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Business News/ News / India/  Why Is Modi So Nervous If He’s Winning a Third Term?

Why Is Modi So Nervous If He’s Winning a Third Term?

The intimidation and arrest of political opponents just before India’s election doesn’t show confidence. Just the opposite. 

Why Is Modi So Nervous If He’s Winning a Third Term?Premium
Why Is Modi So Nervous If He’s Winning a Third Term?

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Nearly every pollster and brokerage analyst has already called India’s upcoming general election in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s favor. But if a third term for the strongman leader is already assured, why’s he seemingly so nervous?

On Thursday, the Enforcement Directorate, a federal investigative agency, arrested Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi state, for alleged bribery in awarding liquor licenses in the national capital in 2021. The move, which comes less than a month before polling gets underway across the country, has raised eyebrows. Mamata Banerjee, an influential opposition leader and the chief minister of West Bengal, described the arrest as “a blatant assault on democracy." 

Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party is an important member of an an anti-Modi alliance of more than two dozen parties. With several of its top leaders now in jail on graft charges, the party co-founded by Kejriwal on an anti-corruption plank in 2012 has suffered a big blow. The AAP is also in power in Punjab, where grain farmers are in a standoff with the national government about a legal guarantee for crop prices.

The broader coalition, which doesn’t have much of a common program or settled leadership, is unanimous, however, when it comes to calling out the intimidation of opposition parties and a financial squeeze on them just before the world’s most expensive election. For example, Rahul Gandhi’s Congress Party, the main constituent of the grouping, says it can’t access its bank accounts, which have been frozen because of irregular filing of 2018-19 returns.

While Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, denies political meddling in the work of investigative agencies and says the Congress is “conveniently blaming their irrelevance on ‘financial troubles,’" the timing of a separate tax demand — from three decades ago — lends credence to the party’s charge that it’s being stopped from putting up a fair fight.

There are two possible explanations for Modi’s apparent nervousness. Either his grip on power is not as strong as the BJP is projecting — I have argued previously that his campaign to polarize the majority Hindu community may have peaked too early. Or, this is a tactic to divert voters’ attention from a recent legal defeat for an opaque political funding program known as electoral bonds brought in by his government six years ago.

If it’s the latter, then the gamble could backfire. India’s judicial system has so far mostly looked away as journalists, social activists and Modi’s political opponents have spent months and years in jail, often without trial. Kejriwal’s deputy Manish Sisodia was apprehended in the same liquor licensing case that has now ensnared his boss. That was in February 2023. Hemant Soren, the chief minister of the mineral-rich Jharkhand state, resigned just before he was arrested on Jan. 31. He is facing money-laundering charges in connection with a land deal. Since no trial date has been set, this Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader, popular among his state’s marginalized tribal communities, has been all but ruled out from campaigning.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court observed that India’s Prevention of Money Laundering Act doesn’t rule out bail in cases of prolonged incarceration or delay of trial. For now, those are just words. It will be interesting to see if they are of any help to Kejriwal, who has been taken into custody just as parties are finalizing their list of candidates for parliament.

The judicial process in India was never above executive interference. Detention of political opponents was also a big issue in 1975, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed a national emergency. Practically the entire top judiciary sided with her and ruled that no detention order could be challenged, and that as long as the emergency was in force, citizens’ right to life and liberty would remain suspended. The only judge who gave a dissenting opinion was passed over for elevation as chief justice.

That was then. It appears now that the prosecutorial apparatus has been weaponized. Apart from intimidation of opposition politicians, recent court-enforced disclosures of corporate donations show how raids and arrests can twist arms in the private sector. Gandhi recently described the now-defunct electoral bond program as the world’s biggest extortion racket. The BJP said its goal was to usher in transparency.

In his public speeches, Modi calls India the “Mother of Democracy." His officials have commissioned a local think tank to publish its own democracy ratings after the country’s 2021 demotion to “electoral autocracy" by the V-Dem Institute, an independent research unit at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. But Kejriwal’s arrest has made even that unflattering international assessment a tad too charitable.

Before landing the nation’s top political job, Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat for more than 12 years. He was investigated — and ultimately acquitted after two decades — over his administration’s alleged complicity in 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died. The US State Department refused him a visa for nearly a decade, but at home he never had to sit out a political contest. If the same courtesy isn’t extended to Kejriwal — a serving chief minister — or bank accounts of the main challenger stay frozen despite the BJP having cornered a lion’s share of funding for the upcoming ballot, then “electoral" is no longer a necessary qualifier to describe India’s political system. But for a late resistance by the Supreme Court, the nation’s slide away from democracy is close to complete. 

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andy Mukherjee is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies and financial services in Asia. Previously, he worked for Reuters, the Straits Times and Bloomberg News.

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Published: 23 Mar 2024, 06:26 AM IST
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