The Supreme Court on Tuesday took note of the Election Commission of India (ECI) quickly changing tack on April 15 to pass a flurry of restraining orders against leading political candidates for their communally provocative and divisive speeches.
The ECI orders came shortly after the poll body invited the court’s wrath for describing itself as “toothless” in the face of hate.
“Seems you have got your powers now,” Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi said, addressing the ECI on Tuesday.
The CJI was referring to ECI action taken against Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati, Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan and BJP leader Maneka Gandhi.
All four leaders were variously restrained from election campaigning for 48 to 72 hours.
“We found we have several powers...” senior advocate C.A. Sundaram, who represented the ECI, acknowledged in court.
“So, ECI has woken up to its powers,” Chief Justice Gogoi said pointedly, again.
On Monday, the ECI had claimed it was mostly helpless if candidates engaged in communal diatribe during their campaign speeches. This stand of the ECI had riled Chief Justice Gogoi, who initially threatened to have Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora in court in the next half-hour.
The court had then decided to delve deep into the ECI's claims that its powers were “circumscribed”. It gave the Commission exactly 24 hours to be ready with a response.
But within the next few hours on Monday, the ECI moved in to swiftly pass restraining orders against the four politicians.
“Pursuant to order passed yesterday (April 15), ECI has taken action, appropriate details of which have been submitted. No further order called for today. Mention (the case) as and when required,” the Supreme Court recorded in its order on Tuesday.
However, Mayawati's lawyer and senior advocate Dushyant Dave cried foul against the ECI action. Mr. Dave said the ECI's order against her was “extremely drastic”. He sought an urgent hearing at 2 p.m. on Tuesday.
“This is harsh... Meetings are already scheduled,” Mr. Dave urged the court for a hearing.
“File an appeal if you want... Not commenting on anything now,” Chief Justice declined.
On Monday, the Chief Justice had lashed out at the ECI, saying “you are basically saying you (ECI) are toothless and powerless against hate speeches. The highest you can do is send a notice to the offending candidate. If the candidate replies, send him or her an advisory. Despite this, if there is violation of Model Code of Conduct, you may then file a criminal complaint... That is all? That is your powers under the law?”
The court said the ECI was “duty-bound” to act promptly against hate speech given in violation of the Model Code of Conduct under place in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
The court was hearing a petition filed by an NRI, Harpreet Mansukhani, highlighting the increase in hate and divisive speeches in the name of religion in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019.
The petition had called for strict action against political leaders and party representatives spreading hatred on religious and caste lines through the media, especially social media platforms.