The BJP’s audacious power grab in the Chandigarh mayoral election held on January 30, shrouded in allegations of manipulation and foul play, has cast a long shadow over Indian democracy, raising chilling questions about the upcoming 2024 national elections. In a brazen display of arrogance and disregard for democratic practices, the BJP literally wrested power from the INDIA bloc (Aam Aadmi Party-Congress alliance) after the returning officer, Anil Masih, who’s a former president of the BJP’s minority front, declared eight votes invalid. The opposition, particularly the AAP, has termed the election result as a sign of the country’s political system transitioning into a performative democracy, where they can participate in elections but not secure victory.
According to the election results, the BJP candidate, Manoj Sonkar, secured 16 votes, whereas Kuldeep Kumar of the AAP-Congress alliance got 12 votes out of the total 36 votes polled. Videos that went viral on media showed that upon the announcement of the result, Sonkar took a seat in the Mayor’s chair, while Maish departed with the rejected votes without presenting them to the Councillor’s agent.
The INDIA bloc boycotted the election for the posts of Senior Deputy Mayor and Deputy Mayor. Alleging vote tampering by the returning officer, as expected, the AAP has moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court and sought a fresh election under the supervision of a retired judge.
In response to the AAP plea, on January 31, the High Court issued notices to the Chandigarh UT administration and the Municipal Corporation of Chandigarh. A division bench, comprising Justice Sudhir Singh and Justice Harsh Bunger, granted the respondents a three-week period to respond.
Earlier, on January 24, the high court had ordered that the election be held on January 30 after the Congress and the AAP alleged that the BJP had deliberately delayed the poll, sensing a possible defeat.
Reacting to the BJP’s “surprising” victory, many party leaders said that neither the arithmetic nor chemistry of the INDIA bloc had been working ahead of the upcoming general election. “He (presiding officer Masih) simply followed the order that came from the higher-ups,” said Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Maan, alleging manipulation of ballot papers. Wondering how it was possible that none of the votes cast by the BJP’s councillors was rejected, he said, “Our councillors didn’t vote for the first time (in mayoral election) that they were not aware of how to cast their votes properly”.
In the 2021 Chandigarh civic body election, the AAP had emerged as the leading party, winning 14 of the 35 seats, resulting in a hung house. The BJP was reduced to 12 councillors, whereas the Congress won eight seats, and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) managed one. Nonetheless, owing to abstentions by the Congress and the SAD, the BJP has managed to rule the corporation so far.
Sharing video clips of the mayoral election process, opposition leaders launched a scathing attack on the BJP as soon as the result was declared amid unruly scenes. Delhi Chief Minister and AAP national convener Arvind Kejriwal said that the BJP had won the election with “open fraud,” describing it as a dangerous trend for Indian democracy. He added, “Today’s election showed to what lengths they (the BJP) can go to win an election. They will do anything... falsify voter lists, falsify votes, capture EVM (electronic voting machines)... I was also thinking that, by the grace of God, if INDIA wins then, like Trump, they won’t leave their seats...They (the BJP) will be stuck to their seats... there may be martial law, but they won’t give up power.”
AAP Rajya Sabha MP Raghav Chadha labelled the poll results as “desh droh (an act of treason).” Demanding strict legal action against Masih, he asked, “Does the BJP want to turn India into North Korea?”
Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge termed the election outcome as a misuse of electoral machinery at the behest of BJP, which “will further erode the confidence of people in free and fair elections”. “As I said yesterday, 2024 is the last chance for us to save democracy. If we do not come together to save it from the BJP, our future generations shall repent,” Kharge wrote on social media.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who is currently leading the party’s Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra in Bihar, accused the saffron party of subverting democracy. “It is beyond imagination what the BJP, which can kill democracy in front of the whole world in the mayoral elections, will do to remain in power in Delhi,” he stated. “Years ago, on this day, Godse had assassinated Gandhi ji and today Godsewadis sacrificed his ideals and constitutional values.”
Samajwadi Party chief and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Akhilesh Yadav said, “Not only the Election Commission should take note of it, but the Supreme Court, being the guardian of the constitution, must take cognizance and order a fresh election under its supervision.”
In February last year, in a similar event, despite a majority in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), AAP candidates could get elected as mayor and deputy mayor only after the intervention of the Supreme Court. The AAP had moved the top court seeking court-monitored election opposing the voting rights for 10 aldermen, councillors nominated by Lieutenant Governor V.K. Saxena. The party had contended that the 10 aldermen would favour the BJP.
Last year, in a paper titled “Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy,” Sabyasachi Das, an assistant professor of economics at Ashoka University, suggested that election results were manipulated by the BJP during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. In State Assembly elections, the saffron party has either toppled democratically elected governments or formed governments in several States where it had a disadvantageous position compared to opposition parties. This was achieved through tactics such as using the office of the Governor, engaging in horse trading, and, in some cases, breaking rival political parties.