These days “Freedom of Expression” is always in the news. Mostly because those who have enjoyed a monopoly over the country all these years find themselves out of power. So democracy is always in danger these days.
A speaker gets dropped from a conference? Democracy in danger. A minor students union leader gets arrested? Fascism is here!
What would actually put democracy in danger? Let’s see. How about shutting down India’s largest opposition party?
So let me tell you about the time that nearly happened. No, I am not going to talk about Emergency. I will tell you about 2007. That’s just 11 years ago. Fascism came that close to becoming a reality in India. And the sad thing is that you probably never heard of this event. That’s how real fascism is done.
In early 2007, the BJP released a campaign CD in the run-up to the Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh. As you would expect, rival parties were criticizing each other’s campaign material. In this case, some people and some sections of the media said that the material in the BJP’s campaign CD was “communal”. The BJP’s adversaries filed a complaint with the Election Commission.
Still routine stuff, right?
No! This was different. This was not the typical case of parties stepping on each other’s toes.
The BJP was summoned for a derecognition hearing before the Election Commission of India. You read that right. They were not kidding. The threat before the BJP was that of actual derecognition.
This is the sort of thing you expect to hear from Pakistan or North Korea or Venezuela. The state getting ready to shut down the main opposition party!
In 2007, the BJP had over 150 Members of Parliament, half a dozen or so Chief Ministers and hundreds of elected MLAs. Not to mention thousands of elected representatives at all levels of local governments. Would India have remained a democracy in any real sense if the BJP had been banned in 2007?
Not only was the BJP to be subjected to a derecognition hearing, one of the Election Commissioners hearing the case would be Navin Chawla.
At the time, Election Commissioner Navin Chawla was facing accusations that trusts run by him and his wife had received money, favours and cheap land from various Congress leaders and Congress governments.
That’s not all. The Shah Commission which was set up to probe the horrors of the Emergency had strongly indicted Navin Chawla for acting in a “callous and authoritarian” manner during the Emergency.
This same “callous and authoritarian” officer later went on to become Election Commissioner of the world’s largest democracy. How wonderful.
So the BJP protested. They repeatedly demanded that as a bare minimum show of fairness, Navin Chawla should not sit in judgement over the BJP during the derecognition hearing.
The BJP’s plea against the presence of Election Commissioner Navin Chawla was duly considered by the Election Commission.
And surprise! Surprise!
The Election Commission decided that the Election Commission is absolutely right.
Again, the sort of news you would expect to hear from Pakistan, North Korea or Venezuela.
Now, whose instructions could Navin Chawla have been following? This might give us a clue.
A few years later, Chief Election Commissioner N Gopalaswami wrote a letter to the President requesting the removal of Navin Chawla. One of the allegations was that whenever an important issue came up before the EC, Chawla would excuse himself for a bathroom break and soon after the CEC would get calls from top Congress leaders!
Feeling like some sort of banana republic yet?
So, how did the BJP escape being shut down? They had to resort to a legal technicality, by means of which they argued that the Election Commission doesn’t actually have the power to derecognize a political party.
The exact technicality was drawing some sort of distinction between acts of Parliament and “executive orders”.
However, the Congress, the Left and the BSP argued that derecognition was actually within the powers of the Election Commission.
Mind you that in 2007, the Cong, the Left and the BSP were all either part of the ruling UPA government or supporting it in the Lok Sabha. All ruling parties united in a demand to ban the main opposition! Definitely not a danger for democracy I guess…
The derecognition hearing was held, BJP was asked to condemn the CD & submit a compliance report in 15 days. But the Election Commission made it “clear to all concerned in the matter that the matter is not being closed by the Commission with the present order“.
This is a story of Indian liberalism. When not in power, they will protest over angry tweets. When in power, they will try to ban the main opposition.
No liberal back in 2007 said that a ban on BJP would be undemocratic. So what if the BJP had polled 9 crore votes in 2004? Liberals saw no harm in throwing all these votes out of the door and disenfranchising more than a fifth of the Indian electorate.
Today they say that democracy is in danger because too many BJP supporters are posting angry tweets.
Imagine if the same were happening today. Imagine if the Congress Party were dragged to a derecognition hearing before an Election Commissioner that many believed to be a BJP puppet!
Can you imagine the kind of outpouring of rhetoric that would happen if the BJP were doing this to the Congress today?
Let alone the Congress, remember what was said when the BJP government tried to crack down on a few students union leaders from JNU?
The moral of this story is that with Congress in power, Emergency is never too far away. The Emergency nearly came knocking on our doors just 11 years ago. In 2019, the BJP will face a Congress that is much more angry and vengeful than the Congress of 2004.
In Congress’ Madhya Pradesh manifesto, the party has already expressed its ominous intent towards the Sangh Parivar, bringing back memories of multiple bans on the RSS imposed by Congress over the years. What if this Congress gets anywhere near power? Will they hold back on imposing fascism?
Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or not be an Assistant Professor at IISc Bangalore.