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20 Jun 2024 12:24
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  •   Home > News > International

    As India's election ramps up, a worker from Narendra Modi's party was filmed plotting to bribe police

    As India's election campaign approaches the finish line, voters allege they have been beaten up by police at polling stations, while candidates say they have been encouraged to withdraw from the race.

    A worker from Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) was filmed plotting to bribe police and polling officers to intimidate Muslim voters in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) ahead of an election.

    In the footage, which has been independently verified by the ABC, party worker Bhuvnesh Kumar is heard outlining several tactics aimed at slowing down the vote in UP's Sambhal constituency, which took place on May 7.

    Metadata from the video shows it was taken a month before electors went to the polls.

    "The [polling] agent will challenge the voter by accusing him of voting on forged documents," Mr Kumar says.

    "Do not use violence, no use of firearms and any other weapon, don't physically assault anyone. You just need to create a fake scene so there will be chaos, so women will stop coming to polling station.

    "This is one way to ensure low turnout."

    He goes on to instruct his colleagues to also bribe police officers deployed at polling booths in the constituency.

    "You also need to meet them the day before and give them money as per their position, 500 [rupees] for officials and 100 [rupees] for juniors," Mr Kumar says.

    "Keep money in their pocket saying this is for tea only, not for anything else."

    Mr Kumar was arrested by police days before the polls began under a section of law aimed at preventing the disturbance of peace.

    The state and national BJP teams as well as India's Election Commission (ECI) did not respond to the ABC's request for comment.

    While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been in power for 10 years, political science analysts have noted a change of tone around this election campaign.

    The BJP is aiming to clinch a super majority or two-thirds of the 543 seats up for grabs in India's lower Parliament.

    Eyewitness says voters did not return after being filmed fleeing polling station

    On May 7, voters took part in the third round of India's six-week, multiphase election, with major parties looking to secure crucial seats in Karnataka, Gujarat and UP.

    A viral video, which the ABC has been unable to trace back to the source, shows voters in the Muslim-majority village of Ovari running out of a polling station.

    While it's unclear from the footage what happened inside the polling booths, the voters are seen being chased outside by police officers, who hit them with batons and snatched pieces of paper from their hands.

    Sambhal's district magistrate said in a statement that he had investigated the video and found an excessive number of people were present inside the booth and so officials asked them to leave.

    In a statement posted to X, Sambhal Police said more than 50 suspicious people had been caught while trying to cast fake votes.

    It said the matter was being investigated.

    The video has also been called false and misleading by India's Election Commission, which said "no voter was denied their right to cast vote".

    But dozens of people interviewed by the ABC have disputed ECI's claims and alleged police brutality and intimidation took place at the polls.

    The video of people fleeing the polling booth was filmed in Wasim's home and he was an eyewitness to the scene.

    He alleges he saw police officers arrive in roughly 12 or 13 cars before they started beating women and elderly people.

    "Many people, particularly women, did not go back to vote after they were beaten … because of fear and shame," Wasim said.

    According to Wasim, there is no history of forged voting in the village and that all votes were cast according to the electoral roll.

    Another resident, Raees Qureshi, was able to cast his vote in the morning but he got caught up in the violence after he questioned why police were harassing his family.

    The 70-year-old's children and wife were stopped outside the voting centre, where he claims the village head as well as police told them to vote for the "lotus" — the symbol for the BJP.

    "The village head is canvassing for lotus and we had a dispute with him," he alleged.

    "He pointed to the police to beat us up."

    Mr Qureshi alleges police punched him in his chest and back. He says he fell unconscious and is now bedridden.

    Man questioned police on why his family was harassed

    The ABC found reports of similar violence perpetrated by local police at polling centres across Muslim-dominant villages in Sambhal.

    In these villages, the ruling BJP has historically lagged behind its opponent, Samajwadi Party (SP).

    SP candidate Zia ur Rahman Barq says India's Muslims are unhappy with the BJP.

    "They targeted and harm Muslims whether its religious matter or a business matter," he said.

    "The reason is they want to create division among non-Muslim majority community and minority communities … and gain votes by this divide.

    "We never imagined this could happen to us in India, which we consider our country."

    Mr Barq says he has submitted a written complaint to the ECI about the events in Sambhal but hasn't received a "satisfactory" response yet.

    Data released after the vote shows Sambhal had a 62 per cent voter turnout, the highest out of the 10 constituencies voting across the state on May 7.

    Voter Sakina, who is from Shahbazpur, says despite being beaten she was determined to cast her vote.

    "They tried to stop us but how can they stop us against our will?" the 38-year-old said.

    "We will do what we want."

    Doubts about India's Election Commission

    Since voting began in the country's seven-phase election in April, doubts have been growing among candidates, voters and journalists about the neutrality and transparency of the Election Commission of India.

    The ECI is a constitutional authority responsible for administrating India's elections.

    To ensure they are free and fair, the ECI has established the Model Code of Conduct (MCC), a set of guidelines for candidates and political parties.

    But some opposition candidates, like Mr Barq, feel the ECI has not acted upon their complaints.

    In the constituencies of Gujarat's Surat and Gandhinagar, opposition parties have accused the BJP of undermining the democratic process by using police and party workers to pressure candidates to withdraw their nominations.

    In Surat, the BJP's candidate won by default after every opposition candidate was disqualified or withdrew.

    In Gandhinagar — where Amit Shah, home minister and Mr Modi's right-hand man, is running — 16 opposition candidates dropped out before the May 7 vote.

    One of the area's candidates, Rajesh Maurya from the Prajatantra Aadhar party, alleges he was harassed on the phone and threatened with physical violence and arrest.

    "They put a metaphorical gun to your head," he said.

    Amit Shah did not respond to the ABC's request for comment.

    The ABC has seen a notarised complaint about the incident written by Mr Maurya and emailed several times to the ECI. But he says he has received no response.

    "Election Commission has proved to have limited influence," he said.

    Opposition figures accuse BJP of being determined to win seats

    Gujarat is considered an easy win for the BJP, given it is Mr Modi's home state and the place where his party won all 26 seats in the 2019 elections.

    But Mr Maurya says the ruling party is determined to win 400 out of 543 lower house seats by decimating the opposition.

    Another political candidate, 43-year-old Sumitra Maurya, alleged she also received threats from BJP workers.

    She said it began with unknown men visiting her home, and then she started receiving constant phone calls and messages asking her why she was running and asking her to withdraw.

    She has refused to do so.

    The BJP was asked about these claims but did not respond to comment.

    Another candidate, Naresh Priyadarshi, who was independent, says he withdrew his nomination after BJP workers asked him to.

    "It was my duty to withdraw out of respect," Mr Priyadarshi said.

    But he maintains he did not drop out of the race due to intimidation and has since joined the local chapter of the BJP.

    'Nobody can deny there is tension'

    Former ECI commissioner Ashok Lavasa said running India's elections is a "formidable task" and said the majority of it was conducted in a free and fair manner.

    "When over 900 million people come to these polling stations, so many political parties are involved, where the atmosphere is so charged … nobody can deny there is no tension during the elections," he said.

    "But I think what is important is whether there is a mechanism by which these complaints are attended to."

    Mr Lavasa said it was legitimate to question the use of state machinery to undermine the election.

    "Ultimately, all this machinery is under the control of the government," he said.

    "That would mean that the ruling party has an advantage during the elections. It's a valid question anybody can ask."

    The former commissioner advocates for the ECI to operate with greater responsiveness and transparency.

    "It does bother me if people say that they are losing faith [in the ECI]," he said.

    "The more transparency you have, the less will be the doubt that people will have."

    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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