2024 general election is a masterclass in crony capitalism and authoritarianism 

The nexus of Big Money and state power has created an unequal playing field, usurping democratic processes to sway election and silence dissent.

Published : Mar 30, 2024 17:56 IST - 6 MINS READ

Police recover about Rs 22 lakh from a car during a checking drive in Latehar, Jharkhand on March 29.

Police recover about Rs 22 lakh from a car during a checking drive in Latehar, Jharkhand on March 29. | Photo Credit: Sanjib Dutta

The upcoming Lok Sabha election should be tagged not as the Ram Mandir election but the Big Money election. We are entering a bizarre scenario where the BJP is flush with funds, but the bank accounts of the main opposition party, the Congress, have been frozen. This means that the Congress cannot, at the central level, pay for campaign costs such as posters, banners, transport, and perhaps even tea in party offices. Others from the opposition find themselves being hotly pursued by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and landing up behind bars. 

If we were to liken this general election to a football match, it would be one where half the players of one side have been shown the red card and sent off the field while no one is ever penalised from the team of the reigning champions, who also get several free kicks and penalty shootouts even as the goalkeeper’s hands have been tied. It looks like a match, but it is a farce and is turning out to be a masterclass in crony capitalism and authoritarianism.

We do not know whether this overkill will eventually be counterproductive or whether the might of the opposition will prevail. But we do know that a combination of money and state power is the unseen story behind the splits and defections in political parties and the recent significant developments in a State such as Andhra Pradesh where the Assembly election is due to take place along with the Lok Sabha election.

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In Andhra Pradesh, both the ruling Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) and the opposition Telugu Desam Party (TDP) are soft on the BJP. There is in their calculations a clear desire to avoid seizure of their assets or incarceration by the Central agencies. With just a small vote share, the BJP finds itself in a sweet spot and has secured a beneficial alliance with the TDP and the JanaSena Party. Whatever be the result, the BJP has an ally in the State, for the YSRCP has always sided with the BJP in Parliament.

The fate of the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS), which recently lost in the Assembly election in neighbouring Telangana, has not gone unnoticed by the likes of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy, who has in the past been jailed in a case involving disproportionate assets. Members of the family that founded the BRS currently face investigation and arrest.

Likewise, the unspoken concern in the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), whose leader Arvind Kejriwal is now behind bars, is how their candidates will find the resources to contest the Lok Sabha election. The additional fear is that some of its sitting MLAs could be “encouraged” by money power to go slow now and, six months later, when State elections take place, possibly defect to the BJP. No one in the party is certain how things will play out, but they hope for a sympathy wave for Kejriwal, whose arrest seems to suggest jail for those who oppose the BJP and possible bail for those who join it.

In Maharashtra, the “ED effect” has already contributed to splits in both the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the departure of a former Chief Minister from the Congress. On the day Amol Kirtikar got the Shiv Sena (UBT) ticket for the Mumbai North West seat, he was summoned by the ED in the “khichdi scam” (relating to contracts awarded for the distribution of khichdi to migrant workers during the COVID lockdown).  

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The electoral bonds scheme will undoubtedly rank as the mother of all scams, despite the mainstream broadcast media playing its part, as part of the BJP’s arsenal, to divert and focus on cases involving opposition figures. Even a cursory look reveals it to be a scheme to turn vast reserves of black money into white, create a funnel for corporations to pay off political parties and be rewarded with contracts, and equally for governments to extort companies through agencies and subsequently get donations.

There is an extraordinary wealth of stories still to be discovered in the scheme, a creation of the Modi-era BJP that has now been disbanded on the orders of the Supreme Court. Now that the details have been made public on the Election Commission’s website, the hidden quid pro quos between business and politicians are all too transparent. One can also conclude that what has been on the ascendant in India is corporate-funded Hindutva and the cult of One Leader.

All in the game

With the exclusion of the Left parties, who on principle never accepted electoral bonds, one could argue that the entire political class is complicit to various degrees. But make no mistake that the Big Brother of the entire process, in an Orwellian sense, is the BJP. Not only has the ruling party cornered the largest share of donations through electoral bonds, it was also able to find out through the SBI who was financing the other political parties. The scheme was anonymous only for the general public. There is also the pattern of some corporate entities being raided by the ED and then racing to buy electoral bonds in favour of the BJP; in one instance, one of them allegedly turned approver in a case involving a political opponent.

Also Read | SBI’s reluctance to reveal electoral bond data raises concerns about its independence and reliability

It is possible that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is now sensitive to the growing public awareness about the wealth of his party and its dubious sources of funding. He has started saying during campaigns in opposition-ruled States such as West Bengal that the money collected through ED seizures will go back to the people while the corrupt have ganged up to save each other. But as with the Adani scandal, there will be no real investigation or answers to specific questions about the money trails that have now been revealed.

This is because money has always moved in Modi’s direction ever since his days as Chief Minister of Gujarat when captains of industry would line up at Vibrant Gujarat summits to hail him as a visionary. When Modi shifted his sights to New Delhi, the money, too, shifted.

A strange thing happened in the realm of political finance in 2013-14. Although the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government was still in power at the Centre, the BJP got more money despite being out of power for a decade in New Delhi. An analysis of the income tax statements of the BJP and the Congress suggests that once Modi’s candidature as Prime Minister was announced, money flowed in from big corporates. That year, the BJP got 44 per cent of the receipts given to political parties, while the Congress got 39 per cent.

A decade later, that minor difference has become a yawning gulf between Modi’s party and the rest of the players in the field. It is a lot like the country itself, peopled by millions who are very poor even as the number of billionaires keeps increasing. Data for 2023 show another increase in the number of billionaires in Modi’s India, where the rich call the shots and do not like a level playing field. 

Saba Naqvi is a Delhi based journalist and author of four books who writes on politics and identity issues.

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