How the Election Commission Is Failing the Hate Speech Test

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It has three weeks left in which it can salvage its reputation and avoid becoming irrelevant.

The Election Commissioners. In the background are BJP leaders.

The 18th general election will go down in history for its campaign narrative, with an ugly display of communal hatred and abusive innuendos never witnessed before.

After the first phase of elections on April 18, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been spewing religious hatred with carefully chosen anti-Muslim epithets. This has been amplified by Union home minister Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath, followed by defence ministerRajnath Singh – all senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders. Juniors in the hierarchy, like Anurag Thakur, Pushkar Singh Dhami and Himanta Biswa Sarma, have joined them.

This writer has covered general elections for English dailies from 1977. Never before have we had a prime minister so silent on economic programmes or issues such as price rise and unemployment. Dignified, issue-based electioneering is now a thing of the past.

A veteran of many battles, Sharad Pawar, too, said he had not seen another prime minister whose speeches were not based on facts. Modi derided him as a ‘bhatakti atma (wandering soul)’.

Pawar has a point, as the allegations Modi has thrown at the opposition show. The prime minister has accused the Congress of trying to divide devotees of Ram and Shiva.

He has described the Congress as a ‘disciple (mureed) of Pakistan’. And the BJP charges the Congress with, hold your breath, following a ‘communal agenda’.

“Hindus have been reduced to second-class citizens in West Bengal,” Modi has declared, alleging that Mamata Banerjee did not act in Sandeshkhali because the name of the accused was Sheikh Shahjahan.

Through all this, the Election Commission has pretended as if nothing unusual was happening. It has appeared to issue notices to opposition leaders on demand from the ruling party. Recently, it ordered a halt to the distribution of Congress ‘guarantee cards’ on the premise that this amounted to bribery. The order followed a BJP complaint. But the poll panel had earlier not found fault with the much-publicised Modi ‘guarantee card’. On the eve of the first phase of polling last month, the Prime Minister said at a rally that Modi’s ‘guarantee card’ had been updated and that free ration would continue for the next five years and three crore houses would be built for the poor. The ‘guarantee card’ theme is one Modi has reiterated. But Nirvachan Sadan has looked the other way.

Other actions by the Election Commission are also not reassuring.

It was quick to act on a BJP complaint and demand changes in the election songs of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena. Objecting to the demand to drop the words ‘Jai Bhavani’ and ‘Hindu’ from their song on the grounds that these invoke religion, Uddhav Thackeray presented to the Election Commission clips that showed Modi and Shah seeking votes in the name of Hanuman and Ram.

A 48-hour ban on campaigning was imposed on Bharat Rashtra Samithi leader K. Chandrashekhar Rao for allegedly derogatory remarks. The BRS raised a pertinent question: Why was no action being taken against Modi for the hate remarks he had made in public?

In a different context, Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee alleged that the Election Commission was working on the instructions of the BJP. Delhi minister and AAP leader Atishi, after a meeting with the commission, said it was taking action only when the BJP filed a complaint and was silent on violations by the ruling party.

Violations of the Model Code of Conduct by the Prime Minister and his colleagues have been widely reported ever since the first phase of polling ended. Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has cited half a dozen such violations. But the commission has not stirred.  The party’s request for a first information report at the Mandir Marg police was rejected and it has approached the police commissioner.

The Congress filed 16 complaints citing specific cases. Again, no government agency dared to move against the super boss. Finally, when the issue became a big controversy in the media, Nirvachan Sadan acted in a bizarre manner. For the first time in its history, it sent the complaints filed against Modi not to his office but to his party president J.P. Nadda. To justify this, it sent similar notices against Rahul Gandhi to Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge. This raises the question: Will notices for model code of conduct violations by all leaders henceforth be sent to their respective party presidents and not directly to the offender?

Listed below are some of the offending utterances by Modi and his colleagues Amit Shah, Adityanath and Rajnath Singh since the first phase of the elections:

At a rally in Banswara last month, Modi accused the Congress of intending to allocate ‘your’ hard-earned money and assets to ‘infiltrators’ and ‘those who have more children’.  “My mothers and sisters, they will not spare your mangalsutra. They can go to any extent. Should your hard-earned money be given to infiltrators.? Will you allow it?” he asked. The model code bars the use of religion to seek votes.
Claiming that the Congress wanted to push inheritance tax, the prime minister said the opposition was trying to snatch people’s hard-earned property ‘zindagi ke saath aur zindagi ke baad (during your lifetime and afterwards)’. The Congress rejected this as untrue.
At Kalaburagi in Karnataka, Modi appealed to voters to reject the Congress and its allies as they did not attend the pran pratishtha or consecration of the Ram temple at Ayodhya.
He charged the Congress government in Karnataka with giving reservation to Muslims under the OBCs’ list. However, the Karnataka chief minister explained that the quota was introduced in 1994, and existed even under BJP chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa.
Continuing his insinuations on inheritance tax, Modi said the “Shahzada (his favourite epithet for Rahul)” had insulted maharajas but has been silent on atrocities by nawabs, not even trying to hide the communal connotation.
Modi said that under the Congress, even listening to Hanuman Chalisa was a crime.
Amit Shah has said the Congress will bring Muslim personal law Sharia through the back door if it comes to power. Adityanath amplified the theme and alleged that the Congress had promised in its manifesto to bring in Sharia laws.
Not to be left behind, defence minister Rajnath Singh said Rahul Gandhi wanted to undertake a caste survey in the armed forces and would introduce a minority quota.
Praising the prime minister, Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami asked voters to ensure only Ram bhakts come to power at the Centre.
Junior minister Anurag Thakur said: “The Congress will give your children’s property to Muslims”.
Will the Election Commission act against such blatant violations of the model code irrespective of the position of the offenders?

To find an answer, we must consider two factors – the track record of the Modi-appointed Election Commission and the degree of independence the present election commissioners enjoy. Unfortunately, neither offers hope of bold action.

In fact, the Election Commission’s inability to safeguard the model code of conduct has further emboldened the violators to repeatedly transgress its every provision and turn it ineffective. After the commission’s April 25 notice to the party chiefs, the offenders have become more assertive, not apologetic.  Far from showing restraint, Modi has asked every BJP candidate to follow him and expose what he calls the Congress plan to ‘snatch’ the OBC quota and give it to Muslims.

In the 2019 elections, the Supreme Court intervened no less than six times to warn Nirvachan Sadan against deviations from the model code by Modi. The commission had kept complaints against Modi and Shah pending for over a month. On April 15, 2019, the court threatened to summon chief election commissioner Sunil Arora. It was only after this that a worried Nirvachan Sadan called a full meeting of the commission and gave a clean chit to Modi and Shah. One election commissioner, Ashok Lavasa, differed with the decision and later resigned. With the elections almost half-way, this time the Supreme Court has not yet intervened even as much as Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, who got a Rajya Sabha ticket from the Modi regime after retirement, did then.

The amended Chief Election Commissioner And Other Election Commissioners Act 2023 that came into force last December provides for even more government control on the poll body. The Chief Justice has been replaced in the selection panel by a cabinet minister. This gives the government full authority to choose the nominees. New regulations on service of the members have enabled the political leadership to further tighten its grip.

The fall in the quality of electoral discourse sets up an acid test for the Election Commission. It has three weeks left in which it can salvage its reputation and avoid becoming irrelevant.

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Disclaimer: How the Election Commission Is Failing the Hate Speech Test - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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