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PM's Speech on Muslims is Tip of the Iceberg. How Long Will EC Turn a Blind Eye?

The PM's recent remarks on Manmohan Singh and Muslims are revealing of the BJP's 'back-to-basics' strategy.

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(The 2024 elections will mark a critical year for hate speech in India, as per the India Hate Lab report 2023. The Quint stands committed in its coverage of hate crimes and communal tensions through our project Uncovering Hate. With your support, we can do more.)

Earlier, when they (the Congress) were in power, they had said Muslims have the first right to the wealth of the nation. This means they will distribute this wealth to those who have more children, to infiltrators. Should your hard-earned money be given to infiltrators? Do you agree to this?

These were the words of the Prime Minister of India during a campaign rally on Sunday. Of course, he deliberately misquoted former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's words, but more important is the end to which he chose to do this.

We have launched the biggest political show on earth in the world's largest democracy with an open season for the use of religion in election campaigning, but the Election Commission of India is either sleeping on the job or drowning itself in a sea of technicalities on what constitutes the use/abuse of religion in campaigning.

Speeches, interviews, and campaign hoardings are full of religious issues, either linked to temples, personal laws, dietary habits or historical narratives that reek of religious appeal.
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The ECI is a Quasi-judicial Authority With Constitutional Status

I am thinking of drawing a political cartoon that features a conversation between a politician and an election commissioner that goes something like this:

EC: "You are violating the model code of conduct. You are mixing religion with politics in your campaign."

Neta: "No I am not. I am only mixing politics with religion."

EC: "Now, isn't that the same thing? I want to punish you for this."

Neta: "No, sir. You can't.  Religion is not your domain, only elections are. This does not fall under your jurisprudence."

The PM's recent remarks on Manmohan Singh and Muslims are revealing of the BJP's 'back-to-basics' strategy.

A conversation between a politician and an election commissioner. 

(Cartoon: Aroop Mishra/The Quint)

We need to remind people that the Election Commission of India is a quasi-judicial authority with constitutional status, but is rarely seen to be one.

While the conduct of elections is largely an administrative exercise involving everything from the allocation of symbols to the logistics of safely transporting electronic voting machines (EVMs), its officers act like cops when they make surprise raids to seize unaccounted cash used in poll campaigns, and resemble judges when it comes to their deciding what constitutes a violation of electoral discipline or law. 

True, many of the provisions for punishment against unfair electoral practices are more like gentle raps on the knuckle than serious punishment but even here, the ECI may well be ducking behind technicalities, which is evident in its passive stance; unless someone comes with a truly serious complaint, violation of rules seems like an okay thing these days.

Chief Election Commissioner Rajeev Kumar appealed for positive campaigning last month as he announced the poll process. His laundry list of good conduct included no hate speechesno caste or religious appeals, and no criticism of any aspect of private life.

Section 123 (3) of the Representation of the Peoples Act, 1951 describes as a corrupt electoral practice any appeal by candidates or their campaigners to vote or not to vote any person on the grounds of religion, race, caste, community or language.

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Separating Hate Speech From Progressive Campaign Issues Linked to Religion or Caste

Policing this is easier said than done.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself accused Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav of mocking Hindu sentiments "like the Mughals did" because there was a video of him eating fish during the auspicious days of Navaratri. Now, how does that tally with the fact that Bengalis celebrate their own Navaratri (Durga Puja) with meat and fish stalls? And isn't the term "Mughals" a proxy for minority Muslims? Many may say yes, but there is a technicality or two or three when it comes to the politics of dog-whistling.

‘"In Bengal, fish-eating is part of the culture of the masses, but in Bihar, to which Tejashwi Yadav belongs, fish isn’t eaten as part of religious ritual," Union minister Giriraj Singh by way of explaining Modi's dig.  

Does that even wash?

There are, however, some nuances that need to be understood so that we can separate progressive campaign issues linked to religion or caste from those made with communal discord as an intentional theme. For example, does an appeal for a caste census to ensure affirmative action under the Constitution for backward social groups amount to an act of campaigning on caste lines?

Those are understandable issues, but how does one explain Modi likening the Congress party's left-leaning manifesto to that of the Muslim League's agenda before Independence? How does one read a speech in which Modi describes opposition parties avoiding the consecration ceremony of the Ayodhya Ram temple as an act that insults Lord Ram (Ram Lalla)?

In Mumbai, a Congress leader has filed a complaint against BJP minister and candidate Piyush Goyal for linking PM Modi's rule with a religious project. Hoardings with pictures of the prime minisyer and Goyal that carried the slogan, Jo Ram ko laaye hain, hum unko layenge (We will elect those who brought us Lord Rama) are suggestive enough. 

The BJP's Giriraj Singh said in a newspaper interview, "Kashi, Mathura and Ayodhya (temples) are demands of Indian Sanatanis." With Muslim groups fighting battles regarding these spots associated with their mosques, where does the ECI stand?

While hoardings and speeches are bold enough in mixing crude religious appeals with vote calls, louder messengers on social media, helped by IT cells of political groups, leave nothing at all to the imagination. This is an aspect of election campaigning that the ECI seems to have more or less ignored.

The Election Commission has so far done little to suggest that these are unacceptable, or indeed, illegal acts. 

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CEC Rajeev Kumar and His Colleagues Need to Go the Extra Mile

CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury has filed a formal complaint against the prime minister's speeches demanding ECI action against Modi. While some jurists say the ECI can crack down on innuendos, any verdict is bound to be controversial and further vitiate the already vitiated atmosphere.  This is not exactly what the doctor ordered for the world's largest democracy that prides itself on a secular constitution and a civilisational track record in striving for freedom of faith and equality before the law. 

It doesn't help when there are Muslim politicians who refuse to play ball with ECI rules. In Hyderabad, All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) leader Akbaruddin Owaisi allegedly threatened a police officer when he was asked to complete a speech on time as prescribed under the Model Code of Conduct. But then again, the BJP's Hyderabad candidate Madhavi Latha stirred trouble during a Ram Navami procession when she was seen pretending to shoot an arrow that was said to be directed at a mosque in a Muslim-rich constituency. She later apologised if her visual conveyed a wrong idea.

In the current atmosphere of Indian politics, neither the Model Code of Conduct nor the Representation of People Act seem to matter. The Election Commission of India, being a quasi-judicial body, needs to take a leaf out of the Supreme Court, some of whose recent rulings suggest that no party, be it a ruling one or one in the opposition, is above the law. 

India has seen tough-talking Chief Election Commissioners like T N Seshan, who set the bar high at a time when neither the resources nor the technology were in an easily policeable state.

CEC Rajeev Kumar and his colleagues need to go the extra mile to arrest the rot. The world is watching. There is no point complaining about the US or European governments, or even think tanks and civil society groups in these countries, just because some of them are erstwhile colonial powers. These democracies have a strong institutional character that needs to be recognised.

Everything is not about a narrow interpretation of nationalism or colonial rule. An adherence to modern institutional practices will help, not hinder, India's teeming, thriving democracy.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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