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India's opposition says no cash for election campaigning

India's opposition says no cash for election campaigning
India's opposition says no cash for election campaigning

NEW DELHI: India's opposition said on Thursday that the government's freezing of its bank accounts has left it with no money to fight the heavily funded ruling party in marathon general elections that begin next month.

"Our entire financial identity has been erased," said Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi, 53, the scion of the family that dominated Indian politics for decades after independence.

"We have no money to campaign, we cannot support our candidates. Our ability to fight elections has been damaged."

Several of the party's bank accounts were frozen in February because of the alleged late filing of tax returns.

Congress claim the tax department's sanctions are politically motivated, to hobble it from mounting a challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

"Last week, we received another notice from the tax authorities that dates back to our filings from 1995-96," Gandhi told reporters in New Delhi.

"We don't even have money to print publicity material".

In a rare public appearance, former Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, 77, Rahul's mother, said the tax penalty was "part of the systemic efforts to cripple" the party.

Nearly a billion Indians will vote to elect a new government in a month-and-a-half-long election starting on April 19, the largest democratic exercise in the world.

India's democratic credentials have come under scrutiny, with critics accusing the government of politicising the justice system.

India's main financial investigation agency, the Enforcement Directorate, has launched probes into at least five state chief ministers or their families, all belonging to the BJP's political opponents.

Rahul Gandhi criticised "institutions which are supposed to protect the framework of democracy" for not speaking up, singling out the Election Commission for not intervening.

"There is no democracy in India today," he alleged.

Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, 81, said the lack of funds had made it "helpless" ahead of the elections.

"There is no level playing field," said Kharge.

According to the latest official financial disclosures to the Election Commission, BJP funds are nearly 10 times that of Congress.

The gulf dramatically widened after Modi's government introduced contentious electoral bonds in 2017, allowing unlimited anonymous donations.

Last month, the Supreme Court outlawed the scheme as unconstitutional and asked for donor and receiver details to be made public.

Released details showed BJP was by far the single-largest beneficiary, with just under half of all donations, totalling around $730 million. - AFP

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