India’s opposition says bank accounts frozen ahead of election News

NEW DELHI: India’s main opposition party said Friday that its bank accounts had been frozen by the tax department just weeks before the expected announcement of national elections.

Critics and rights groups have accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of using law enforcement agencies to selectively target its political foes.

Congress spokesman Ajay Maken said the action against the party was aimed at sidelining it ahead of the polls.

“When the principal opposition party’s accounts have been frozen just two weeks before the announcement of the national elections, do you think democracy is alive in our country?” he asked reporters.

“Don’t you think it is going toward a one-party system?“

Four of Congress’s accounts had been frozen after an investigation of the party’s 2018-19 income tax returns, Maken said.

He added the tax department had issued a payment demand for 2.1 billion rupees ($25.3 million) in relation to its probe.

Maken conceded that the party had filed its returns late by up to 45 days but insisted it had done nothing to warrant such a penalty.

“Today is a sad day for Indian democracy,” he said, adding that the party was appealing the decision in court and would stage public protests.

Friday’s announcement follows numerous legal sanctions and active investigations against leading opponents of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi, scion of the dynasty that dominated Indian politics for decades, was convicted of criminal libel last year after a complaint by a member of Modi’s party.

His two-year prison sentence saw him disqualified from parliament for a time until the verdict was suspended by a higher court, but raised concerns over democratic norms in the world’s most populous country.

Congress is a member of an opposition alliance hoping to challenge Modi at this year’s polls, and other leading figures in the bloc have also found themselves under investigation.

Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the Aam Aadmi Party and chief minister of the capital region Delhi, has repeatedly been summoned by investigators probing alleged corruption in the allocation of liquor licenses.

Earlier this month police arrested Hemant Soren, until then the chief minister of eastern Jharkhand state and another leading figure in the opposition alliance, for allegedly facilitating an illegal land sale.

India’s main financial investigation agency, the Enforcement Directorate, has ongoing probes against at least four other chief ministers or their families, all of whom belong to the BJP’s political opponents.

The recent record of government agencies showed they were “behaving as handmaidens of the ruling party to cow down the political opposition,” Hartosh Singh Bal of current affairs magazine The Caravan told AFP.

Other investigations have been dropped against erstwhile BJP rivals who later switched their allegiance to the ruling party.

Virendra Sachdeva, president of the BJP’s Delhi branch, said Friday that Congress had only itself to blame for the freezing of its accounts.

“It is unfortunate that a big party like Congress is not following government rules,” he told the Press Trust of India news agency.

“If it is not following the rules, then it has to face the consequences.”

The BJP is heavily favored to win a third successive landslide victory later this year, in part because of Modi’s muscular and nationalistic appeals to India’s Hindu majority.

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