Home News ‘Pressured to withdraw’: BJP accused of intimidation tactics in India polls | India

‘Pressured to withdraw’: BJP accused of intimidation tactics in India polls | India

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‘Pressured to withdraw’: BJP accused of intimidation tactics in India polls | India

When the people of Gujarat cast their votes last week in India’s six-week-long election, there was one constituency in the state that stood silent. There were no polling stations or impatient queues of people, and no one with the tell-tale inky finger. In Surat, no voting was necessary – the outcome was already decided.

Mukesh Dalal, from the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), won the seat by default after every other candidate was either disqualified or dropped out of the race. It was the first time in 73 years that Surat’s candidate was appointed, not elected.

Surat is not the only constituency in Gujarat to witness swathes of candidates going up against the BJP suddenly withdrawing from the race. In Gandhinagar, where Amit Shah, the home minister and prime minister Narendra Modi’s right-hand man, is running, 16 opposition candidates dropped out before last Tuesday’s voting.

Gujarat is likely to be an easy win for the BJP in the election, which is also expected to return Modi to power for a third term. It is Modi’s home state and the stronghold of his party, which has won every state election here since 1995, and in the last general election in 2019 won all 26 seats.

Yet some have alleged that there have been concerted efforts to cement BJP hegemony in the state and declare wins by huge margins by eliminating the opposition altogether. In Gandhinagar, the BJP is publicly aiming for Shah to win the seat by an unprecedented 1 million votes.

In Surat and Gandhinagar, opposition parties and activists have accused the BJP of undermining democratic processes by using party workers and police to intimidate and put pressure on opposing candidates to withdraw, sometimes with explicit threats of violence or direct harassment of their families. The BJP district and state spokespeople refused to comment. Gujarat’s director general of police, Vikas Sahay, and the home minister, Shah, also did not respond.

Among those who withdrew in Surat was Baraiya Ramesh, 58, who has his own textile business and was running as an independent candidate. He alleged that after submitting his nomination, he began to face a campaign of intimidation.

“I was threatened by the police and pressured to withdraw,” said Ramesh. “Everyone in Surat knows how every candidate was harassed and pressure was put on them to not fight the elections.”

Fearing the threats, he turned his phone off, but as soon as he turned it back on, he claims he was traced by police and picked up. “They clearly told me to withdraw the nomination, so I did,” he said, adding that he feared for his safety but said it was important that he spoke out publicly. “Most of the candidates were threatened by the police.”

In Gandhinagar, five opposition candidates alleged threats in the buildup to campaigning, and 16 ultimately withdrew. Hours before voting began in Gandhinagar, Jitendra Chauhan, 39, who was running as a candidate for the Akhil Bhartiya Parivar party, posted a video on social media. Through sobs, he alleged he was forced to withdraw.

Chauhan previously worked for the BJP between 2012 and 2019, but told the Guardian he had become disillusioned with the party and had decided to run against Shah to fight for local issues. It was a decision he said that had “made my life hell”.

“As soon as I decided to submit my nomination, the police started following me everywhere,” he said. “Then, on 16 April, when I submitted my nomination papers, I started receiving threats from BJP workers. A BJP legislator threatened to jail me in some fake case.”

Syed Farzana, a polling agent of the Congress party, showing voting documents of her two sons, who she says were not allowed to vote allegedly by BJP workers. Photograph: Aakash Hassan

With every passing day, Chauhan said the threats got worse. “People would call me, come to my house, and give me an ultimatum to withdraw. Then the police started harassing my friends,” he said. “I felt so threatened that I had to withdraw my nomination.”

One candidate, Sumitra Maurya, 43, a schoolteacher, who contested elections for the first time with the Prajatantra Aadhar party, said she had refused to be cowed by the campaign of “unpleasant and frightening” intimidation that began from the moment she submitted her nomination for Gandhinagar in April.

“I was well aware of who I was fighting against – the man who is India’s home minister, a political heavyweight,” she said. “But I am a firm believer in the power of democracy.”

Initially, it started with a visit to Maurya’s home from unknown men, then constant calls to her and her husband, questioning why she was running. WhatsApp messages saying “offer”, “call me,” and “it is urgent” began to flood in, and then relatives began to call, asking her to withdraw.

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Fearing the threats, she travelled with her family about 200 miles out of the city. But after they checked into their hotel, there was a knock on the door, and several men in plain clothes stood outside, asking to speak to her husband. As Maurya confronted the men, they eventually revealed they were from the crime branch of police who said they were under a lot of pressure from their seniors.

Through the hotel window, Maurya could see the men roaming around the property throughout the night and she claims two cars followed them when they drove back the next morning. She still refused to remove her name from the ballot.

“They want to create an example so that people like me think a hundred times before even thinking about contesting.”

Voting in Gandhinagar was also mired in allegations of widespread irregularities. In one video that emerged, Muslims – who are unlikely to support the BJP – appear to be being passed cash to pretend they had cast their votes.

Multiple polling agents told the Guardian they had witnessed Muslim voters being coerced or threatened into not voting and there are several videos that appear to show outsiders being brought in to illegally cast votes in the place of absentees. At least one booth in the constituency has been ordered to redo the polling.

“Throughout the campaigning and on the polling day, the police and local administration worked together with BJP workers to scare our workers and people who they thought would vote against the BJP,” said Sonal Patel, 64, the candidate for the opposition Congress party in Gandhinagar, who remained in the race.

Patel also accused BJP workers of trying to pay off and blackmail Congress candidates and workers into switching sides and said she was repeatedly prevented from campaigning by the authorities. “This has all been done because they want to win by the highest margin,” she said.

Several candidates and human rights activists submitted complaints to the election commission – the body overseeing the polls which stands accused of being co-opted by the BJP government – and also requested extra police presence on polling day, but got no formal response. The local election commission did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.

Shabnam Hashmi, an activist who was on the ground, also submitted complaints to the election commission. “I have seen harassment and intimidation and manipulation in elections before, but never on this scale and never with the full state machinery behind it,” said Hashmi. “It was unprecedented and very unfortunate for our democracy.”

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