Explained | Did the ban spare PFI’s political wing? 

Could the Election Commission of India have had a role in the Social Democratic Party of India escaping a crackdown? What is the mandate of this party often associated with the Popular Front of India? Does the ECI have the power to de-register a political party?

Updated - October 02, 2022 04:24 pm IST

Published - October 02, 2022 03:19 am IST

A seal is seen on the lock of the door of the Popular Front of India’s office in New Delhi.

A seal is seen on the lock of the door of the Popular Front of India’s office in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

The story so far: A definitive crackdown on the Popular Front of India (PFI) and eight of its affiliates by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) along with the police last week was capped by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) declaring them as ‘unlawful associations’ under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and outlawing them for five years. The Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), widely thought to be the political wing of the PFI, escaped the ban, with its national president M.K. Faizy ascribing the action against the PFI to ‘an undeclared Emergency’ prevailing in the country.

What would have saved the SDPI for now?

There’s no official word on what worked in favour of the SDPI, a political party that was formed in June, 2009, “for the advancement and uniform development of all citizenry including Muslims, Dalits, Backward Classes and Adivasis” and registered with the Election Commission of India (ECI) a year later. However, it is being surmised that the fact of it being a political dispensation with people’s representatives in close to a dozen States and the lack of any tangible evidence of its involvement in ‘planned unlawful’ activities saved it.

While some top leaders of the SDPI also figured in the senior leadership of the banned PFI, the party was quick to distance itself from the latter, claiming to be an ‘independent’ entity featuring cadres, members and leaders from all communities and faiths.

“The MHA, if it so willed, could’ve acted against the SDPI as well, as the UAPA provides for overriding powers to act against any entity found to be involved in acts prejudicial to India’s interests. But that wasn’t done probably because there would not have been anything suggesting planned illegal activities on the part of the political party,” was how Gopal Krishna Pillai, former Union Home Secretary, explained the MHA’s action.

Could the ECI have acted against it?

The ECI is largely powerless to deregister active political parties, leave alone recommending a ban on them. “Over the last two decades, the ECI has gone to the Government of India several times over with a bouquet of proposals which include amendments to Section 29A of the Representation of the People Act of 1951, but there has been no progress in this regard,” said N. Gopalaswami, former Chief Election Commissioner of India.

According to Supreme Court lawyer Kaleeswaram Raj, even the limited power of the ECI to deregister a party is not provided by statute, as the Representation of the People Act only empowers the ECI to register a party. “However, in a case between the Indian National Congress and the Institute of Social Welfare in 2002, the Supreme Court held that the ECI can deregister a party (i) if the registration is obtained fraudulently (ii) if there is alteration in the original name or other material particulars of the party or (iii) where a de-registration without even an enquiry is an imperative. For example, if the registration of the political party cannot be continued for the very party becoming unlawful by a declaration by the competent authority to that effect,” he explained.

But the SC itself, in the context of hate speech, gave indulgence to the Law Commission to examine whether the ECI should be given the powers to deregister a political party and the grounds for deciding so. Mr. Raj added that the ECI, at the moment, has almost insignificant powers to deregister a party for non-furnishing of details of accounts or donations.

“If the system of electoral bond continues, even the Representation of the People Act or the provisions in the Model Code of Conduct will remain inconsequential to a considerable extent on the issue of fiscal transparency in the dealings of a political party. The Supreme Court has decided to hear the electoral bond issue soon. Unless the malpractice of electoral bond in the present form is totally abolished, our democracy cannot be rescued. Any change in law relating to political parties should begin with abolition of the electoral bond system in India,” he said.

How does the SDPI view the development?

Much as it has been ruffled by the ban on the PFI, the SDPI harps on its independence and insists that it’s steadfastly focused on social democracy and equal representation for all backward sections at all levels of government. “We have close to 800 seats in local bodies across States such as Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra. An internal survey is being conducted right now to identify at least 60 constituencies — where a Muslim-Dalit alignment could work — from where to contest the Lok Sabha elections of 2024,” says Elyas Mohammed Thumbe, SDPI national general secretary.

Ashraf Moulavi, the party’s Kerala president, vouches for its financial, ideological and functional transparency and accountability, stressing that the party worked for “India’s pluralism, Constitutional guarantees and cultural ethos”.

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Any Indian citizen regardless of caste or faith who abides by these besides meeting the criteria such as being averse to corruption, social evils like alcoholism or substance abuse and not being a member of any other political formulation, could become a member of the party by paying a fee of ₹5, Mr. Thumbe maintains. Cadres are selected based on their commitment to the party ideology and activism and given two sessions — on social democracy and on the tenets of a cadre. “Even rationalists are party members. Only, the believers and the atheists should respect each other’s belief systems,” says Mr. Moulavi, adding that the party doesn’t condone violence on the part of its members.

What is in the works now?

Two weeks ago, the Kerala State committee of the party decided to carry out an extensive campaign on October 2 against drug abuse and addiction. “A three-month national campaign, ‘Ghulami Na-Manzoor’ (Slavery isn’t acceptable) had been planned from September, but that has been put off to a later date in view of the uneasy political developments,” says Mr. Thumbe.

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