The Assembly elections that will be conducted over the next two months in four States and the National Capital Territory of Delhi will be of interest for reasons that go beyond the outcomes. Following the relaxation of some campaign-related norms by the Election Commission of India, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Mizoram, and Delhi could witness more of the colours and sounds that used to enliven old-style Indian elections. Just days prior to the announcement of the election schedule for these States, the ECI wrote to the Chief Secretaries and Chief Electoral Officers of all States and Union Territories giving them a revised set of instructions on the defacement of property and other campaign-related practicalities. While the display of campaign material on government premises will continue to be barred, the revised norms provide for use of public places, as against government premises, for writing slogans, pasting posters, and erecting cut-outs so long as such acts are expressly allowed by State laws. The only other condition is that all parties and candidates must be provided equal opportunity in this regard. Political parties can now use private places for their campaign material provided they obtain the voluntary permission of the occupant. Further, flags and banners can be carried in processions and rallies, and parties and candidates can supply caps, masks, and scarves (but not ‘main apparel’ such as saris and shirts!) to their supporters. These changes can be expected to restore to an Indian election some of the life and exuberance that was taken out during the tenure of T.N. Seshan as Chief Election Commissioner — who, to be fair, contributed substantially to making elections freer and fairer.
More importantly, in releasing the election schedule, the Election Commission underscored the importance of the Model Code of Conduct, which came into immediate effect. For the first time, it drew the attention of political parties and candidates to two key provisions of the Code, which is binding on the parties: “There shall be no appeal to caste or communal feelings for securing votes. Mosques, Churches, or Temples or other places of worship shall not be used as forum for election propaganda.” Given the recent communal disturbances and terror strikes in different parts of the country, the propensity of certain political parties to resort to the politics of religious and caste hate in the hunt for votes will need to be closely watched and firmly curbed. It remains to be seen how this vital part of the Code is enforced on the ground. Meanwhile, the Election Commission deserves praise for attempting to relax excessive controls on relatively trivial matters and tighten restrictions on toxic campaigning.