Come elections, the standards of political discourse invariably drop. Despite the restraints imposed by the Model Code of Conduct, personal attacks and unsubstantiated allegations have always been part of the election campaign in India. But 2014 has already witnessed a new low in the political discourse, with Saharanpur Congress candidate Imran Masood threatening to “chop into pieces” the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, and BJP MLA Heeralal Regar saying Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi should be stripped and sent to Italy. Mr. Masood clearly violated the law of the land with his hate speech, and had to face arrest. But there are many who get away with tasteless and abusive remarks that cannot be legally deemed as hate speech or incitement to violence. At the most, they have to fear only a reprimand from the Election Commission for violating the model code. The code is very clear on what is acceptable and what is not during the campaign period. It specifies that “criticism of other political parties, when made, shall be confined to their policies and programme, past record and work.” Parties and candidates are expected to refrain from criticism of “all aspects of private life, not connected with the public activities of the leaders or workers of other parties.” The model code has effectively curtailed the misuse of official machinery during the campaign period. But the code has been an ineffective deterrent in preventing the level of debate going in a downward spiral.

While some top political leaders too have been reprimanded by the EC, the worst offenders are middle-rung leaders who are looking for attention-grabbing devices in the heat of the election. Senior leaders are hesitant to pull them up for fear of upsetting constituency-level equations so close to an election. Candidates and local leaders find such speeches a useful part of their campaign strategies, but the image of their parties takes a beating at the State and national levels. What might seem to a candidate as good tactic invariably backfires on the leadership. Given the limitations of manpower and resources, there is little the EC can do to monitor campaigning on the ground. Offenders are reprimanded only on the basis of complaints from a rival party. The leadership of each political party must ensure that those at the lower levels avoid lies and abuse in the campaign and instead lay the ground for a reasoned and informed debate during electioneering. Voters sometimes are able to glean the truth from allegations and counter-allegations, but it is in everyone’s interest to raise the level of debate above personal attacks and pettiness. Such tasteless rants do not serve India’s democracy at all.

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