As Indian voting wraps up, reports of electoral irregularities mount

SURAT, India — As India wraps up a seven-week-long marathon election, reports of irregularities have reached a level not seen in decades. Across the country, supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have been accused by their opponents of working with local authorities to suppress turnout among voters or to remove opposition candidates from the ballot altogether.

In the ancient diamond trading hub of Surat, the election ended before it began. After all eight opposition candidates dropped out under questionable circumstances, local officials declared a winner by default: the candidate from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP.

Independent political analysts say there is no evidence to indicate systemic vote-rigging, and if Modi is declared the winner Tuesday as expected, his victory would be legitimate. But in the world’s largest democracy, the rash of irregularities at the local level — and the brazenness of several incidents publicized by BJP supporters themselves — have alarmed political observers who say India’s ruling party is increasingly wielding state power to tilt the democratic playing field in its favor.

During its previous decade in power, the Modi government has cracked down on critical media outlets, shut down nonprofits, and squeezed opposition politicians by targeting them for criminal investigations and imprisonment, “but the sanctity of elections itself has largely been protected,” said Maya Tudor, a political scientist at Oxford University.

Now, she said, “these are the first signs of the electoral moment itself being called into question.”

So far, election officials have ordered partial repolling in at least nine voting districts, including locations where party workers were caught on video casting multiple votes. But India’s Election Commission, led by a three-member panel nominated by the government, has been criticized for leaving many more allegations of irregularities unaddressed.


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Some of these reports involved classic voter intimidation. In Uttar Pradesh state, for instance, baton-wielding police in recent weeks were filmed beating Muslim voters, who generally vote against the Hindu nationalist BJP, and driving them from polling stations. In the far northeast, voting has been marred by gun-toting militias who seized booths and roughed up party workers, according to eyewitnesses and news reports.

“There have been clear failures in election management,” said S.Y. Qureshi, India’s chief election commissioner from 2010 to 2012. Qureshi noted that Indian bureaucrats worked hard in the 1990s to curtail widespread violence that often took place on election day targeting voters from lower castes, but he feared similar abuses from decades ago were creeping back. “How can this happen?” he asked angrily. “What action will be taken?”

Gopal Krishna Agarwal, a BJP national spokesman, dismissed allegations as campaign rhetoric by the party’s opponents. He said the BJP has never tried to suppress turnout. “These things are for the Election Commission to decide,” Agarwal said. “We believe in our institutions. We believe in and respect the democratic values that have brought us where we are.”

At the same time, opposition parties and political analysts have alleged that local BJP officials have tried a new tactic during this election: removing challengers from races altogether.

In the central city of Indore, the sole candidate from a major opposition party dropped out hours before the withdrawal deadline and joined the BJP after a local judge brought fresh charges of attempted murder against him as part of a 17-year-old land dispute. In Khajuraho, another central city, the BJP candidate also ran without a major-party rival after election officials disqualified his opponent, citing incomplete paperwork.

In Gandhinagar, the seat of the powerful home minister Amit Shah in western India, opposition candidates released teary-eyed videos claiming they had received death threats warning them against running.

Adam Ziegfeld, an expert on Indian politics at Temple University, said the use of law enforcement or trumped-up cases came “out of the tool kit of electoral autocrats.”

“This is about who gets scared off from running,” Ziegfeld said. “If you look at who [Russian President Vladimir] Putin lets run against him, it’s no wonder he wins.”

In Surat, a BJP stronghold in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, opposition candidates began to fall by the wayside in April.

One told reporters he was too depressed to campaign. Another cryptically cited “personal reasons” but posed for a photo shaking hands with a BJP leader. Two other candidates’ nomination papers were rejected by local officials. Finally, there was just one contender left challenging the BJP: Pyarelal Bharti, a veteran of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which represents low-caste voters across northern India.

Behind the scenes, BJP officials were waging an intense campaign to bribe and pressure each of their rivals, including Bharti, to withdraw before the deadline on April 22, according to local media reports that were corroborated by interviews with opposition leaders.

But by April 21, BJP officials still could not locate Bharti. Opposition party leaders had conferred and agreed to whisk Bharti out of Surat to the nearby city of Vadodara, where he could hide beyond the reach of BJP party workers, said local leaders from the BSP and the Congress party. But pressure began to mount before midnight, recalled Satish Sonawane, the BSP party chief in Surat.

First, a friend of Sonawane who served in the Surat police called to say that a rich local businessman had offered to pay Sonawane in exchange for revealing Bharti’s whereabouts. “He said they were willing to pay as much as we like,” Sonawane said. “But I told him that I didn’t enter politics for such things.”

The next morning, homes in Vadodara belonging to the BSP state leader, Surender Singh Kaloria, were raided by police, who also surrounded the home of Bharti’s son-in-law where the BJP believed Bharti was hiding, said one of Bharti’s associates, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retribution.

By midday, BJP supporters found Bharti and drove him back to Surat. He entered the government office through a back door and withdrew his candidacy shortly before the 3 p.m. deadline, according to BSP leaders, Bharti’s associate and one local journalist. That evening, Bharti left Surat and never came back; his phone has been switched off, and he could not be reached for comment.

Manishkumar Rathod, the police inspector who led the raid on Kaloria’s homes, said in a telephone call that Vadodara police had received an anonymous tip that Kaloria was illegally storing alcohol in his home. He denied that his unit tried to locate Bharti or interfere with the election.

“I’ve seen money being involved before,” Kaloria said, referring to the tactic of paying rival candidates to drop out. “This was the first time I’ve seen police involved.”

On April 22, with no votes cast or opponents standing, local officials named the BJP candidate, a first-time candidate named Mukesh Dalal, to be the next member of Parliament from Surat. The BJP Gujarat party chief, C.R. Paatil, immediately celebrated on social media, boasting that the BJP had won its first seat even though results were supposed to be announced on June 4.

The episode stunned many in India. Even leaders within the BJP’s Delhi headquarters wondered whether the Gujarat party officials went too far, said a senior Gujarat political journalist who covered the saga closely.

Paatil, the BJP’s state chief, declined to speak to The Post about the race in Surat. But on the day of the scheduled election, his colleagues at the BJP office in town acknowledged that the incident backfired. The state party was under pressure to demonstrate its strength and deliver high voter turnout. Yet the opposite happened, they said: Many residents in districts neighboring Surat believed their elections were also canceled and didn’t bother to vote.

Outside, an uneasy quiet settled. In a working-class neighborhood near the famous diamond polishing center, Bhupendrabhai Brahmbhatt and his daughter-in-law Seema watched boys play cricket in an alley that, on any other election day, would have been teeming with party workers scrambling to mobilize voters.

Both said they were longtime BJP supporters but felt a line had been crossed. “How could we change our rulers if no one is competing?” Seema asked.

“Our politics have become such,” Bhupendrabhai sighed, “that those who rule by might take all of the gains.”

Karishma Mehrotra and Shams Irfan contributed to this report.

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