Surat, Indore and Gandhinagar

How the BJP is snatching away voters' free choice

Untitled design - 1 Home Minister Amit Shah, Indore BJP candidate Shankar Lalwani and Surat BJP candidate Mukesh Dalal | X

While India votes in the General Elections of 2024, residents of two cities will be denied a free and fair vote. These are cities that supposedly showcase the “India dream”—Surat in Gujarat and Indore in Madhya Pradesh. Both are bustling business-oriented towns, places with an educated and aspirational electorate.  

Surat and Indore are not rural backwaters. Instead, they are places where “democracy” should, in normal circumstances, thrive. But instead, democracy has died in Surat and Indore. The voters’ right to make up their own minds has been snatched away. The voices of the voters of Surat and Indore will not be heard in these elections.  

Surat has over 16 lakh voters, and Indore over 25 lakh. Thus, a free choice of almost 40 lakh voters has been invalidated. MPs from Surat and Indore will not come to the Lok Sabha because they have been elected, but because they have been selected

In Surat, all the BJP’s rival candidates have withdrawn, and the BJP has won unopposed. In Indore, the BJP’s main rival, the Congress, has withdrawn, leaving the BJP candidate in a fight with only smaller parties in a name-only election. The blatant “match-fixing” by the ruling BJP in Surat and Indore holds grim portents. The elections of 2024 are turning out to be sinister, unpredictable, and marked by the ominous and menacing presence of a shadowy 12th man—or central agencies batting openly for the Narendra Modi-led BJP. 

There are eerie goings-on. Two chief ministers belonging to the opposition have been in jail since the start of the election campaign. In West Bengal, reports suddenly emerged that “foreign weapons” had appeared in Sandeshkhali. Lo and behold, none other than the NSG, the crack commando unit tasked with fighting terrorists arrived. The media arrived right on time too to film a drama-filled “NSG operation” live on 24x7 TV. NSG? Deployed in an election? Unheard of. 

In Gujarat’s Gandhinagar, where Home Minister Amit Shah is the star candidate at least three candidates have openly said that they were under pressure to withdraw from the race. In Maharashtra, Shiv Sena (UBT) candidate Amol Kirtikar received an ED summons in a four-year-old “khichdi scam” on the day (yes, the day) he filed his nomination. In contrast, the ED cases against Kirtikar’s rival, Ravindra Waikar (Shiv Sena Shinde), who switched sides to the BJP just ahead of the elections, have gone cold. Wah Modiji Wah

The events in Surat, Indore and Gandhinagar are part of this grim pattern and will go down as symbols of infamy in India’s democracy.  

On April 22, the BJP’s Surat candidate Mukesh Dalal was declared victorious unopposed. How did this happen? First, the nomination papers of his main rival, or the Congress candidate Neelesh Kumbhani were rejected. Intriguingly, immediately afterwards, Kumbhani disappeared, citing ill health. A posse of police and media gathered outside Kumbhani’s home. Reports swirled that he was likely to join the BJP. The next day, on the last day of filing of nomination papers, all other candidates against the BJP, one by one mysteriously withdrew their papers and refused to contest. The BJP’s Mukesh Dalal was left as the sole candidate, and therefore the winner. 

The irony is that Surat is a safe BJP seat. The BJP has been winning it since 1989; in 2014 and 2019, the BJP's Darshana Jardosh won by massive margins. So why were so many machinations needed to ensure that the Surat candidate did not have to face elections? First, to set a narrative of the BJP’s unstoppable and inevitable victory. Rajput protests have roiled Gujarat in recent months and a triumphant show of strength was needed. Second, the Surat candidate was changed for this election leading to unhappiness among cadres. No risks could be taken. Third, economic distress is spiking among migrant workers in Surat. A victory needed to be engineered to protect Surat at all costs and stave off any possible loss of face for the BJP. No drop in vote percentage can be allowed. Simply winning is not enough, margins have to be massive for the vote-hungry Modi election machine. Every possible seat must be captured, if necessary, through foul and nasty means. 

The playwright Anton Chekhov said: “Despicable means used to achieve laudable goals render the goals themselves despicable”. The  Modi-led BJP cares two hoots about means. Only the ends matter. In its anything-goes power lust, despicable and decidedly undemocratic means are being pressed into service. 

Indore was meant to be a repeat of Surat. But it did not quite go according to plan. In Indore, the BJP’s main rival, the Congress’s Akshay Kanti Bam, also suddenly withdrew. But contrary to the BJP’s expectations, the other candidates did not. So, Operation Indore did not work as well as Operation Surat. As the remaining candidates have refused to withdraw, Indore will see a “naam ke vaaste” election-for-form’s sake because in the absence of the main challenger the result is a foregone conclusion. 

Bam found himself obediently dancing to the BJP’s tune. He filed his nomination on April 23, and on the very next day a 17-year-old attempt to murder case was brought against him. Four days later, on April 29, he withdrew his candidature and joined the BJP. "Chronology samajhiye."  

Like Surat, Indore, too, is a safe BJP seat. It was held for eight terms by BJP veteran Sumitra Mahajan; in 2019, the BJP's Shankar Lalwani won by a huge margin. In fact, Lalwani won the most votes of any candidate--10 lakh votes. So why did the BJP feel the need to secure a Congress defection in Indore? 

Because the BJP is aiming for a show of overwhelming power in 2024. BJP’s Madhya Pradesh heavyweight Kailash Vijayvargiya wanted to show off his strength. The BJP, increasingly uneasy about the electorate’s palpable lack of enthusiasm, wanted to demonstrate the dominance of the saffron force in Madhya Pradesh and again set a narrative of the BJP’s unquestioned supremacy. 

BJP is trying to orchestrate victories even in safe seats because the general elections of 2024 for the party is about “fixing” the system. It is about using all instruments of government to secure victories, even as the Election Commission looks away. The BJP is desperate to maximize its seats. It is frantically aiming to bolster a diminishing Modi cult. It is trying any and every method to “fix” the General Elections of 2024.

The Election Commission has designed a poll schedule to allow only one side –the BJP—to campaign relentlessly by outspending and out-campaigning the others. The Aam Aadmi Party’s campaign song was disallowed by the Election Commission on absurd grounds. Open hate speeches are being delivered by Modi with the EC only issuing feeble notices and that, too, attempting to draw false equivalences between Modi’s poison-filled speeches and Rahul Gandhi’s more moderate addresses. 

The BJP’s engineered victories in Surat and Indore are symbols of what this election is turning out to be: the world’s largest democracy’s most undemocratic election ever. The BJP is trying to snatch away the voters' right to a free and fair vote. Think about it: if the BJP is willing to move mountains for safe seats like Surat and Indore, what is it likely to do in seats which are competitive? For all those who prize democracy, there is cause for worry.

(The writer is Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha AITC)