Narendra Modi, speaking at an election rally in Hiranagar in Jammu and Kashmir in March called his political opponents in the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party "Pakistan agents, enemies of India". That speech set the standard of political discourse this election season. The BJP candidate for Nawada and former Bihar Cabinet minister, Giriraj Singh's speech declaring that Modi's critics should be despatched to Pakistan and the VHP's Pravin Togadia's entirely in-character speech on clearing neighbourhoods of Muslims are just the ones that have most recently caught media attention. A rising pitch of sectarian vitriol has marked this election campaign, and has found the Election Commission scrambling to keep up, raising questions about its ability and willingness to deal with violations of the model code of conduct in relation to 'hate speech'.
A couple of weeks ago, the EC earned plaudits for penalising two high-profile political campaigners, and thereby sending a message that it viewed violations of the model code of conduct pertaining to 'hate speech' very seriously, especially in a state where elections were taking place against the backdrop of recent communal violence. Taking note of "highly inflammatory" speeches by the BJP's Amit Shah and Samajwadi Party's Azam Khan in western Uttar Pradesh, the EC on April 11 banned them from holding public meetings.
This marked a shift from earlier cases in which the Election Commission had tended to take a charitable view. In Gujarat in 2012, the Congress's Shankersinh Vaghela was merely "cautioned", because he apologised for a speech calling Modi murderously anti-Muslim and the Sangh Parivar, conspirators in the Godhra train carnage. In 2013 in Karnataka the BJP's KS Eshwarappa received a "reprimand", for a speech claiming that tens of Hindu girls had been kidnapped by Muslim men. In Rajasthan last year, the EC expressed its "displeasure" at the "tone, tenor and content" of Rahul Gandhi's speeches saying the BJP traded in hatred and the Pakistan ISI had been in contact with Muslims in relief camps in Muzaffarnagar.
In Shah and Khan's cases the EC appeared rather more resolute. A week after the ban it also passed a censure order against both. In this order, dated April 16, the EC said it had reconsidered all things, including a representation from Shah on April 12, and remained "convinced that [he has] made highly provocative speeches which have the impact of aggravating existing difference (sic) or create (sic) mutual hatred between communities."
Yet, inexplicably, less than 24 hours later, on April 17, it issued a fresh order, lifting the ban on Amit Shah. As justification, the EC cited a letter from Shah dated April 14, promising not to violate the model code of conduct in the future. The EC wrote, in the style of a schoolmaster reprimanding a somewhat errant pupil, "Take a (sic) note that this modification is being done with a view to giving you a second chance to show by your conduct that you adhere to the provisions of the model code of conduct in letter and spirit." The EC said it had not changed its position on Azam Khan because he had shown no contrition.
Even within the context of its treatment of the Gujarat and Karnataka cases, the EC's actions smack of extraordinary leniency towards Shah. For its ban and censure orders against Shah and Khan were based on what it deemed extreme and repeated violations of the model code of conduct made with "deliberate and malicious intention".
In its notice to Shah, the EC quoted multiple speeches at different locations, in which he spoke of Muslims as people who "violate our women… who rape our sisters and daughters", justified violence saying "No one likes rioting, but a one-sided investigation forces people to take to the streets", talked of Hindus being second class citizens, of the elections being a matter of Hindu honour and called for revenge against violators of women and honour.
This is exactly the language and sentiment that underpinned the violence in western Uttar Pradesh last year, in which tens of people, mostly Muslims, were killed and thousands of Muslims were driven from their homes. Several candidates in this election, many from Shah's party, stand accused of instigating the violence with similar hate speech. Shah made the speeches quoted by the EC, in the same region where this bloody violence had occurred just six months ago. From so senior a politician these were consciously spoken words, calculated for their impact.
The Election Commission in its notice to Khan referred to speeches in which he made offensive personal remarks about Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, in which he appears to threaten election officials, and one speech in which he claimed that "only Muslim soldiers" had won the war for India in Kargil. This speech violates principles of national integration and undermines the non-sectarian ethos of the armed forces, besides being a lie.
Yet, taken together, the speeches of Khan and Shah that drew the same punishment but not the same reprieve, are not by any standard of the same potency. Against the background of western Uttar Pradesh that Shah made his speech calling Muslims rapists, Khan's speech could be interpreted by some as a perverse form of nationalist assertion in a minority community that has for well over six months been characterised as anti-national violators of Hindu women.
The EC, however, was correct to take equal and exemplary action against both, if its intention was to uphold the provisions of the model code of conduct on 'hate speech'. Its orders of April 16 asserted that this was its intention.
Was it the mere promise not to do what had already been done repeatedly that caused the Election Commission to so precipitously change its view on April 17? Or was there some political calculation at play? Shah is among the BJP's most powerful leaders, and expected to play an increasingly important role in his party and in the governance of this country. The Election Commission could have held him to account, and in doing so also upheld its model code of conduct in letter and spirit. It chose not to.
The author is an independent journalist based in New Delhi