India rejects UN concerns over fair participation in upcoming election

India has dismissed concerns raised by a top UN official over its electoral process as "unwarranted" ahead of the upcoming general elections.

At least 960 million people in India would vote this summer in the world's largest electoral process to select a new prime minister and members of the lower house of the parliament.

Volker Turk, the UN high commissioner for human rights, on Monday voiced concern over increasing restrictions on civic spaces in India and the need for a fair election.

"I am, however, concerned by increasing restrictions on the civic space – with human rights defenders, journalists and perceived critics targeted – as well as by hate speech and discrimination against minorities, especially Muslims," he said, while presenting the global update to the council.

Mr Turk added: "It is particularly important in a pre-electoral context to ensure an open space that respects the meaningful participation of everyone."

India's permanent representative Arindam Bagchi said his concerns do not reflect the reality of the world's largest democracy.

"In any democracy, argumentation is natural. It is imperative that those in positions of authority do not allow their judgment to be clouded by propaganda," Mr Bagchi said.

"We have no doubt that as in numerous occasions in the past, the Indian people will freely exercise their vote to choose a government that they believe can best give voice and flight to their aspirations," he added.

Mr Turk in his statement welcomed India's supreme court decision to strike down a seven-year-old electoral funding scheme that allows individuals and companies to anonymously donate funds to political parties.

He said the order upheld the "right to information and transparency".

The move was seen as a setback for prime minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been the largest beneficiary of the system it introduced in 2017.

The five-judge bench led by chief justice, DY Chandrachud, found the electoral bonds scheme to be in violation of a person’s right to information and free speech.

From 2018 to 2023, anonymous donors gave more than £1.5bn to political parties through these bonds, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms, an election watchdog.

It said between 2018 and March 2022 nearly 57 per cent of these donations went to the BJP, while the opposition Indian National Congress party received only 10 per cent.

The apex court had ordered the State Bank of India (SBI) to stop issuing the bonds and provide details of donations made through the bonds. India's poll body was directed to publish the information by 13 March on its website.

However, the bank has requested the court to extend the deadline till 30 June, which appears to be much after the conclusion of the general elections.

The bank claimed to have issued 22,217 bonds to various political parties between April 2019 and 15 February this year, Live Law reported.

Congress party leader Mallikarjun Kharge on Tuesday accused the Modi administration of "using the largest bank of our country as a shield to hide its dubious dealings" through the bonds.

"The tenure of this Lok Sabha will end on 16th June and SBI wants to share the data by 30th June," he raise, crying foulplay.

"Now a desperate Modi Govt, clutching on straws, is trying to use SBI to bulldoze the Supreme Court’s judgment," Mr Kharge added.