Searching for, and covering all elephant statues that have been built at “government expense” must have been an unprecedented task for officials in Uttar Pradesh.
The Election Commission’s (EC) directive followed its conclusion that such statues built at “government expense” cannot be allowed to “influence the minds of the electors, disturbing the level playing field.” It said the decision was “in the interest of free and fair election,” and ordered them all draped.
The order borders on what the Madras high court had once warned against —“hysterically giving vent to its own assumed, unlimited statute and powers”—if one examines its assumptions and implications.
In October 2010, the EC rejected pleas for disqualifying Mayawati and Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) from elections; and disallowing BSP to use elephant as election symbol. The petition said such statues of elephants and chief minister Mayawati constructed by the UP government would benefit the BSP. The EC then said expenditure by an elected government was not within the purview, more so when there was no election. While refusing to take away the elephant symbol from BSP, the commission promised to revisit the issue after announcing election and to ensure “level playing field.” On January 8, the EC ordered to cover all statues since they could “influence the minds of electors,” at “government expenses.”
All governments continuously try to influence the electors using various measures. In a comparable context, the Madras high court had observed: “if such a submission is accepted and taken to its logical end, the EC can issue directive disapproving any of the policy decision of a particular government… on the ground that ultimately where the election would be held… there may not be free and fair election as the opinion of the public may be swayed… We are not convinced.”
Most government schemes are named in order to gain popularity, “to influence the mind of electors.” The Centre’s Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission or Vajpayee Aryogyasree Scheme for below poverty line (BPL) people by the Karnataka government are just two examples.
At a practical level, if the logic that ‘influencing minds at government expense’, is extended, that too specifically linking it to one election symbol, it will lead to bizarre situations. What happens to hand pumps (RLD symbol) built at government expense? What if a government official waves his ‘hand’—the Congress symbol? What happens to lotus (BJP symbol) in government-owned ponds? And do we also hide all those elephants in the zoos?
EC’s current order also draws from its own 2009 directive that is equally problematic. It said “photographs of political functionaries, who have deep influence on the minds of electors…” should be removed from government offices.
While it explicitly listed the images of those to be removed —prime minister, chief ministers, ministers and other political functionaries—the EC exempted “images of national leaders, and prominent historical personalities of the past.” Now, which category does Indira Gandhi or Kanshi Ram fall?
EC’s unflinching efforts to raise the rigour of its oversight of elections have multiplied common man’s faith in democracy in recent years. All the more the reason for the EC to guard against overreach.