‘I believe that the response of the Commission was not adequate insofar as the strengthening the principle of fairness is concerned’
EVERY time during the elections, contesting candidates do flout the rules set by the Election Commission but not at the rate it’s being done this election. Right from MP Maneka Gandhi threatening the voters of Sultanpur of dire consequence if they don’t vote for BJP, to BJP’s national president calling Muslims as termites during one of his election campaign in Bengal’s Raniganj area to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, sailing high on sentiments of nationalism and martyrdom to Azam Khan referring to the ‘khakhi’ colour of underpants of his opponents, one can see blatant violation of the election code of conduct. Pained by the current happening, Safi H Jannaty wrote an open letter to the election commission, highlighting cases in which it needs to take action. He even mentioned why TN Seshan, the former election commissioner who cleaned up electoral system of India.
Safi H Jannaty, Dammam-based Indian national writes the following letter:
Shri Sunil Arora
Chief Election Commissioner
Doubtlessly, conducting general elections for the largest democracy in the world is a humongous exercise and requires gigantic efforts, meticulous planning and unhindered integrity to ensure that it is conducted in a free and fair manner. Barring a few sporadic incidents of malpractice or use of force by candidates and parties, by and large, successive governments in independent India both at the Center and States level have been elected in a democratic manner and the results have never been shrouded in doubts. No wonder, the role of Election Commission of India, an independent constitutional body empowered to regulate the entire election process assumes enormous importance.
The phrase ‘free and fair’ encompasses several invaluable aspects and vital elements. It does not merely means that every eligible Indian citizen is included in the franchise regardless of the place they live in. Sure, a polling booth at a hamlet having just one voter reflects the logistical challenges it poses. The fairness also lies in ensuring that the voters exercise their right without any fear or force or compulsion of any kind. The element of fairness demands as well that the candidates and parties are allowed to seek votes within the parameters which have been set and which have evolved over a period of time. Fairness also calls for an equal playing field for all parties and candidates, which implies that the party in power is disallowed to use official machinery or governmental institutions for election campaigns. All of these require a great deal of diligence, dexterity and alertness at all times. Any lapse or omission or dereliction of duty or delinquency on part of the Election Commission would defeat the very purpose of elections and shake the foundations of democracy.
Although, given the size of our country, number of candidates participating in each of the 543 constituencies; all posing manpower and logistical challenges, it is all possible to expect a few aberrations and oversight in curbing irregularities and deviations by officials of the Commission and contestants, which are all acceptable and be overlooked and condoned. However, when misdeeds and wrong doings go overboard and when the parties and candidates willfully violate the set rules and principles in the full glare of public eye and media, such acts of omission cannot be accepted and if the officials of the Commission who are entrusted to oversee the exercise fail to exercise their powers against such omissions, then they come under the scanner.
During this general election where the first phase has just been completed, the Commission has seemingly been inundated with complaints and call for action against several candidates and parties for flouting norms and guidelines. We have seen a few cases where the Commission has acted firmly on complaints and that include delaying the release of biopic on the incumbent Prime Minister, Narendra Modi until the completion of election exercise and stopping NaMo TV channel focused on campaigning for the prime minister and his party. The Commission has also issued notices to leaders of political parties for invoking religious issues during the election campaign. Besides, the Commission has also directed parties to avoid invoking Martyrs and armed forces in the election campaign. These are all very commendable initiatives and actions. However, the violations are still being seen through in the discreet and tacit means.
There are many issues which the Commission has taken lightly or which might not yet been reported to the Commission. Besides, I believe that the response of the Commission was not adequate insofar as the strengthening the principle of fairness is concerned.
I would like to highlight some of the aforesaid issues to press my argument further:
- In a landmark judgment issued by a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court on 2 January, 2017, the judges of the apex court by a majority of 4:3 ruled that “Election is a secular exercise and therefore a process should be followed….the relationship between man and god is an individual choice and state should keep this in mind”. The Court ruled that ‘religion, race, caste, community or language would not be allowed to play any role in the electoral process’ and that election of a candidate would be declared null and void if an appeal is made to seek votes on these considerations. The bench reflected nothing but the spirit of our constitution which disallows discrimination on any ground and emphatically endorses secularism.
This clear ruling and constitutional provisions notwithstanding, the party seeking re-election to the seat of power has placed in its official election manifesto titled ‘SankalpPatra’ a promise to build Ram Temple at Ayodhya. Similarly, it has placed in the same section certain promises related to issues surrounding traditions of Sabarimala temple.
Besides this obvious use of religion in its official manifesto, the leaders of the party and candidates have been whipping up communal frenzy to seek votes in the name of religion and for building place of worship. I am certain you must have received official complaints surrounding this issue. Let me record here a couple of instances.
- On 11 April, 2019, the president of BJP, Amit Shah in a rally at Raniganj in West Bengal used derogatory word ‘termites’ to refer to Muslim infiltrators and threatened to throw them out while asserting to give citizenship to Hindu and Buddhist refugees. Surely, not only it does not suit a person heading a national party to characterize human beings as termites, regardless of their religion or civil status. Further, legally speaking, this threat and attempts to entice other communities for garnering votes violate the apex court ruling in word and spirit.
- On 6 April, 2019, Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, passed remarks during an election rally in Nanded, Maharashtra that the president of Indian National Congress, Rahul Gandhi had opted to contest from Wayanad constituency as Hindus are in minority there who would not vote for Congress.
- The Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, has threatened members of the Muslim community in Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh to vote for her if they wanted her help. She even indicated her ire about that particular booth throwing up mere 50-100 votes in her favor. The Commission has issued notification to the candidate seeking her explanations; however, if she had in fact made such statements, she is debarred to contest as mere serving of notices or passing advisories would not fulfill the fairness criteria. Further, one more essential characteristic of Indian elections is the use of secret ballot and if the candidates are able to get information about the number of votes polled at each booth, it compromises the element of secrecy and places the voters at great risk of being discriminated and even attacked.
- The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh invoked the names of religious icons to divide voters on communal lines as he had done several times in the past over which the Commission has issued a notice to him. Show cause notices or advisories would neither deter such unwarranted rants nor eliminate the element of fear from the minds of voters. The leaders will continue with their attempts to polarize communities and spread hatred against each other.
- Social media has become an effective tool in election campaigns. While very few parties and candidates are using such media by fulfilling the prescribed criteria and by following commercial norms; yet, social media platforms are also being heavily abused and misused. It is common to find fake news and hatred being spread and peddled across the social media platform by IT cells and supporters of political parties. One such example that came to light was circulation of a video clip created by founders of a portal ‘indianmuslimvoter’ exhorting Muslim voters to vote for different parties and candidates in different regions as per their recommendations with a view to defeat the candidates of BJP. Again, the main objective of the video clip is to polarize communities across the nation. The sources and the people behind such audio video clips and portals be searched in coordination with the cybercrime agencies and they must be penalized and punished.
- The very first point of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) stipulates in no uncertain terms that the parties shall not indulge in any activity that aggravates any existing differences or create mutual hatred between different castes and communities. The third point of the MCC adds that there shall be no appeal to caste or communal feelings for securing votes.
As could be seen, all of the aforesaid instances flagrantly violated the above provisions of the MCC and such violations be seriously looked into to retain the fairness characteristics and attain the task of completing elections in a free and fair manner.
- Some might argue that the MCC presents just guidelines and the framework lacks enforcement and prosecution mechanism. However, the Commission being an independent body could always initiate actions against the candidates who willfully violate the MCC. As we all witnessed, one of former chief election commissioner, Shri T.N. Seshan exercised the powers bestowed on the Commission effectively to regulate electioneering and once said “I do not have the powers to control the functioning of a political party, but I can control the way elections are conducted in India. That is within my powers”. We also need to appreciate the fact that the MCC have evolved over a long period of time and reflect the spirit of judgments passed by higher courts of India.
Our democracy always needs a strong base and it is the Election Commission and especially the chief election commissioner could guarantee such a pedestal. I expect that the Commission will wield the wand in a fearless manner against all candidates and parties who are found to be violating the MCC in order to retain the pride and privilege of India being a robust and vibrant democracy and which always conducts elections in a free and fair manner.
Once again, I place on records appreciation to you and the officers of the Commission for carrying out this arduous task and onerous duty. My best wishes to you and the team.
Safi H. Jannaty
Dammam, Saudi Arabia