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Posted at: May 21, 2019, 6:44 AM; last updated: May 21, 2019, 6:01 PM (IST)

Gujarat dislodges Punjab

SY Quraishi

SY Quraishi
With liquor, drug seizures worth Rs 525 cr, the dry state is ahead in vote manipulation
Gujarat dislodges Punjab
Setback: The campaign finance regime has failed the cause of free and fair elections.

SY Quraishi
Former Chief Election Commissioner of India 

In the noise about the repeated violations of the model code of conduct by top political leaders in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, a very serious development has escaped national attention. The drug menace that was first noticed in the Punjab Assembly elections in 2012 has spread to other areas, most of all Gujarat. The EC’s seizure reports highlight a menace that has the potential to eat into the very vitals of the nation.

Out of the over Rs 3,377 crore that has been seized in cash and kind, as of May 10, drugs/narcotics have topped the list with a total worth of over Rs 1,252 crore (more than a third of the total!). The state topping the list is no longer Punjab but a very unlikely one, Gujarat, a dry state. With seizures worth Rs 525 crore, Gujarat is now way ahead of Punjab’s Rs 215 crore, with the NCT of Delhi standing in between, with Rs 372 crore. 

This development, though shocking, may not come as a surprise to those familiar with the drug problem. In March this year, it was reported that Gujarat is the third-worst state in cases of drug overdose death. Around 2,327-kg ganja was seized in Gujarat in 2017, dwarfing the 1,711 kg in Punjab. Nine Iranians were arrested in March for smuggling drugs worth Rs 500 crore from Pakistan. 

Due to strict law enforcement, the cases of ganja, hashish and heroin have actually decreased in Punjab and codeine-based cough syrups have replaced them. But Gujarat has become the new hotbed. More than 95 per cent of the total seizures from Gujarat have been in the form of narcotics, followed by the NCT of Delhi, Punjab, Manipur and UP. 

In my book, An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election, I had provided a checklist of 40 modus operandi of political parties/candidates using illegal money in elections to bribe voters. The penultimate item on that list was ‘distribution of liquor, drugs and poppy husk’. It is clear that the issue has graduated to the top three in these elections. 

The mind-boggling seizures may be indicative of two contrasting possibilities — (1) The abuse of money has increased manifold, or (2) the vigilance of the commission has increased the seizures. While the commission may be more vigilant and the amount of seizures may have gone up as a result, this is also one of the most horrendous ways that the overarching role of money power is in full display in the arena of voter manipulation, with liquor and drugs playing havoc. 

The 2012 Punjab elections had given us sleepless nights with reports of large-scale distribution of liquor and drugs. Specific directions were issued to all enforcement agencies regarding the infiltration of drugs into the elections. With the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) as the coordinating agency, the BSF was asked to seal the international border to prevent trafficking from the notorious ‘golden crescent’ of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. A central election cell with a control room was set up under an IG-rank officer. A total of 374 additional nakas were put up in districts and bordering states were asked to set up barriers on their side. As many as 174 flying squads equipped with video cameras were deployed. These efforts were rewarded with phenomenal success. In just one month, the commission seized 53.5-kg heroin and 435-kg poppy husk, besides a large quantity of psychotropic substances. But the discoveries were startling. There was hardly any drug/psychotropic substance that was not in circulation.

This compelled me to take a step beyond the call of duty, of writing a letter to the then Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, highlighting the gravity of the issue. I wrote that Punjab had emerged as a hub of drug trafficking due to its proximity to the golden crescent and 40 per cent of highly potent drugs were transiting through the state to destinations as far as Europe and North America. The districts of Bathinda, Mansa, Sangrur, Muktsar and Ferozepur, on the borders of Rajasthan and Haryana, were the worst affected. 

What was more disconcerting was that the menace was ruining the health, well-being and the future of youth in Punjab, who particularly were falling prey to the free supply of these substances as inducement during the polls. The problem had the potential to spread its ugly wings to other parts of the country as well.

‘It is a matter of serious concern that for short-term electoral and political gains, long-term national consequences are utterly disregarded,’ I wrote. 

Seven years on, the usage of money power for political gains is rampant than ever. The numbers from these elections are a testament to the fact that the campaign finance regime has utterly failed the cause of free and fair elections. Illegal cash is all over India’s elections, in all its life-threatening forms, now more than ever.

The menace of drugs is not only a threat to democracy, but also a threat to life and the social fabric of the nation. It is now spreading to other states and overwhelming the election machinery. This is a grim reminder of the ripple effect of black money and the consequences of political inaction and lethargy. Will the 17th Lok Sabha set its priorities straight, or continue with its denial?

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