By barring polarising opposites Amit Shah and Azam Khan from addressing public rallies, holding election meetings or leading processions for the remainder of the election campaign, the Election Commission (EC) has sent out a strong, albeit, belated message. For several days prior, both Khan and Shah had a free run of the field espousing their divisive ideas on a communally-fraught Western UP. Before this punishment, the EC was in danger of being labelled a toothless body. Its reticence on punitive action towards politicians was misconstrued as a long rope for intemperate, hateful speeches and personal attacks. But what hampers the EC is not any lack of intent.
Rather, the proportionate response to each such violation of the Model Code of Conduct stumps the EC. The glaring failure of successive governments to give statutory backing to the model code, unrevised since 1997, despite persistent EC requests is undermining the Commission’s authority. Other than Article 324 of the Indian Constitution that vests the EC with enormous latitude in the “superintendence, direction and control” of elections, the EC has only the bona fide of its actions to defend itself, if Shah or Khan were to approach the courts. Para 16A of the Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order offers a drastic provision to suspend or de-recognise political parties for Model Code violations. But it is improbable that the EC will penalise political parties for their members’ sins.
Other than Para 16A, the model code acts, merely, as a guideline on dos and don’ts, to be followed in electioneering. The traditional practice of issuing show-cause notices and registering FIRs against model code violations is hardly serving as a deterrent. Rarely do these FIRs, registered by the dozens during election season, lead to conviction. Unless a law is enacted prescribing specific actions that the Commission can initiate for each model code violation, the EC will have to rely on such “tough”, if not arbitrary, decisions to keep the Azam Khans and Amit Shahs under check. In the interim, the EC will have to work with tough missives, like the one sent to chief electoral officers on April 11 mandating daily reports from districts on inflammatory speeches.
Meanwhile, the contrast between the EC’s action on Khan and Shah and its silence on the anti-women statements of Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh and his acolyte Abu Azmi exposes another lacunae. The model code forbids “appeal to caste and communal sentiments” and aggravating “existing differences or create mutual hatred or arouse tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic” but is resoundingly silent on gender, as a community. Using the political platform offered by the elections, both Mulayam and Azmi were clearly appealing to the patriarchal sentiments of conservative, male voters.
By exculpating men accused of rape and blaming women for inviting rape, the SP leaders were attempting to thwart the recent progress on amending archaic laws and introducing new laws promising gender justice. Whichever way one looks at it, the undisguised appeal to regressive gender and communal sentiments has no place in a democratic polity. The ideal course — political parties practising self-regulation — has been a non-starter. That leaves us with the EC. Despite 60 years of uninterrupted elections, it is unfortunate that the EC has to play this good cop-bad cop routine with errant politicians. At least, create a legal framework that allows the EC to do its job by the rule-book. So much for our evolution into a mature democracy.