This election has been the most competitive, divisive and verbally abusive in India’s history. One gift has however come from it. Hearing the “Chowkidar chor hai” matter in the Supreme Court, Justice SK Kaul gave us the gift of a classic observation: “Any person can make a mistake, but having made it, you should go ahead and admit it.” The observation tells us three things. First, it is human to make a mistake. Two, it is decent to admit it. Three, it is gracious on the part of the one hurt to rise above her sense of hurt, and, if at all possible, to forgive and forget. Justice Kaul’s comment in fact contains the ultimate aim of justice: The reduction and the removal, if possible, of wrong. And its replacement by a sense of right being done and, thereby, of a sense of contentment. And so it was right and proper that Rahul Gandhi apologised.
The hurting of sentiments and the sense of sentiments being hurt have, of late, become the most widely shared experience of wrong. The election to the Lok Sabha has given that phenomenon greater and urgent voltage. The SC felt it was wronged in the “chor (thief)” attribution. It can, therefore, doubtless understand when others feel the same hurt. It may also understand why people can be dismayed by its insistence that PILs on election-related matters, including “hurt sentiments”, be first disposed of by the Election Commission (EC). This position is understandable procedurally. The SC, at the receiving end of so much criticism over what has been called judicial activism, is understandably cautious in matters of jurisdiction. And in this matter, we also have the assurance that if the EC’s orders give no satisfaction, the matter can be brought in a fresh petition to the SC. Indeed, in the matter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hurtful comments about Rahul Gandhi’s father, the late Rajiv Gandhi, the SC said as much unambiguously.
The SC and the EC are two authorities in which the citizens have reposed trust. Once, and but once so far, during the Emergency, the people’s trust in the SC’s independence and fairness was shaken to its roots. Individual judges may have failed to win or retain the trust of the public but the SC as such held its head high. And soon enough the Emergency era damage was repaired – by the SC itself.
On the other hand, the people’s trust in the EC has been largely un-shaken. It has received jolts but has not been shaken. It stands in dire danger today. Its clean chit to the observations by Prime Minister Modi and BJP president Amit Shah is astonishing. In redirecting the matter to the EC, so to say, the SC has not, in all propriety, nudged the EC to a particular kind of decision. The SC is too mature and too principled to do that. But as a body that has itself felt “hurt” in the “chor” matter, it can be expected to appreciate such hurt wherever it is felt.
The EC must know that this election is judging the poll panel’s performance no less than that of incumbents seeking renewed mandates. It has a formidable reputation to maintain – or to lose. If candidates have a symbol, the EC has a symbol too, its logo. Depicting three human figures standing, presumably for the three commissioners, it uses the three colours of the Tricolour, one for each of the three figures. This is as it should be. And like the Indian flag, it also has a fourth, in the three heads – blue. The blue in the national flag is on the wheel of law, Ashoka’s dharma chakra, at its centre. The EC should remember that it is in the fourth colour, the blue of dharma, that its dynamism lies, its vitality and its momentum. And the bharosa (confidence), aitbar (reliability) and vishvas (trust) of the people.
The Modi-Shah comments apart, there are the comments, remorselessly sectarian, of some of the others like Maneka Gandhi, Varun Gandhi, Pragya Singh Thakur, Yogi Adityanath. Can the EC get from them the admission of a mistake the SC got from Gandhi, and thereby give them absolution? The EC’s decision to cutting down campaign time by a day in Bengal is salutary. But then to commence the restriction after Prime Minister Modi’s rallies is amazing. Will the EC having made a mistake, admit it? If yes, the EC will do itself proud. If not, the SC will have to remind the EC of Justice Kaul’s nostrum.