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EC draws flak for failing to check repeated poll code violations

The Ali-Bajrangbali controversy was provided fresh impetus on Saturday, with Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan and Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati jumping into the fray.

lok sabha elections Updated: Apr 14, 2019 08:11 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Lok Sabha elections 2019,India news,Samajwadi Party
People stand in queues to cast their votes during the first phase of the Lok Sabha elections, at Sawal village, in Uttar Pardesh, India, on Thursday, April 11, 2019. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

The Ali-Bajrangbali controversy was provided fresh impetus on Saturday, with Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan and Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati jumping into the fray. The latter said she wants both “Ali” and “Bajrangbali”, a retort to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s comment earlier in the week that while the opposition believes in Ali, his party believes in Bajrangbali. Ali is a revered figure among Muslims while Bajrangbali is another name for Hanuman.

Adityanath’s comments earned him a notice from the Election Commission of India, his second. Mayawati’s comments on Thursday that Muslims should come together and vote for the BSP-SP alliance earned her one from the body too.

But Mayawati and Yogi Adityanath are not the only ones to breach the model code of conduct (MCC). The MCC forbids candidates from canvassing on the basis of religion; a Supreme Court order also bars candidates from making appeals for votes on communal lines; yet there are over 75 complaints listed on the EC’s website against leaders making speeches with content that is prohibited.

Apart from Adityanath and Mayawati, the body issued notices this week to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader Indresh Kumar who said in Hardoi that opposition leaders have mental health issues; and sought details of the statement made by BJP’s Unnao candidate, Shakshi Maharaj, who allegedly told voters that he is a “saint” and if they do not vote for him then we would curse them with his sins.

Cabinet minister Maneka Gandhi was also issued a notice by the district magistrate of Sultanpur, from where she is a BJP contestant, on Friday for telling Muslims that if they do not vote for her she will not help them find jobs.

Have the notices issued by the election commission that ask candidates to be watchful of their speeches and at best censure them for violations failed to prove a deterrent?

A former chief election commissioner, requesting anonymity said, the commission needs to take “stringent and timely” steps to check violations.

“Adityanath has twice flouted the norms this election season; there are others too who have not adhered to the poll panel’s instruction on avoiding references to the armed forces; so it seems there is no deterrent,” he said.

The former CEC said the commission should look at the decisions taken in 2014, when BJP president Amit Shah and SP leader Azam Khan were barred from campaigning for the remaining duration of the election after they failed to stick to the MCC. This was the first time that the EC had taken such stringent measures, invoking provisions under Article 324 of the Constitution, which gives it vast powers to ensure a free and fair election.

“The commission then felt that both leaders were recalcitrant and had continued to make provocative speeches” the former CEC said.

Shah, who recently stoked a controversy for declaring that the party “will remove every single infiltrator from the country, except Buddha (Buddhists) , Hindus and Sikhs,” had in 2014 asked voters to seek revenge from those who were responsible for the Muzaffarnagar riots.

He was later allowed to campaign after he gave an undertaking that he would be mindful of his utterances. “Since Khan (who said it was Muslims who helped win the Kargil war) did not show any remorse, the commission did not lift the ban on his rallies,” the former CEC said.

Political analysts say that the prevailing impression is that the current EC isn’t doing enough. At best, they say, this could be because of its ineptness. At worst, it could be favouritism and bias.

Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora did not respond to HT’s requests for an interview, but parties across the political spectrum have criticised the body for either turning a blind eye to violations of the MCC to being too slow to react.

After Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation about the success of Mission Shakti, the launch of India’s first anti-satellite weapon (ASAT), by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), a group of 66 former bureaucrats wrote to President Ramnath Kovind complaining that the poll panel was suffering from “a crisis of credibility”, thereby “endangering the integrity of the electoral process.”

While the EC said the address did not need its sanction, the bureaucrats disagreed and said the announcement should have been left to the DRDO.

The EC is also yet to announce its decision on whether the PM flouted the MCC norms by referring to the Balakot strikes during a speech on April 9 in Maharashtra while addressing first-time voters.

The CPI (M) complained to the poll panel that he violated “the specific direction of the Election Commission to refrain from invoking the armed forces for seeking votes.”

Another former election commission official said the commission should improve its response time. He said the decisions to regulate content on NaMo TV and for not allowing the release of the biopic on PM Modi “too inordinately long”.

“The EC asked the ruling BJP to seek clearance for the political content appearing on its NaMO TV after opposition parties such as the CPM, AAP and the Congress vociferously protested against the channel being broadcast on all direct to home services and allowing the BJP more room for canvassing. The EC also had to pull up public broadcaster Prasar Bharati for not being fair in coverage to political parties after a complaint was lodged; what about suo motu cognizance and quick response?” he said.

Apart from the Congress that has accused the poll panel of being blatantly partisan, favouring the BJP and its allies; TDP leader and Andhra Pradesh CM Chandrababu Naidu who went to EC with a bunch of complaints on Saturday submitted a memorandum that said, “…The manner in which the Election Commission of India, a constitutional body, mandated to superintend, direct and control the process of elections, miserably failed to live up to the spirit of the constitutional duty, is not only disturbing but also dangerous to the future of democracy in the country.”

The Congress on Friday moved the EC against PM Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah for allegedly “dragging” the armed forces in the political domain by using them to seek votes. Party leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi said, “PM Modi, BJP chief (Amit Shah) and other leaders of the ruling party are shamelessly and openly, for the first time in 70 years, are dragging the forces into cheap politics.”

The BJP also filed a complaint against Congress president Rahul Gandhi and said the EC should take action against him for the “language” used by him in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Rafale documents admissability order. Gandhi said: “Supreme Court has pronounced the verdict, chowkidar is a chor.”

“Rahul had erroneously said even on Thursday that Supreme Court has admitted to the fact that Narendra Modi siphoned off ₹30,000 crore to his friend Anil Ambani. Where did that happen? Did Supreme Court ever say this?” Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman asked on Friday.

Commenting on the allegations leveled against the poll panel former CEC SY Quraishi said it is ‘unfortunate’ questions were being raised about the ‘legitimacy and credibility’ of the EC.

“It is being seen as weak-kneed. Parties may be tempted to violate the MCC but it is incumbent on the EC to come down heavily on violations. The EC has to live up to the fact and perception that it is a ferociously independent institution as designed by the constitution,” he said.

When asked what specifically the EC could do, in case it concludes there have been violations, Quraishi said, “The commission has a range of powers. And this can span from reprimand and censure to imposing restrictions on campaigning by the violators in question. They can take strong and gutsy steps, and must not be oblivious to the growing public perception.”

These steps could be taken against any political actor, including the Prime Minister, for there is no separate law for office-holders, said Quraishi. “Democracy is a great leveller and the law is the same for all.”

First Published: Apr 13, 2019 22:18 IST

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