‘Colourful' is a word much associated with elections in India. The Election Commission of India has just reinforced that association, and also given new meaning to that phrase ‘pink elephants' — no longer is it an allusion only to alcohol-induced visions, or the fantasy land of ‘Dear Jessie' in the Madonna song. But seriously, can there be the slightest doubt that the EC's order to cover up all statues of Chief Minister Mayawati and those of the elephant, her Bahujan Samaj Party's election symbol, in election-bound Uttar Pradesh with the politically neutral pink-coloured cloth or plastic sheets falls in the OTT category? The order is supposed to “ensure that these statues do not influence the minds of the electors, disturbing the level playing field” during the election. What the cover-up has done is to ensure much more attention to the OTT statues than they would have received otherwise. There are other misgivings. The EC's order goes back to a 2009 petition asking it to freeze the BSP's election symbol on the ground that the statues, being put up at the time at public spaces using public funds, would jeopardise free and fair elections. Disposing of that petition in 2010, the Commission — whose mandate to enforce the model code of conduct does not kick in until the election schedule is announced — promised to take “appropriate steps” at election time to ensure that the statues would not give the BSP an “unfair advantage” over other parties. For the 2004 general election, it had ordered the covering up of hoardings of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on national highways refurbished by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government. The January 8 order is even more bizarre.

Let us consider the argument that the decision to erect permanent stone images of the BSP's symbol using public funds was a deliberate and pre-planned act by Chief Minister Mayawati, and hence needs to be neutralised. The problem is that there are no legal grounds to stop the BSP, or any other party, from erecting in non-election season its symbols or statues of its leaders all over the country. Especially in States that have produced charismatic mass leaders, there are countless statues of icons that the fortunate parties, whether in government or in the opposition, can play up during election season. Not that there is any persuasive evidence that this makes a real difference to poll outcomes. Petitions against the Mayawati government questioning the use of public funds for self-serving partisan ends are pending before the Allahabad High Court and the Supreme Court of India. What the Election Commission must learn to do is understand the limits of its power, even in election season, keep off the grass, and leave the matter to the people's court.

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