As the central government declared the Popular Front of India (PFI) unlawful under the UAPA or the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act on Wednesday, 28 September, eight other "affiliate organisations" were also banned.
These are the Rehab India Foundation (RIF), the Campus Front of India (CFI), the All India Imams Council (AIIC), the National Confederation of Human Rights Organisation (NCHRO), the National Women's Front, the Junior Front, the Empower India Foundation and the Rehab Foundation, Kerala.
The one organisation that did not make the cut, surprising observers, is the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), regarded as the political wing of the PFI.
Various theories are floating around about how the SDPI escaped the ban. A senior member of the Karnataka government said that since the SDPI is a recognised political party, any punitive action against it will have to be initiated by the Election Commission of India (ECI). "The centre has to take the opinion of the Election Commission," former minister K S Eshwarappa said.
The ECI, however, may not have the power to deregister parties under the Representation of the People Act, 1951, according to an article in The Hindu. It has, more than once, unsuccessfully sought powers to do the same from the law ministry. The ECI can only de-list political parties or declare them as inactive, as it has done to 537 parties in the last five months.
There have also been allegations, as mentioned subsequently in the article, that the BJP has intentionally kept the SDPI alive in politics because it serves as vote-cutter for its rivals like the Congress Party. But first, a little more about the SDPI.
A Little More About the SDPI
The SDPI, whose stated goal is the "advancement and uniform development of all the citizenry including Muslims, Dalits, Backward Classes and Adivasis," was founded on 21 June 2009 in New Delhi. Then on 13 April 2010, it was registered as a political party after which it started contesting elections.
In the 2014 general elections, the SDPI fielded 29 candidates in six states, but failed to win any seat. Then, during the 2019 elections, the party contested in 15 seats in six states, again with no joy. In both elections, it could win only 1 per cent and 3 per cent of the votes respectively.
The party, until 2013, had only contested local elections, and had won seats in almost two dozen civic constituencies in Karnataka. Of late, however, the party has been making major gains in the state. Riyaz Kadambu, State Committee Member of the Karnataka SDPI told The Quint that by now, the party has won more than 120 local body seats across Karnataka, as well as three local councils in Udupi district.
The party has also made gains in Kerala. In the 2020 civic body elections held in the state, the SDPI won 95 seats, including 75 panchayat wards, one block panchayat ward, 18 municipal wards, and one corporation division, according to The New Indian Express.
And other than these two states, it has elected members in municipal corporations and gram panchayats in Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and even in West Bengal.
Is the SDPI Independent of the PFI?
The SDPI stated on Wednesday that the ban on PFI is a direct attack on democracy and the democratic rights of the people. The national president of the party, M K Faizy, said that the ban is part of a undeclared emergency imposed by the BJP. "An undeclared Emergency is clearly visible in the country," he told The Hindu.
However, the SDPI also distanced itself from the PFI and the organisations that have been included in the ban. "It is true that some of our members have also been members of PFI. But we are not linked at the organisational level in any way," Ataullah Jokatte, State Committee Member, SDPI, told The Hindu.
Talking about the SDPI's alleged association with the PFI, Kadambu told The Quint that the PFI and the SDPI are "two completely separate organisations with a common ideology - to save the country and the Constitution from the RSS."
"Yes, we share some programs and some PFI members belong to the SDPI as well, but our cadre base is much bigger than the PFI's. Our base consists of Muslims, Christians, and Dalits among other oppressed communities, not just Muslims. For example, BR Bhaskar Prasad, state convenor of the Karnataka Dalit Organisations Association, recently joined the SDPI as its General Secretary."
Vote Cutter and BJP's B Team?
Political analysts and some leaders of the Congress Party have said that in Karnataka, the SDPI is eating into the latter's Muslim vote bank. Indeed, in the 2018 state elections, the Congress could win only three out of the 19 seats in Udupi, Dakshina Kannada, and Uttara Kannada, all three coastal districts.
"The rise of SDPI and CFI will no doubt impact the Congress since there will clearly be a split in the minority vote," political analyst Sandeep Shastri told The Times of India in a February 2022 report.
The accusation against the BJP letting the SDPI function in order to eat into the Congress vote is not a new one. Siddaramaiah, Leader of Opposition in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly had said last month that while the Congress party did not support organizations like PFI and SDPI, the BJP had allowed them to continue in politics for the sake of dividing votes.
Siddaramaiah's son said on Thursday, one day after the PFI ban, that "to state clearly, PFI and SDPI and others are all the 'B' team of the BJP. Because of them (PFI, SDPI), their (BJP's) communalism works, else it won't. If they (BJP) really had commitment, as soon as they came (into power) and if they did have evidence, they should have banned them right then itself but didn't."
"Now that the elections are approaching, they are posturing as though they are showing strong governance," Yatindra Siddaramaiah, the Congress legislator from Varuna, added in his remarks.
In response to these vote-cutting theories, Kadambu told The Quint, "This is a nonsensical theory. The Congress Party cannot woo Muslim votes because of its policies, and is finding reasons to blame us. When Congress banned the RSS in 1992, why did they not ban the BJP at the same time? It's because only the Election Commission can allow the government to ban a political party."
SDPI Will Help PFI Cheat the Ban, Says Karnataka Congress MLA
Karnataka legislator Rizwan Arshad of the Congress party told The Quint that the government ban on PFI is an 'eyewash'.
"It is a strange dichotomy that the government, which justifies the PFI ban by calling it an anti-national organisation and accuses it of terrorist activities, spares its political wing, which can help the PFI cheat the ban. The whole move is designed to appease the RSS cadre."
Arshad went on to say that because there have been a series of murders targeting BJP-RSS members in Karnataka under a BJP government, the pressure to ban the PFI was mounting. Leaving the SDPI out, however, meant that PFI members can pursue their political objectives electorally via the SDPI.
Regarding the vote-cutting theories surrounding the SDPI, Arshad asserted, "We are more than capable of handling our voters and are not concerned about vote-cutters. We want consistency. Either you ban every organisation from the PFI and the SDPI to the VHP. Or you keep them all legal."
Additionally, Rajeev Gowda, a former Rajya Sabha MP and a national spokesperson for the Congress party, told The Quint that "regardless of whether the SDPI is banned or not, its supporters will continue to vote for the candidates that are presented as representative of SDPI's politics. And therefore, vote-cutting will continue to happen."
"And this phenomenon will continue until voters realise that it is only the Congress party that will act in the preservation of secular values and inclusive democracy."
A closer look at the results of the 2018 assembly elections in Karnataka shows that the numbers don't add up to support the vote-cutter logic. Only in one seat, that is, Chickpet, did the SDPI win more votes than the vote difference between the BJP and the Congress. The BJP won 57,312, the Congress won 49,378, and the SDPI won 11,700. But in no other seat did the SDPI (it contested in only two more, Narasimharaja and Gulbarga Uttar) cut votes in a way that hampered the Congress party's electoral prospects.
The same can be said about the state's 2013 Assembly elections. The SDPI contested in 23 seats, but only in Sullia constituency did it poll more than the vote difference between the BJP and the Congress. The BJP won 65,913 votes, the Congress got 64,540, and the SDPI got 2,569 votes.