India's opposition cries foul after state election defeats

By Pratap Chakravarty - RFI
DEC 9, 2023 LISTEN

Months out from national elections, Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi's BJP party has emerged victorious in key regional polls marred by doubts over polling machines, freebies in exchange for votes and opaque political donations. Observers are worried that the upcoming general election will face the same problems.

In state assembly elections last weekend, the Hindu nationalist BJP grabbed control in the states of Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh from the opposition Indian National Congress, as well as winning a fifth term in Madhya Pradesh, India's second largest province.

It came as a blow to the Congress party, which held onto the southern state of Telangana but was hoping for a stronger performance ahead of a general election in spring 2024. It now governs just three states.

But the opposition raised doubts over electronic voting machines (EVMs) deployed to record 160 million ballots.

Digvijay Singh, a Congress MP and former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh state, said he had little trust in EVMs brought in two decades ago to replace paper ballots.

“Any machine that has chips can be easily hacked and I have opposed voting by EVMs since 2003,” he wrote on social media.

Farooq Abdullah, a five-time Kashmir chief minister from the regional JKNC party, said trust in the system had been lost. “A method has to be found to correct this machine so that people's trust in it remains,” he said.

The regional Samajwadi Party also sought clarity from the BJP. “Democracy will be strong only when it operates like it does in America and Japan. If they have a system of ballot paper, then we should adopt it too,” said its leader Akhilesh Yadav, former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state.

Poll 'pudding'

The state assembly elections, seen as rehearsals for the 2024 national polls, also saw rival parties race each other to lure voters with gifts, subsidies and friendly policies.

Campaigners have petitioned the Supreme Court to ban parties handing out freebies in the run-up to elections, which sometimes include cash, ornaments or even liquor. The court resumed hearing the petitions last month and has not yet delivered its ruling.

Prime Minister Modi regularly rails against what he has dubbed the "revdi [pudding] culture", blaming other lawmakers for not delivering on their promises and wasting public money.

“A major section of India is gearing up to free the country of the freebie culture,” Modi said in October, as he handed out 450,000 state-subsidised houses to the poor in Madhya Pradesh.

“Today, taxpayers feel satisfied that the money they pay in tax is used to give free rations to the poor... The same taxpayer, however, is unhappy when he finds his money is used to distribute free revdi,” Modi added, referring to election freebies.

During India's last general election in 2014, the poll watchdog logged 75,000 complaints of poll-related violations and seized the equivalent of 1 billion euros in cash, 6.5 million litres of illicit alcohol and 500,000 kilos of drugs on the campaign trail.

Despite promises to tackle vote buying, successive governments have failed to root out the practice, which policy-planners say drain precious state finances meant to fight grinding poverty and boost sanitation, healthcare and education.

Electoral bonds

Observers are also concerned about electoral bonds, a system brought in by the BJP in 2018 that allows donors to contribute to India's main political parties anonymously. 

Previously parties had to disclose any donors who gave more than roughly 200 euros, but bonds can be purchased from the government-owned State Bank of India and used to channel money to parties in private.

Critics say they harm transparency and facilitate corruption. 

Despite efforts to overturn the scheme in the courts, two more tranches of electoral bonds went on sale in September and November ahead of this month's state elections.

The Supreme Court last month said the system had "serious deficiencies" and gave the election commission two weeks to produce updated data on funds received by parties through electoral bonds.