By Nitya Chakraborty
The petition moved jointly by 14 leading opposition parties to the Supreme Court seeking its intervention in the ‘misuse’ of central investigation agencies by the Narendra Modi government against the leaders of the non-BJP parties, has big political significance in the present phase of political turmoil in the country. The immediate provocation for this hurriedly drafted petition was the conviction of the Congress MP Rahul Gandhi by the Surat Court over a four year old defamation case, but it was the culmination of great discontent felt by all the non-BJP parties in the last four years of the Modi rule since the second consecutive BJP win in 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Later in the day, the announcement by the Lok Sabha secretariat about disqualification of Rahul Gandhi as a Lok Sabha member, has given a new dimension to the petition.
The opposition’s petition mentions that the central agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) have singled out opposition leaders in different cases, even as tainted BJP leaders have got off scot-free. The petition also says that once some of the leaders who were under scanner join the BJP, cases against them were dropped or buried by the central agencies. The way the present BJP government has used the central agencies like CBI, ED and the Income Tax Department to serve the political purposes of the ruling party, has violated all norms of constitutional propriety and it has been appropriate that finally most of the leading non-BJP parties could agree to file this petition to the Supreme Court seeking its early intervention. The Court has agreed to hear the petition on April 5.
In politics, sometimes, the best of times turns into worst of times while the worst of times can be turned into the best of times. In the last few weeks, the fissures between the Congress and some of the other opposition parties have been growing and after the comfortable win of the BJP in the three north eastern states, the feeling was growing that the divided opposition has little prospects in preventing the Prime Minister Narendra Modi from coming back to power at the centre for the third term after the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. The Surat Court’s conviction of Rahul Gandhi and the BJP MPs consistent attempts to paralyse the functioning of the Parliament have suddenly changed the political situation in favour of a combined opposition.
The petitioning opposition parties include not only the Congress and its partners of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) but also other parties like Trinamool Congress, AAP,BRS, Samajwadi Party and Telugu Desam who have been keeping distance from the Congress party for quite some time. More politically significant is the participation of the YSR Congress in this petition. YSR Congress has always been friendly with the BJP and especially the Prime Minister Narendra Modi since the 2019Lok Sabha elections.
The joining of the YSR Congress led by the Andhra Pradesh chief minister Jagan Mohan Reddy has given a new impetus to the opposition alliance. Only BJD led by the Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik is not included in the petition but Naveen’s emphasis on the protection of federalism in his talks with the West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on March 23, gives enough indication that in the coming days, BJD can be persuaded to take a position against the present ruling party which poses a threat to every regional party like BJD.
The Lok Sabha elections are due in April/May 2024 and that way, less than 13 months are left for the beginning of the first phase of polling. The country is going to witness assembly elections in six more states in the remaining months of 2023- Karnataka in May and Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana and Mizoram by year end. Then in early 2024, the assembly elections are due in Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. These last four assembly polls maybe held along with the Lok Sabha elections.
Whatever decision is given by the Supreme Court and also finally whatever is decided on the review petition filed by Rahul Gandhi against his conviction, the issues mentioned in the petition are of crucial importance to the functioning of the democracy in the country as also protecting the federal character of the Indian constitution. Earlier the Congress Rajya Sabha member and a leading lawyer Abhishek Manu Sanghvi mentioned the need for a ‘legal coalition of the opposition parties to meet the challenge of the Modi government. The time is appropriate for that. This present coalition and its demands form the core of the campaign in the coming days against the ruling party at the centre, along with the issues of inflation and unemployment.
According to the petition, “A clear pattern has emerged of using investigative agencies (particularly the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate) to target, debilitate and in fact crush the entire political opposition and other vocal citizens, and to jail them for extended periods on specious grounds, often making use of draconian special laws (such as the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002) that make bail virtually impossible even though they have extremely low rates of conviction.”
The opposition parties said that there was an exponential rise in the number of cases registered by the ED since 2014, most of which appear to be targeted towards critics and opponents of the Modi regime. Despite this, the conviction rate is abysmally low, the petition argued, adding that “only 23 convictions under the PMLA have been secured” and that most cases are “pending at pre-trial or trial stage”.
The petition also said that even the CBI – which between 2004-14 investigated 72 political leaders, 43 of whom were from the opposition) – put 118 opposition leaders under the scanner after 2014 of a total of 124 leaders being investigated by the agency. This means 95% of the cases were against opposition leaders. Such instances only demonstrated “the use of frivolous raids as a tool of harassment post-2014”, the petition mentions.
According to the petition, opposition leaders like P. Chidambaram, Manish Sisodia, Satyendra Jain, Sanjay Raut and others were arrested by the agencies. But those “who crossed over to the government side” like Himanta Biswa Sarma, Narayan Rane or Suvendu Adhikari or even chief ministers like Shivraj Singh Chouhan, were either “mysteriously” given “clean chits” or saw cases against them being probed at a snail’s pace by the agencies.
The opposition parties said that such alleged misuse of agencies has a “serious chilling effect on legitimate and constitutionally protected political activity and speech across the country” as it skews the level playing political field, forcing the leaders under the scanner to keep defending themselves instead of undertaking serious political activity.
All the opposition parties which have signed the petition have to take forward the issues mentioned in the petition along with other burning issues for the people in the election campaign for both the assembly and the Lok Sabha polls. The BJP and the Sangh Parivar are determined to pursue their goal of establishing a Hindu Rashtra and a opposition mukt Bharat. The disqualification of Rahul Gandhi from Lok Sabha membership is the high point of the national crisis that has been created by the ruling party. (IPA Service)