Opposition's Weaponised Questioning Aims To Destroy Credibility Of Institutions But Could Cause Greater Damage

Prof. Vidhu Shekhar

May 30, 2024, 03:51 PM | Updated 03:48 PM IST

Senior Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan.
Senior Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan.
  • In democracies, questioning authority ensures accountability, but weaponised inquiries undermine credibility and genuine scrutiny, affecting key institutions.
  • “At least the bulb which glows for seven seconds should be allowed to glow continuously after the button is pressed in the EVM," pleaded senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan at the Supreme Court of India (SC).

    One day before the largest electoral exercise in the world, involving 543 constituencies with 97 crore registered voters and 10.5 lakh polling stations, the Election Commission of India (ECI) had to spend time and energy at the court explaining how long the bulb in the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machine glows.

    Contrary to what the above comment may suggest, Bhushan wasn't at the Supreme Court for the duration of the bulb glow in EVMs (electronic voter machines). Rather, the case was to seek complete cross-verification of votes cast using EVMs with VVPAT.

    Despite the upcoming elections and the need for all hands on deck, the ECI had already meticulously demonstrated in the SC the tightly controlled and secure electoral process using EVMs, and why they are superior to ballot papers.

    But the questions didn’t stop there. Instead, newer and more absurd questions evolved, culminating in the infamous bulb question.

    Justice Khanna finally lost his patience, stating, "Mr. Bhushan, now you are going too far. This is too much. Whether it's transparent or translucent glass on a VVPAT machine or the glowing of a bulb, ultimately, it is the voter's satisfaction and trust. The bulb only helps you see better, that's all. Everything cannot be suspected."

    This was not the first time the ECI had to defend the superiority of EVMs over paper ballots. The commission even issued an open challenge for anyone to hack EVMs within its tamper-evident and tamper-resistant processes.

    However, the unending hunger for questions on EVMs persists, mainly from those unnerved by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's repeated electoral successes.

    It is noteworthy that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has lost in several states, including those with concurrent polls with national elections, thereby proving that EVMs deliver results according to the votes cast.

    Instead of understanding why a leader has strong acceptability, opponents of PM Modi — political and otherwise — seek to discredit him by attacking the credibility of the country's institutions. Their chosen route is weaponising questions to create a false narrative/‘mahaul’ that things are not correct.

    The Tactic Of Weaponised Questioning

    Questioning is a fundamental right in a democracy, essential for accountability and transparency. However, when this right is misused to cast baseless allegations disguised as questions, it shifts from constructive scrutiny to disruptive tactics.

    This strategy, reminiscent of some media houses' practice of turning allegations into questions, aims not at proper understanding promoting progress; instead, the goal is to cast a shadow over the targeted institution or person by framing them in a negative light.

    It is this weaponised questioning — a simple yet highly effective tactic — that seems to have been increasingly deployed by Indian opposition.

    It must be noted that it is nobody’s argument that questions should not be asked of these institutions or the government. They are a must for a democracy to thrive.

    However, hiding allegations in questions, timing them opportunistically to derail institutions, not being interested in answers but simply in raising questions — all of the tactics that have been deployed by the opposition in India — not only undermine the institutions but also eat away the space of legitimate questioning.

    The institutions and government may become more guarded and aggressive, even in questions they should answer. The opposition, given the power they yield, might still get their answers, but the consequences may fall upon the less empowered aam adami and their legitimate questions. It's not a healthy outcome at all.

    Impact On Institutions

    Revisiting the example of ECI, it faced not only repeated questions about paper ballots, already answered at the highest level, just a day before the election; but also another case in the midst of the election.

    This new case questioned why ECI is not uploading Form 17C on the website and some perceived delay in uploading booth-wise voter turnout data by ECI.

    Form 17C, which contains data on voting statistics per polling booth, is signed and given to all candidates at the end of the day's voting. However, the petitioner also wanted it uploaded on the ECI's website.

    And for that, they filed a case at the Supreme Court while the biggest election on earth was ongoing. The Supreme Court issued a notice to the ECI about this, but thankfully, later, they took a hands-off approach to the matter, given the ongoing election.

    Ironically, it seems to have escaped the petitioners' notice that their strategy of continually harassing the ECI right before and during the election might be contributing to some delays in uploading the numbers as required.

    While the ECI has been a primary target, it is not the only institution facing such attacks. The opposition has systematically targeted almost all institutions in the country, questioning long-standing norms and practices to make them appear as newly emerged problems.

    Whether it's the investigative agencies (all of whom are functioning based on earlier existing laws), media, regulators, or any other institution — the moment anything goes against the wishes of the opposition group of India, they start questioning the history, norms, effectiveness, appointment, character, and everything about these institutions.

    Such weaponised questions don't even spare the Supreme Court. When specific individuals receive a judgement that is not in their favour, they immediately start questioning why the case was allotted to a particular judge, why the order differs from a specific observation made during the hearing, what transpired in between, and so on.

    Such things, aided by some sympathetic media channels and influencers, create an atmosphere of perpetual crisis, almost making it appear that the country itself is on the verge of failure.

    Overall, it's a win-win for those using this strategy. Doubt lingers regarding the institution's credibility, and its performance suffers due to the constantly answering absurd questions.

    If no answers are forthcoming, the claimants start suggesting wrongdoing. This self-perpetuating cycle ultimately demoralises institutional members, leading to further faltering.

    The Purpose

    Weaponising questions serve multiple purposes for the opposition. It keeps institutions on the defensive, making them appear perpetually under suspicion.

    From questioning EVM bulbs to casting aspersions on the Supreme Court's integrity, this tactic exploits the inherent complexities of institutional operations. By focusing on minutiae, opponents overshadow the factual accuracies and the rigorous processes these institutions uphold.

    The ultimate aim seems to be creating a false narrative that all institutions are failing, painting a bleak picture of the country to shift electoral sentiments away from the incumbent government.

    By focusing narrowly on gaining power and opposing the current government at any cost, the opposition risks damaging the core national integrity and stability. This can lead the opposition to create problems they cannot solve.

    In the end, as earlier pointed out, such weaponised questioning also decreases the space of genuine questioning from the people — a disaster for democracy. But even beyond that, the opposition must understand that their actions may backfire on them, too.

    The public may see through the relentless questioning and doubt-casting, leading to silent support for the institutions and the government. This could result in the opposition finding lesser and lesser support.

    The increasingly poor performance of the opposition in election results may serve as a signal of this.

    After all, people do not just elect the government; they also elect the opposition. And they may end up determining that the country needs new opposition, not the current one eating away the space of genuine questioning and hell-bent on destroying the institutions and the fabric of the nation.

    Dr. Vidhu Shekhar holds a Ph.D. in Economics from IIM Calcutta, an MBA from IIM Calcutta, and a B.Tech from IIT Kharagpur. He is currently an Assistant Professor in Finance & Economics at Bhavan's SPJIMR, Mumbai. Previously, he has worked as an investment banker and hedge fund analyst. Views expressed are personal.

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