SC ruling on religion, tough to implement

The Supreme Court’s interpretation of Section 123(3) of the Representation of the People Act (RPA), 1951, has expanded the scope of the section which bans appeals based on religion, caste, race or language in election campaigns. Till now, it was understood that under the provision, only appeals based on the identity of the candidates, made by them or their supporters, would be deemed a corrupt electoral practice which could lead to disqualification. But the court has now ruled that any campaign that appeals to the identity of the voters would be covered by the law. This means that references to the religion, caste, race or language of voters in election campaigns would be a violation of the election law and might invite action. The judgment was delivered by a seven-member bench with a narrow majority of one, with the minority view holding that political and electoral activity in India cannot be separated from social realities which are mixed up with the religious, linguistic or other identities of people.

The court has presented and sought an ideal situation which should form the basis of the electoral law, in fact any law. It has interpreted the RPA in the light of the basic tenets of the Constitution which include secularism, equality and non-discrimination. The law cannot be divorced from the best republican ideals and constitutional norms. So the court felt that no interpretation which erodes or dilutes them is right and desirable. That is why it ruled that ‘religion, caste, community or language would not be allowed to play any role in the electoral process’. It is commendable that the highest court has held that the best principles of the Constitution should be the basis of politics and law in the country.

However, it is difficult to see how the ruling can be implemented, in letter and spirit, in the country’s political and electoral scenarios. The minority judgment which recognises the role of competing identities in society may be more realistic because it sees politics as a process of interaction between these identities. In fact, mobilisation based on identities have widened and strengthened politics in most parts of the country, though they have also created divisiveness and conflict. Parties that represent particular segments of society also have a role in a democracy. If the political and electoral processes and discourses cannot accommodate the interests and voices of minority groups and weaker sections, it can only hurt society and make politics unreal. The judgment will have to be tested in the fray for its full implication. It may also lead to more legal challenges and election petitions in future.  

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