India’s election campaign is racked by dirty tricks

WHEN YOU are on the run from a murder rap, what better place to take refuge than with the ruling party? Or so reckon Amit and Debu. Since February the two friends from the rice- and mango-growing district of Nadia have camped in the rickety building near the University of Calcutta that serves as the bustling West Bengal state headquarters for prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The fugitives are party workers. They say they have been framed for the brutal murder in Nadia on February 28th of Sudhin Som, a youth leader from the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), a rival party that runs West Bengal like a fiefdom. They also say Mr Som had been on the verge of defecting to the BJP, and that the men who killed him at an election rally were most likely AITC goondas (thugs). Since the killing, they note, the BJP has been unable to work in Nadia. “All of our houses got shot at and ransacked,” says Amit, a computer programmer who claims that AITC thugs have beaten him up 20 times in the past three years. “They say that if you fly a BJP flag, we will cut off your hand.”

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In the topsy-turvy of West Bengal politics, this could all be true. The state’s long-held reputation for political thuggery has deepened since Mamata Banerjee, the AITC’s founder and guiding force, captured power in 2011, ending 34 years of communist rule. But with heightened stakes come heightened measures. As India races towards a general election in April that many regard as the most consequential in decades, the level of political abuses of all sorts is rising.

Ms Banerjee’s party may wield fearsome street muscle, for instance, yet as a regional rather than national party it lacks other cards. Take money. With membership of more than 100m and with tycoons queuing for Mr Modi’s favour, the BJP last year sucked in four times more donations than the next five parties put together. In an election whose total cost has been estimated at $7bn-10bn, this makes a big difference. Even sticking to the official maximum expenditure for each party of $100,000 for every seat it contests in the Lok Sabha, the 545-seat lower house of parliament, no other party could afford to run as many candidates as the 500 or so that the BJP is fielding. And despite the best efforts of the hallowed Election Commission to monitor spending, few believe that any big party observes the limits.

Money is instrumental in other ways, too. On March 7th the BJP bought no fewer than ten full-page ads in the Indian Express, a national newspaper. It bought none in the Hindu, a rival, a paucity some linked to the newspaper’s dogged investigation of a costly defence deal inked by Mr Modi. In February a recording surfaced in Karnataka which purportedly caught a BJP leader talking about offering cash to members of the state assembly to switch parties. Few were surprised by the ploy, a time-tested one which could have toppled the state government and put the BJP in charge. What raised eyebrows were the sums allegedly proffered: $3m to “flip” a state legislator and $7m to buy off the speaker of the house.

Being in government is useful, too. Opponents of Ms Banerjee say that it has become common for police in West Bengal to file charges against political opponents, which are dropped when they pledge allegiance to the AITC. Of the party’s candidates for West Bengal’s 42 seats, nine are recent defectors from other parties. Some rivals allege worse misdemeanours. Last year’s local council elections in the state were especially violent, eliciting widespread protests of voter intimidation. With the state police tamed, it is said that potential meddling by the Central Reserve Police Force, a national body, was forestalled by flooding their barracks with busloads of girls from Sonagachi, Kolkata’s red-light district. Small wonder that a senior party member jokes that if Mamata endorsed a banana tree, it would get elected.

The AITC claims it is actually the victim of such tactics. After some of its leaders joined the BJP, it says, the Central Bureau of Investigation, a national police agency, suddenly stopped investigating their role in a $4bn pyramid scheme that rocked West Bengal six years ago. As the election approaches, investigators have been oddly keen to revive other cold legal cases. Hoary corruption scandals allegedly involving the Gandhi family, five generations of whom have run the Indian National Congress, the only national rival to the BJP, have suddenly been reopened. Robert Vadra, a former property developer whose wife is Priyanka Gandhi, sister of Rahul Gandhi, the Congress president, has in recent weeks been repeatedly summoned for all-day interrogations regarding a series of past transactions. Half a dozen other Congress leaders have seen cases against them suddenly spring to life again after lying dormant for years.

Then there are the smears and insinuations. Mr Gandhi incessantly labels Mr Modi, who fashions himself a chowkidar or watchman, as a thief. Some BJP leaders, meanwhile, say that Mr Gandhi, whose mother is Italian, is a liar: he cannot be a high-caste Hindu as he claims. As for Ms Banerjee, whisperers dismiss her as Mumtaz Begum, the Muslim-sounding name being a swipe against the AITC’s popularity with West Bengal’s many Muslims.

The indefatigable Election Commission, whose motto is “no voter left behind”, plans to dispatch a full team on a day-long hike to reach the single voter in India’s smallest electoral district. High up in the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh, on the borders of Myanmar and China, Sokela Tayang may be the only one of India’s 900m voters completely insulated from underhand tactics.

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