The extent of devotion shown by the Election Commission to the ruling party in the run-up to the coming Gujarat Assembly election is quite extraordinary — and many will have little difficulty classifying this sorry spectacle as a command performance. How Gujarat voters view the skulduggery will be known only when we have the results, but it is reasonable to expect that, here on, the EC is likely to seek to confer on the party in power, through the permitting of irregular practices, as many advantages as possible over its rivals. This is because it seems to be under undue pressure from the powerful, and it has succumbed instead of standing up and showing itself to be a pillar of Indian democracy.
The conduct of the Gujarat poll — and also of the election in Himachal Pradesh, which should have gone to the people simultaneously with Gujarat — will therefore have to be placed under tight watch by the people as the very notion of fair play seems to be at a discount.
For the past three decades, starting with T.N. Seshan, the EC has had a formidable record and reputation as an upholder of the rules of the game. The commission knew how to put the vilest of political monsters in their place. In India, ordinary people could be sure of one thing — that the election will be free and fair even if everything else was going wrong. Now we can no longer be sure. In fact, there may be reasons to entertain every apprehension that matters won’t be materially different at the time of the next Lok Sabha election in 2019. Gujarat 2017 seems to be a dry run for Parliament 2019 as far as testing the modus operandi of manipulation goes. That should be a matter of worry for the country. The point is simple: will we get the government we vote in as a people, or will we see a manipulated majority under the EC’s benign gaze (and that of some other constitutional entities)? This is not fanciful. We have the example of Goa before us. The BJP, which lost, is sitting on the government benches.
It is evident that the EC has been brought under inordinate pressure. But it’s not just the EC. The media has also been sought to be pressured in a ham-handed but calculated way. A news and current affairs portal, which recently researched official data and established that a young Gujarat commodities trader, whose company appeared to be practically defunct, raised his turnover 16,000 times in the time of the Narendra Modi regime and one day — weeks before the demonetisation announcement last year — just shut shop, has been slapped with a defamation suit for `100 crores, although the journalist outfit made no allegations of any wrongdoing. The enormous figure made everyone gasp. Such action has been unheard of in the annals of the Indian media. It is interesting that even before the news item saw the light of day, the Union government, practically overnight, gave clearance to the additional solicitor-general of India to represent the young trader from Ahmedabad, a private individual.
Evidently, such a step was taken because the trader in question is the son of BJP president Amit Shah. The issue arises: who is behind the dramatic defamation suit, the hapless trader Jay Shah or his venerable father, widely seen as the second most powerful man in the country after the Prime Minister? If the purpose of going to court was a straightforward one — to defend someone’s honour and prestige against false reporting, then filing damages for even Rs 1 would have made the point. But in this case, the reporting was painfully accurate. The data was from government records, and this has not been disputed. Can there be a doubt that the defamation suit of such hefty magnitude was a crude weapon intended to induce fear in the media as a whole, so that no follow-up reporting is done leading to an expansion of the behind-the-scenes tale to enlighten the public domain, specially when important elections are around the corner.
The idea was to kill the news story and stop its spread, for fear that its impact may force a demand for an inquiry — by a parliamentary committee at the very least and possibly even one directed by the judiciary. But those whose bright idea it was to slap a hard suit to win reprieve (and to appear wronged) have clearly miscalculated beyond their wildest dreams. The story has spread like a rampaging fire, and is doing no credit to the dramatis personae. From the BJP’s perspective, from Amit Shah’s perspective, and from the perspective of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the waters look choppy before crucial elections. Help from the EC might be useful in making last-minute lollipop announcements to win votes when the work record is none too shiny. Of late the Indian media has by and large been humble and dutiful for a variety of reasons, which do it little credit. More the reason any peskiness from unexpected journalistic quarters had to be squelched without mercy.
However, calculations have gone awry and the trick has not worked. This appears to be making the famous duo of Indian politics, now in the eye of the storm, more and more pitiable as the days go by. The other day, Mr Modi was proclaiming himself to be “son of India”, last week at Kedarnath he was calling himself “Baba’s son” (the son of Lord Shiv), shedding tears that the wretched UPA government of the time denied him permission to rebuild the famous shrine after it was hit by an earthquake when he was chief minister of Gujarat. Relying on the EC’s munificence, arm-twisting the media, shedding tears from venerated religious seats, and letting loose the lumpen squads to spread communal poison on election eve, make for a pathetic display. True leaders run a different course. They do not invite mockery even when they are defeated, when their day is done.