also in 2023, the speaker of the Lok Sabha, Om Birla, suspended over 100 members of Parliament for disrupting proceedings, when they were simply asking the party in power questions they didn’t want to answer. 

 

This being said, the aim of this article is not to claim that India before Modi was perfect, nor is it to claim that Modi’s manipulation tactics are original. India as a nation has a chequered history with individual freedoms. While the constitution grants ‘Freedom of Speech and Expression,’ Nehru’s government allowed the government to impose “reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right.” This half-hearted, neither-here-nor-there concept of free speech enables governments to interpret and enforce whatever they make of the idea of “reasonableness.” 

 

Governments of the past have taken advantage of this clause: In 1976, Indira Gandhi (from the Indian National Congress) declared a state of emergency that lasted 21 months. During this time, private citizens were deprived of their rights and tortured, opposition leaders were arrested, and laws were enacted through manipulation. But Indira Gandhi’s actions were widely criticised, and she lost the election immediately after. In her case, there was electoral accountability. On the other hand, the slow and subtle deterioration of democracy under the BJP government, coupled with both the lack of a collective recognition of a problem and the silencing of those who point it out is far more terrifying and has immediate consequences.

 

The BJP’s politics of suppression and silencing have made democracy indexes classify India as a flawed democracy at best, and an electoral autocracy at worst (according to the 2023 Democracy Index and the V-DEM 2024 report, respectively). There appears to be a consensus among political scientists around the world that after 10 years of Modi’s regime, democracy in India has been gravely eroded and might not survive if he were to win again. Yet the mention of this in India would result in the label of an “anti-national” — a term used to refer to anyone who speaks or acts against the interests of the nation. But what are the interests of the nation? And who defines them? The narrative that the BJP’s interests are the interests of the nation is a precarious one. It enables the bullying and harassment of private citizens by BJP’s IT cells: an army of trolls that consistently engages in fear-mongering, bigotry, and misinformation, and in doing so, scares citizens into silence. 

 

In a country where the party in power repeatedly asserts its desire to modify the constitution according to its agenda, displaying obvious and concerning signs of its backsliding away from democracy, it becomes the responsibility of Indian voters to speak and vote against the government, even if it means claiming the label of an “anti-national.” 

 

And yet, despite all the red flags and warning signs, India’s young voters seem indifferent. According to Election Commission data, less than 40 percent of India’s first-time voters (the 18-19 bracket) are registered to vote in this election, for which polling has already begun and will go on until June. There appears to be a misconception that politics doesn’t matter, and that it doesn’t directly impact the lives of those who avoid it. While this may be true when a person lives with and off their parents, in a few years, these same people will file their taxes, struggle to find jobs and afford homes, and will be unable to express their dissatisfaction with the government that they allowed to win simply by pretending to be above it all. 

 

Criticism is a requirement for a functioning democracy. When a government makes it evidently clear that it can and will use its power to stifle the opposition and the right to free speech, it is imperative to rethink one’s stance on who to vote for. Given that this is the very government that has stayed silent when people are killed in the name of religion, has protested the arrest of rapists, and has garlanded murderers, Indians no longer have the privilege of choosing to be apolitical. Indians no longer have the privilege to claim that they vote on the premise of development or employment, especially after 10 years of unfulfilled promises. To not vote today is to be willfully ignorant, and to vote for Modi is to vote for communal politics, lynchings, and a Hindutva ideology that aims to stifle the rights of minorities. Indian voters are no longer absolved by cries of “If not him, then who?”

 

To vote for Modi today is to accept that there will be no alternatives left.

 

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