The Election Commission’s order banning two political leaders from addressing public meetings and rallies for their divisive and inflammatory speeches during the ongoing election campaign sends out a strong message to those who seek to exploit communal sentiments for electoral gains. Such resolute action is bound to find resonance with a vast majority of the people. For the past few weeks, the country has been subjected to venom and vitriol in the name of electioneering, as leaders of different parties have reduced canvassing for votes to distasteful rants against their adversaries. By making it clear that it would not only enforce the Model Code of Conduct, which bars appealing for votes on sectarian grounds, but also demand that authorities initiate criminal prosecution, the EC has demonstrated the full extent of its vast powers under Article 324 of the Constitution. If the threat by Congress candidate Imran Masood to “chop off” the hands of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, represented the nadir of this trend, his immediate arrest and remand ought to have had a moderating effect on others. However, Amit Shah, the BJP leader in charge of its Uttar Pradesh campaign, made an explicit call for revenge while addressing a meeting in riot-hit Muzaffarnagar. U.P. Minister Azam Khan of the Samajwadi Party sought to inject communal venom by claiming that the Kargil war of 1999 was won by Muslim soldiers alone.
These leaders now claim that they would clarify their remarks to the Election Commission, and seek to have the ban on their rallies lifted. However, the EC has noted that they had failed to respond to show-cause notices within the stipulated time. The Commission has said the U.P. government failed to respond to the offences with the required alacrity and was soft-pedalling action. Fresh FIRs have been filed in response to the EC’s rebuke. It is debatable as to what extent the police machinery can keep track of every inflammatory utterance, given the frequency with which the campaign has collapsed into divisive rhetoric, but there can be little excuse for responsible governments to delay action on egregious offences. If there is one purpose the EC’s firm action will serve, it is that the lethargy or indifference of the authorities towards this trend will end and there will be redoubled efforts to crack down on those making offending speeches. Yet one should also not fail to note that the leadership of various parties appears to be complacent, if not openly supportive, when it comes to provocative remarks by their own functionaries. Ultimately, the responsibility to stem the degeneration of political discourse lies with the political class. What is at stake is not a mere election victory but the credibility of electoral democracy.