EC vs Modi: How can the Election Commission rein in its master?

The poll panel’s selective attention and action leave very little to the imagination

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the election campaign trail in Kerala (photo: PTI)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the election campaign trail in Kerala (photo: PTI)

Uttam Sengupta

Despite overwhelming consensus that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election speeches in Rajasthan on 21 April, repeated subsequently, are in breach of the law and of the Model Code of Conduct, nobody expects the Election Commission to act.

Those found guilty of violating the Representation of the People Act, 1951, are liable to be punished by imprisonment or fine or both. Such malpractices may also invite petitions for disqualification even after elections are concluded. There is the precedent of former prime minister Indira Gandhi, disqualified from Parliament for electoral malpractice before the imposition of the Emergency in 1975.

Following complaints against the prime minister from various political parties and letters signed by thousands of citizens, the Election Commission has called for audio and video records of the prime minister’s speech and called for the BJP to respond to the complaints by 29 April, Monday. However, few believe it has either the will or the ability to take any action.

Curiously, the army of ‘observers’ deployed by the Commission in every constituency should have reported these breaches on the very day. If they did, the Election Commission need not have waited for formal complaints or video evidence. If they did not, then an inquiry may well open up another can of worms.

It is not that the Commission takes no action. The Election Commission of India has just this month, April, censured Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate for an undignified social media post directed at BJP candidate Kangana Ranaut.

The ECI banned Congress leader Randeep Surjewala from campaigning for 48 hours over a ‘derogatory’ comment directed at sitting BJP MP Hema Malini.

It also warned a Congress candidate in Nagaland for saying that if the BJP returned to power at the Centre for a third term, it would become difficult for “our tribes” to live peacefully.

The Commission even ordered an FIR to be registered against BJP Union minister Shobha Karandlaje for her ‘unverified allegations’ about the Rameshwaram Café blast in Bengaluru.

It also directed the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) to verify discrepancies in the affidavit declaring the assets of Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the BJP candidate from Thiruvananthapuram.

An FIR was also lodged for remarks directed at Prime Minister Narendra Modi by DMK leader Anitha R. Radhakrishnan.

The Commission also claims that a total of 2,68,080 complaints of Model Code of Conduct violations were filed by citizens between 16 March and 16 April on the e-vigil microsite. Action was taken in 2,67,762 cases, it claims, adding that 92 per cent were resolved in less than 100 minutes on average. The impressive figures, however, reveal little about the nature of the complaints ‘resolved’.

In his speeches of 21 April and later, the prime minister insinuated that the Congress, if voted to power, would conduct a survey of household wealth before confiscating the gold and even the mangalsutras of Hindu women and the silver jewellery from Adivasi households for distribution among Muslims. He went on to call members of that community ‘infiltrators’ (ghuspaithiya) and referred to them as “people who give birth to a large number of children”.

That the prime minister was factually wrong has been clarified even by mainstream media: the current fertility rates among Hindus and Muslims happen to be similar; many Hindus too have large families. Modi, however, said it was a dangerous plan laid down in the Congress manifesto and deemed it his duty to warn the people.

The Congress manifesto, meanwhile, has a single mention of either ‘Hindus’ or ‘Muslims’, ‘gold’ or ‘silver’.

The prime minister also distorted a speech delivered in December 2006 by his predecessor, Dr Manmohan Singh, to the National Development Council. The address, delivered in the wake of the Sachar Commission Report submitted in November that year—which revealed that the economic condition of poor Muslims was worse than that of the Dalit community—spoke of the poor, of Dalits, of tribes, of women and of all minorities collectively but in particular the Muslim minority having the “first right” on our national resources.

However, Modi elided references to all the other disprivileged communities to give the impression that Manmohan Singh had spoken of only Muslims. To most people, it seemed designed to incite Hindu voters.

The provisions in the law are straightforward. Section 125 of the Representation of the People Act states: ‘Any person who... promotes or attempts to promote on grounds of religion, race, caste, community or language, feelings of enmity or hatred, between different classes of the citizens of India shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.’

Section 123 of the Act also defines as ‘corrupt practice’ any ‘attempts to induce a candidate or an elector to believe that he... will be rendered an object of divine displeasure or spiritual censure’.

The same section also deems as corrupt practices the following:

  • Appeal by a candidate or his agent or by any other person... to vote or refrain from voting for any person on the ground of his religion, race, caste, community or language or the use of, or appeal to religious symbols or the use of, or appeal to, national symbols, such as the national flag or the national emblem

  • The attempt to promote feelings of enmity or hatred between different classes of the citizens of India on grounds of religion, race, caste, community, or language

  • Publication by a candidate or his agent or by any other person... of any statement of fact which is false, and... a statement reasonably calculated to prejudice the prospects of a candidate’s election

In addition, the ‘Model Code of Conduct’ section on the Commission’s website also lays down the following red lines for political parties, candidates and campaigners. It says:

  • Criticism of other parties or their workers based on unverified allegations or distortion shall be avoided

  • There shall be no appeal to caste or communal feelings for securing votes

Debarring the prime minister from campaigning for 72 hours, many feel, would be in order; and would be a huge symbolic blow. However, virtually nobody expects the ECI will act.

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