FOLLOWING directions from the Supreme Court the Election Commission of India appears to have found its lost powers in curbing hate speeches and indecent language in the election campaign. The ECI acted against leaders of various political parties within hours of the Supreme Court directive. It barred Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath from campaigning for 72 hours. It imposed similar bans on Union minister Maneka Gandhi and Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan. The ECI slapped a 48-hour campaigning ban on Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati. These leaders were accused of violating the model code of conduct and making hate speeches and indecent comments on their political rivals. Until the Supreme Court goaded them the ECI had restricted themselves to issuing mild cautionary advice to the ‘star’ campaigners whose hateful and indecent words and phrases were meant to incite disgust among the voters. The ECI’s plea that it was “toothless” and “powerless” to stop the hateful and indecent diatribe unleashed by campaigners of various parties was true to an extent, but it could not hide the fact that it had enough powers to act against violators, such as barring them from campaigning for certain days, as they did. These were powers the ECI, for reasons best known to the Chief Election Commissioner in Delhi and the chief electoral officers in states, was refraining from using.
Such violations were galore but the ECI restricted itself to issuing notices to violators and cautioning them from repeating the violations in future. The violations could have continued unabated had not a non-resident Indian approached the Supreme Court seeking action against political parties for “hate speeches” made by their leaders or representatives. The ECI must act sternly against those that incite voters in the name of religion and indulge in character assassination and slander. Campaigners are maligning each other with abandon. Ministers fighting for re-election are threatening sections of voters that if they did not vote for them they should not come to them seeking any help when they are back in the government. Some campaigners were passing derogatory remarks against women. The list is unending.
In Goa a complaint was lodged against a Catholic priest for making a hate speech against the late Manohar Parrikar in a church. The remarks of the priest were patently obnoxious and repulsive. It is good to note that the Archbishop’s office has taken serious note of it and cautioned the priest not to make such regrettable statements. One would have expected that the top leaders of political parties similarly warned and cautioned their campaigners not to use repulsive, gross and outrageous language against their opponents. However, in most cases the top leaders themselves are indulging in repulsive, gross and outrageous language. It is clear that the top leaders themselves need to be bridled and barred in order to send a message down their ranks that election campaigners must follow the model code of conduct which disallows use of such language. Use of crass, crude and inflammatory remarks and catchphrases is obviously being resorted to in the hope that the voters would be incited, excited and influenced by it. Mild cautionary notices or delayed responses to complaints from the ECI have only emboldened party campaigners to use indecent language more brazenly, making a mockery of election campaign.
The ECI must not be selective in acting against violators. That will be the worst thing to happen to the credibility of the institution. It has to use the powers it has, up to the maximum limit, for this election is turning out to be one of the filthiest in terms of the volume of abominable and inflammatory remarks hurled by campaigners against each other. The ECI cannot stay as a mute spectator to such violations on the excuse that they are toothless and do not have penalizing powers. The time for making changes in the laws to give the ECI more powers is not now. This is the moment to stop the exchange of dirty words. With the prodding of the Supreme Court, the ECI has discovered its powers. It was said about Hanuman that he needed to be reminded of his infinite powers to use them. The ECI has been reminded of its powers by the Supreme Court. It must use them effectively to reestablish fairness, decency and rationality in the election campaign.