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India's Democracy at a Crossroads: Unmasking Institutional Vulnerabilities

Recent Judicial Directives and High-Profile Resignations Expose the Fragility of Democracy and Its Institutions Ahead of the 2024 General Elections

By Neeraj Thakur
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Democracy at a crossroads | Representative image | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

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In a significant development on Monday, the Supreme Court of India took a firm stance against the State Bank of India (SBI), denying the bank's plea for additional time until June 30 to unveil the identities of anonymous donors who bought electoral bonds, along with the specifics of their encashment by political parties. This decision comes as a huge setback for SBI, which has faced widespread criticism for seemingly aligning with the interests of the BJP-led central government. The SBI has been attacked by various quarters for planning a calculated delay to push the disclosure past the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Read More: Electoral Bonds: Anonymous Donor Names will Set the Cat Among the Pigeons

In an unequivocal assertion of its authority, the Supreme Court's directive to the SBI cuts through the fog of procedural delays, demanding the immediate disclosure of electoral bond donors by March 12. The ECI, on the other hand, has been tasked with making these details public by March 15, no later than 5 PM. The apex court also warned the SBI about potential contempt proceedings should it fail to comply with its orders. Despite the SBI's initial request for a three-month period to disclose the donor details—information that was, notably, already in its possession—the Supreme Court's decision to require disclosure within a drastically shorter timeframe of 24 hours has come as a major embarrassment to the public sector bank.

In a landmark decision last month, a five-judge Constitution Bench invalidated the electoral bonds scheme, compelling the SBI, the designated financial institution for the scheme, to disclose to the Election Commission of India the specifics of all electoral bonds purchased since April 12, 2019, by March 6. But the SBI petitioned the court, claiming that the disclosure process was "time-consuming" and sought an extension until June 30.

The extent to which the State Bank of India (SBI) engaged in delay tactics, even before the highest court, borders on the audacious. Represented by Senior Advocate Harish Salve, the bank conceded to possessing complete details on the purchasers of electoral bonds, the origins of the funds, and the specific allocations to political parties. However, Salve stated that there is a need to collate and verify the names of the purchasers against bond numbers. This step, according to the bank, was a meticulous process that warranted additional time. The Supreme Court's response, however, cut through the bank's argument wherein the Chief Justice clarified that the court had not mandated the SBI to conduct a "matching exercise" between different sets of data and found the request for more time on these grounds to be unfounded. Furthermore, the Chief Justice also inquired what matching exercise had the bank done in the last 26 days. Clearly, the SBI’s delaying tactics were called out by the Supreme Court. 

These developments, along with many others that have occurred in the country over the last several days, lead us to question the very role of many of our institutions, which are either crumbling or being used as puppets by the government in power. We are just a few weeks away from the election, and let's face it: The events we are witnessing in the largest democracy in the world can actually be termed unprecedented and historic. 

Read More: Electoral Bonds: How RBI Continues to be Pushed to the Brink by the Government

A few days ago, Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay, a Calcutta High Court judge, submitted his resignation letter, held a press conference, and declared that he will be joining the BJP. “I approached the BJP, and the BJP also approached me,” he said in a press conference. It is shocking that he, as a sitting judge, was in touch with a political party. Incidentally, the very same judge had presided over many judgments that denounced the TMC government in West Bengal. Now, with his resignation, several questions arise. Is it okay for judges to deliver judgments and then immediately resign and swear their allegiance to a political party? Why is there no cooling-off period for judges before they enter electoral politics? In this case, what about all his judgments—were some of them made for personal gains? It is now clearer than ever that while he was a sitting judge, he was negotiating a deal with the BJP to join the party. Should not some of his past judgments be reviewed, as the man has completely lost credibility, and because of him, the judiciary has been questioned for impropriety and lack of independence?

While the judiciary has faced its own challenges, another shocking incident has unsettled the nation. Just a few weeks before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, Election Commissioner Arun Goel resigned on Saturday. Though Goel attributed his resignation to "personal reasons" and stated that he did so despite the government's efforts to dissuade him, it doesn't require much insight to speculate about the potential reasons behind this step. The Election Commission of India, consisting of three members, already had one vacant position. With Goel's resignation, this leaves the ECI with just a Chief Election Commissioner mere days before elections in the world's largest democracy.

As the Election Commission of India gears up to uphold its mandate of conducting free and fair elections, a concerning development looms large. Just days before the polls, the central government is positioned to appoint two new election commissioners—a move that, on the surface, seems routine but, upon closer examination, raises critical questions about the independence of the ECI. 

Read More: Electoral Bonds: Beyond the Verdict, the Fight for Free and Fair Elections is Far From Over

The process for these appointments involves two committees: firstly, a search committee spearheaded by the law minister, flanked by two government secretaries; secondly, a selection committee led by the Prime Minister, rounded out by a Union minister of the Prime Minister's choosing and the Leader of the Opposition. This setup, ostensibly designed to balance governmental and opposition voices, skews uncomfortably toward the government’s side. Out of the six individuals crucial to this selection process, three are direct government members, while two others serve under the government's umbrella.

This composition is not just a matter of procedural detail but a mirror reflecting the subtle erosion of institutional autonomy in the world's largest democracy. At a time when the electoral integrity should be beyond reproach, this approach to filling top roles within the Election Commission casts a long shadow of doubt. In an ideal democracy, the sanctity and independence of electoral institutions are guarded as zealously as the right to vote itself. But the latest developments cast a long shadow on the integrity of the electoral process itself. 

The narratives surrounding Arun Goel or Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay are not merely about the individuals involved but about the structural vulnerabilities they expose within India's democratic framework. As India stands at a critical juncture, the importance of institutional integrity cannot be overstated. As someone rightly said democracy is of election not of self selection. Regrettably, India appears to be veering towards the latter.