The only sentence that will be remembered for a long time from the ruling NDA’s side during the five-hour-long debate on the Delhi Services Bill (or the GNCTD Amendment Bill) in Lok Sabha on Thursday 3 August, is the smiling threat by the Minister of State for External Affairs Meenakshi Lekhi to Opposition MPs that they should stay calm else the ED can reach their houses.
The reasons why only this sentence from the ruling side will be remembered are many:
Firstly, the ruling side had really nothing to say in favour of the bill brought to overturn the 11th May Supreme Court Constitution Bench judgment. Secondly, Home Minister Amit Shah who piloted the bill chose to ignore any reference and did not respond to Opposition MPs' queries on questionable provisions of this bill.
It was possibly because given his brute majority in the House, for Shah, the passage of the bill was a mere formality and nothing more.
Thirdly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) largely chose to field its Delhi MPs, all of whom used vitriolic language to attack Delhi’s ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and had no substance in their speeches about the bill. They betrayed their lack of understanding of the bill they were discussing in the House of People.
Wielding Potent Weapon Under Good Humour
In comparison, Lekhi was combative and in her attempt to get the better of the Opposition benches, she used aggression. This led to a surcharged atmosphere in the House and during one such moment, she let the cat out of the bag. "One minute, one minute, just stay calm, otherwise the ED might come to your house.”
The lone minister from Delhi, actually stated the obvious about her party’s most effective but not publicly acknowledged weapon to silence the political opponents and voices of dissent during the last nine years.
But her comment was met with laughter from her colleagues, the Presiding Officer did not intervene and senior cabinet colleagues seated in front benches chose to join the laughter.
Given the Modi government’s single-minded focus on branding the entire opposition bloc as corrupt, it is hardly surprising that Lekhi’s loaded sentence, which she later sought to deflect from to avoid criticism by passing it as a light-hearted comment only, is actually proving to be the invincible armour of the Modi government to tame the opposition voices so far.
ED: An Instrument for Targetting Opposition
Before proceeding further, the official statistics will tell you the real story easily. Enforcement Directorate or best known as ED now, with less than a 0.5 % conviction rate so far, has seen a manifold jump in its investigation since the Modi government came to power in 2014.
According to a written reply in the Rajya Sabha in July last year, out of a total number of 121 ongoing investigations by the ED against political leaders, ninety-five percent are against opposition leaders.
Further, raids carried out by the ED in the last six years have jumped nearly 27 times to 3,010 in 2022 as compared to just 112 in 2004, the government informed Rajya Sabha in July last year.
So, returning to the basic point, what Lekhi mentioned in jest in a single sentence is the firm unstated policy of her party which has received the backing of the country’s judiciary in the form of no less than the Supreme Court itself having upheld the stringent amendments to the law which governs the ED actions - the PMLA or the Prevention of Money Laundering Act.
Where Does This Leave the Opposition?
Faced with a government of brute majority which does not believe in any precedents of political consensus and wants to rule with an iron hand, the opposition parties seem to have woken up a bit late.
The attempts to forge unity in fighting against the draconian PMLA and misuse of ED were too little too late and misplaced.
A half-hearted attempt in the form of a joint petition by 14 parties in the Supreme Court seeking guidelines for the arrest of political leaders was a failed idea which was bound to fail and could not even cross the first hurdle in the Supreme Court.
The coming together of 26 parties in the form of INDIA is a better idea in comparison to the legal coalition against the ED actions.
Mass Mobilisation Is the Best Defence Strategy
The current Opposition needs to shake its inertia and needs to learn a few lessons from the contemporary history of independent India. Such as the JP Movement of 1974 onwards or the combined opposition rallying behind VP Singh in the late 1980s against Rajiv Gandhi.
Meetings and petitions in courts will not take them far. To take on the BJP machinery and over-assertive central agencies, the solution lies in mass mobilisation. Unless the public is made aware of what they are going through, blaming the pliable mainstream media and status-quo judiciary appears to be a defeatist and sadist strategy.
Times have changed and the digital age campaigns may not be the same as the examples cited above. However, one thing is clear, either the Opposition succeeds in mobilising the public against the misuse of central agencies against the government opponents, or Lekhi’s one-liner next time will be more ominous.
(The author is the Executive Editor of India’s leading podcasting platform earshot.in & has previously worked with BBC World Service and HIndustan Times. He was media advisor to Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal (2014-20). This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)