Opposition in India rallies to 'save democracy' ahead of elections

(Photo: Unsplash)

Thousands packed the historic Ramlila Maidan (ground) in Delhi on Sunday, 31 March 2024, as an alliance of opposition parties in India held a massive rally to voice their concerns over the alleged stifling of dissent and undermining of democratic institutions by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government ahead of next month's general elections.

The 'Loktantra Bachao' or 'Save Democracy' rally was the opposition bloc INDIA's first major public demonstration after the controversial arrest of Delhi's Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal by the federal Enforcement Directorate on March 21. Kejriwal, who leads the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) loosely translated as ‘Common Man's Party,’ was arrested on charges of his party and state ministers accepting 1 billion rupees (£12 million) in bribes from liquor contractors nearly two years ago – allegations that the AAP has strongly denied.

The rally saw top leaders from the INDIA alliance, including Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party, take to the stage to lambast the Modi government for allegedly using central investigative agencies like the ED and CBI to target and intimidate opposition figures. In a post on X (formerly Twitter), Gandhi accused, "Narendra Modi wants to strangle democracy and take away the option from the people to choose the government of their choice…… It seems as if the country is being run not by a government but by a criminal gang," (auto translated from his Twitter Post).

Addressing the gathering, Gandhi further alleged, "We have to run the campaign, we want to send our leaders to different states, get posters published, but all our resources are clamped down. What kind of election is this-- leaders are intimidated, governments are toppled using money power, opposition leaders are arrested. Narendra Modi is not alone in this match fixing. He is aided by three or four of his corporate friends. If you do not vote with full force, their match-fixing will succeed; if that succeeds, Constitution will be destroyed."

Echoing Gandhi's sentiments, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav questioned the BJP's motives behind using agencies against the opposition if it was confident of crossing the 400-seat mark in the upcoming elections. "If you are so confident of crossing 400 (Lok Sabha seats in polls), why are you scared of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leaders? You sent Arvind Kejriwal to jail... Hemant Soren was sent to jail..." Yadav said. "The nation knows they have used ED, CBI to extort donations. To suppress this, false cases are being imposed on opposition leaders," he alleged.

The arrests of Kejriwal and former Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren have been viewed as significant setbacks for the opposition bloc ahead of the elections, due to commence on April 19. Opposition leaders have criticised the arrests as undemocratic and accused the BJP of misusing federal agencies to undermine them.

At the rally, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge described the RSS-BJP combine as "poison" that has "destroyed" the country, calling on all opposition parties to unite to defeat the ruling party. "We need to unite and only then will we be able to fight the BJP. We won't succeed if we keep attacking and fighting each other," he said, adding, "This election is for saving democracy and the Constitution and we must fight unitedly."

The INDIA bloc also put forth a set of five demands to the Election Commission, which were read out by Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra:

1) The Election Commission should ensure a level playing field for the 2024 elections  

2) EC should stop the misuse of IT, ED and the CBI and stop the coercive action taken against the Opposition parties

3) Hemant Soren, Arvind Kejriwal should be freed

4) The financial clampdown on Opposition parties before the election should be stopped

5) Supreme Court should institute an SIT to probe the electoral bonds and collection of money by the BJP through their vindictive ways

"This battle is to safeguard the nation, democracy, constitution, future of the nation, youth, farmers and women. This battle is for justice and truth," Deepender Singh Hooda, a lawmaker of the opposition Congress party, told reporters at the rally.

The rally also witnessed the wives of Kejriwal and Soren take the stage to criticise the central government over the arrests of their husbands in corruption cases. Their presence added an emotional dimension to the event and underscored the personal toll that the opposition leaders have allegedly faced.

The BJP has denied targeting the opposition and maintains that law enforcement agencies act independently. However, the opposition's allegations of a concerted crackdown and the massive turnout at Sunday's rally have undoubtedly raised questions about the state of India's democracy and the fairness of the upcoming electoral process.