In this book Saba Naqvi asks if the government has taken the ED’s help to destabilise the Opposition

The year 2022 saw the BJP consolidate its power when it won the UP state election for a second term. Uttar Pradesh sends eighty MPs to Parliament. The state with the second-largest contingent of MPs, 48, is Maharashtra. That is why besides the UP mandate, the other significant political development of 2022 was the collapse of the three-party alliance government that ruled Maharashtra. This happened due to large-scale defections in the Shiv Sena when a chunk of legislators created their own group and would migrate and come to power in the state in alliance with the BJP. Later, in 2023, we would see a split in the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), founded by veteran politician and former CM of Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar. Two significant state parties in Maharashtra are currently split with a faction moving to the BJP while the other remains with the original party.

I believe we can see the “enforcement effect” in the two most important political events of 2022 involving these two most populous states of India. First, in the face of a fightback by the SP in UP, which upped its vote share to 32 per cent, the BJP still won the state poll comfortably with a 10 per cent lead in vote share. Yet, we must note that simultaneously, there was a party whose vote share crashed from 22 per cent in the last election in 2017 to just 12 per cent in 2022 and much of that vote went to the BJP. The party in question is the BSP. As mentioned earlier, the Mayawati-led party has been rendered dysfunctional and it is said that the leadership is afraid of corruption cases being activated and the leader landing up in jail.

On the result day itself, again seated in a TV studio as the mandate of the UP election was announced on March 10, 2022, I would write a quick analysis noting the shrinking of the BSP and how it benefitted the BJP. The BSP got one seat in the state assembly of 403. In a more detailed column some weeks later, I would analyse the decline of Mayawati and the BSP. She had created a template of a transferable vote bank but barely campaigned in the state poll. “No groundwork, no mobilisation through rallies, just some tweeting followed by ticket distribution. Even her signalling indicated greater comfort with the BJP than with an expanding SP. There is speculation about whether she did so deliberately: She understands transactional politics, right from ticket distribution to government formation. Currently, many of her voters are simply striking a better bargain with the BJP.”

Of course, there were other factors at work in the BJP’s win in the state poll, such as the huge ration delivery, social and caste outreach across all sections of society and the popularity of both the PM and the CM. But the diversion of traditional BSP votes to the BJP was a significant element in what unfolded.

The Maharashtra 2022-23 endgame is arguably as significant as UP because Mumbai is the financial capital of India, and money, as we have seen, is directly linked to politics. All circumstantial evidence and statements of leaders around Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray and NCP founder Pawar suggest that the ED played a starring role in the collapse of the coalition government. Although the BJP first gave the CM’s post to the breakaway leader of the Shiv Sena, Eknath Shinde, the national party is in the driver’s seat in the state, not because of the spread of its own vote share but due to its capacity to split other parties.

There was actually a stunning sequence of events that preceded the collapse of the Maharashtra government led by the former CM Uddhav Thackeray that had been supported by the NCP and the Congress in the state. Sanjay Raut, Shiv Sena MP close to the now-ousted Uddhav Thackeray, had on February 8, 2022, released a letter he had written to the Rajya Sabha chairman saying lawmakers of the party including him were being threatened with ED action if they did not topple the Maharashtra state government.

By June 2022, the government had indeed been toppled, properties owned by Sanjay Raut and his wife were seized and they were facing an ED inquiry while Raut himself was arrested on July 31. He would spend 100 days in jail before securing bail. One does not know the scale of the evidence against Sanjay Raut, but according to data submitted by the government itself, in the 17 years of the existence of the PMLA, the ED has secured 23 convictions of the 54,422 cases, which is 0.004 per cent.

Meanwhile, some of the Shiv Sena members that shifted across to the breakaway faction led by Eknath Shinde – made CM of Maharashtra on July 7, 2022 in alliance with the BJP – did indeed have ED inquiries. It would be interesting to see how such investigations will be pursued in comparison to those against opposing parties still ruling other states. In Maharashtra, more such splits and defections would follow a year later when in early July 2023, the nephew of Sharad Pawar and a politician in his own right, Ajit Pawar, joined the state government with a large chunk of Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs). Again, many of the individuals who left the NCP faced income tax and ED inquiries and the pincer of their properties being seized. Ajit Pawar is currently the deputy CM of Maharashtra. When he had not joined the front created by the BJP, the party would fiercely campaign against him for what is referred to as the “irrigation scam”. There are currently multiple legal cases that challenge the splits in both the Shiv Sena and the NCP, and more twists could emerge from court rulings.

Besides the Shiv Sena and the NCP, two parties that have been put through the ED wringer are the Trinamool Congress (TMC), which is in power in West Bengal and defeated the BJP in a pitched election in 2021, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is in power in Delhi and had on two occasions, in 2015 and 2020, trounced the BJP very thoroughly in the city-state in elections into which the national party threw its all.

From 2015 onwards, various intimidation tactics were used against the AAP after the party won a historic mandate of 67 of Delhi’s seventy seats just six months after Modi won the national mandate. As the BJP had won all of the seven parliamentary seats in the national capital, there was a clear division of choice made explicitly by many Delhi voters between the AAP for the city-state and the BJP for the national vote. The first term of the AAP was known for a constant stand-off between it and central government appointees. AAP founder-leader and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal faced multiple defamation cases and by mid-2016, eleven of AAP’s 67 MLAs were in custody. However, the cases against them would eventually not hold up in court.

The AAP would win a second term in Delhi, getting 62 of the 70 seats, a marginal decline. The 2020 battle was pitched and communalised and took place in the midst of the protests at various sites in the national capital against the CAA. While the BJP tried to frame it as a Hindu-Muslim election, the AAP kept the focus on its governance record. That the city was on edge, however, became clear just weeks after the election result was declared on February 8, 2020. On February 23, Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in the northeastern part of the city, claiming 53 lives and large-scale destruction of property in the most densely populated part of the metropolis. The trigger for the riots was the seething resentment by some BJP members and supporters against the anti-CAA protests.

After winning a second term in Delhi, the AAP also became more focused on its national ambitions, and in 2022, came into power in Punjab. Just months after that verdict, one of the most high-profile ministers of the Kejriwal-led regime, Satyendar Jain, was put under the ED scanner and arrested on 31 May. After a year spent in jail, he got interim bail, which has currently been extended on medical grounds. There have, however, been some revealing twists in his case.

Excerpted with permission from The Saffron Storm: From Vajpayee to Modi, Saba Naqvi, Penguin India.

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