Just before the first phase of polling got underway on Thursday for the 2019 Lok Sabha election to decide whether Narendra Modi will get a second term in power, a series of developments took place on poll-eve that may cause some discomfort in the BJP camp.
First, the Election Commission officially "reprimanded" the revenue department for its "insolent" behaviour. Second, the EC delayed the release of a biopic on Modi until after the end of elections. And third, the Supreme Court dismissed the Centre's objections and allowed the use of "stolen" papers as fresh evidence in the Rafale review plea.
Collectively, these moves may be considered as a setback to the BJP and the question worth considering is whether these events will have an immediate bearing on the first phase of polling in 91 of 543 Lok Sabha constituencies, and beyond till 19 May " the final phase. Are these occurrences significant enough to swing the as-yet-uncommitted voter?
Let's consider the first development. It comes in the backdrop of income tax raids that have been going on in different parts of the country. In one such raid in Madhya Pradesh, income tax authorities on Monday said that a "widespread and well-organised" racket has been detected and "unaccounted cash of about Rs 281 crore" was seized during raids against close aides of Kamal Nath, the chief minister of Congress-ruled Madhya Pradesh.
According to media reports, I-T officers recovered cash and other materials including diaries and electronic documents that suggest payments were made between Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. The controversy deepened when senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel was pictured sitting with an AICC worker named SM Moin, who has been accused by the I-T Department of receiving Rs 20 crore through hawala channels on 6 April and transporting the amount to the Congress office, according to media reports.
It appears that Chief Election Commissioner took note of some media reports that accused the Centre of being "biased" in the conducting of raids. CEC Sunil Arora told News18 that the EC's advisory to the revenue department was motivated by a need to "emphasise that while such raids should be carried out ruthlessly, they should not be without bias and not become a political witch-hunt".
What got the EC's goat was that revenue department responded with an advisory of its own. The deputy secretary urged the EC to pass on information on dirty cash if it is in possession of such information "since it is the responsibility of the Election Commission as also of the revenue agencies to check and eventually eliminate the use of unaccounted money in election". An enraged EC accused the revenue department of being "insolent" and asked it to be "neutral, impartial and non-discriminatory" during raids and issued a formal reprimand.
As the umpire of the polls charged with conducting free and fair elections, the EC is well within its rights to take informed decisions. However, its "deep sense of anguish" at the revenue department's counter-advisory is interesting. If the EC is a constitutional body, the revenue department that falls under the Union Ministry of Finance also derives constitutional powers from other sources. While it is nobody's case that raids shouldn't be unfair and impartial, if such swoops help sleuths unearth dirty cash that may impact elections, it will help in cleaning up the field.
Here, two constitutional bodies have a convergence of goals. Do parties play fair?
Senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel told ANI that he visited Congress worker Moin (at whose home the raids were held) because he was concerned about his well-being. "If my staff doesn't come to the office the entire day, of course, I will get worried. Targeting competitors are their (BJP's) modus operandi," he said.
On whether this move will impact polling behaviour, the issue is technical and not given to easy narratives since it also involves the EC. In any case the news won't travel fast and wide enough in 91 out of 543 constituencies spread across 20 states and Union Territories to affect the first phase of voting. It may have little to no impact in other phases as well, except giving those willing to deal in dirty cash some relief.
The EC's move to stall the screening of Modi biopic is another development that has been interpreted as a setback to the BJP. The Congress approached the Supreme Court to stop the release of the movie. The apex court had dismissed the petition and left it to the EC to decide whether the biopic on the prime minister sways electoral balance. The EC passed an order deferring the screening of all biopics in celluloid and extended the order to web series as well till the Model Code of Conduct is in place. The Congress and its backers have publicly applauded the move because deferring the release will apparently ensure a "level playing field".
The argument is specious. If the electorate is truly unhappy with Modi, a movie (however convincing) won't be able to change its decision. Conversely, if any voter decides to back the BJP to help Modi gain power for another term, will the EC's decision dissuade her from doing so? This deferment will have absolutely no impact on voter behaviour, whether in the first phase or the ones to come.
The development on the Rafale review plea has some potential in impacting voter behaviour, although the issue is premature at this stage to affect the first phase. It is worth noting that the Supreme Court has not passed any judgment on the review plea. Rahul Gandhi's claim in Amethi on Wednesday that the Supreme Court "has made it clear that 'chowkidarji' (watchman) has committed a theft" and the apex court has "accepted that there is some corruption in Rafale" is little more than poll rhetoric that comes perilously close to contempt of court.
However, to the extent that the top court has dismissed the Centre's argument on admissibility of certain documents on the grounds that these were "sensitive to national security" and their "unauthorised photocopying and leakage" constituted "penal offences under the Indian Penal Code including theft", it is certainly a blow to the Modi government.
The Rafale impact will depend on whether the Congress succeeds in squeezing some juice out of the Supreme Court's decision to accept "stolen papers" as evidence and set the narrative rolling that there has indeed been a "scam". With six more phases to go till 19 May, there is opportunity enough for Congress to make corruption a poll plank. However, several surveys have shown that the Rafale issue has failed to significantly motivate voter sentiment and Modi still enjoys a high degree of public trust on the issue of corruption. The Rafale charge may not fly.