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Election Commission of India’s double standards

Election Commission of India’s double standards

In 1995, Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray was found to have canvassed for votes in the name of religion, and was barred from voting and contesting for six years. Today, the top-most functionaries of the BJP are doing just that.

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Last Updated : 28 May 2024, 05:46 IST
Last Updated : 28 May 2024, 05:46 IST
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On May 5, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh endorsed the Agnipath scheme, saying people would understand it only when its results started coming in. Introduced in 2022, after the Covid-19 pandemic forced a two-year break in armed forces recruitment, the scheme came as a shock to potential recruits. Till then, young men were absorbed as soldiers for a minimum of 15 years, and given a life-long pension. Agnipath recruits ‘Agniveers’ for four years, retains 25 per cent of them, and lets go the rest with a lumpsum of Rs 11.71 lakh.

Election reports from states which send large numbers to the armed forces show that the Agnipath scheme is a major source of discontent. Barely three weeks after Singh’s endorsement, the Army announced a survey aimed at evaluating the two-year-old scheme’s impact on the quality and quantity of recruitment. Indeed, according to one report from Uttar Pradesh, Singh himself promised a review of it when wooing voters there.

When there is an official acknowledgment that there’s something wrong with the scheme, how is it possible for opposition parties not to target it in an election season? Yet, the Election Commission of India (ECI) last week asked political parties not to make ‘potentially divisive statements regarding socio-economic composition (sic) of Defence Forces.’

The ECI had another bit of advice for the Opposition: don’t make statements that give a ‘false impression...that the Constitution may be abolished.’ Forget the Opposition. What is the common citizen to make of statements made by leaders of the ruling party?

Before polling started on April 19, three Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders had already spoken in public about the necessity to get 400 seats to change the Constitution. These voices came from different states.

The first to express this view was Karnataka Lok Sabha MP Anantkumar Hegde. On March 10, he said the BJP needed 400 seats to get a majority in the Rajya Sabha so that constitutional amendments brought in by the Congress which ‘oppressed Hindus’ could be changed. The BJP distanced itself from this statement, and it is said to have cost Hegde a renomination for this year’s polls. However, no such action was taken against the two candidates who made similar statements during their election campaigns.

On April 2, Jyoti Mirdha, the BJP candidate from Nagaur, in Rajasthan, told voters that to take ‘harsh decisions’, the Constitution would have to be amended, for which the BJP would need a majority in both Houses of Parliament. Then on April 15, Lallu Singh, the BJP candidate from Faizabad, in Uttar Pradesh, spoke not just of amending but drawing up a ‘new Constitution’.

In its advice to the Opposition, the ECI states that since MPs and MLAs must swear to uphold the Constitution, making statements about it being abolished ‘is alleged to be instilling fear in the mind of voters.’ Alleged by whom? If the ECI is alleging this, why didn’t it censure Lallu Singh, a five-term MLA and two-term MP, who has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution seven times?

Hegde’s statement came before the ECI’s Model Code of Conduct (MCC) came into force, but what about Mirdha? She took oath in 2009, interestingly, as a Congress MP. This khandani Congress politician — her grandfather Nathuram Mirdha was a freedom fighter and Rajasthan Congress chief — crossed over in September to the BJP, just before the assembly polls. Rewarded with a Lok Sabha ticket, she hasn’t taken long to adapt to the ethos of her new party.

It would be negligent of the Opposition to ignore these statements. Yet, says the ECI, by campaigning against what the BJP’s ‘400-paar’ slogan really means, as spelt out by the party’s leaders, the Opposition is ‘instilling fear’. Since this may ‘affect the prospects of certain candidates’, the ECI goes on to say, such statements may ‘border as (sic) a corrupt practice.’

This is a barely hidden threat. Those indulging in corrupt electoral practices can be barred from standing for election and voting, as happened with Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray in 1995.

Thackeray was found to have canvassed for votes in the name of religion. Today, the top-most functionaries of the State are doing just that. In addition, the PM is constantly ‘instilling fear’ in voters by warning them that the Congress wants to take away from them and give Muslims not just the reservations they are entitled to, but also their mangalsutras, their buffaloes, and their water taps.

Yet, after having sent one notice to the BJP chief last month, the ECI has ignored this indulgence in ‘corrupt practices’ (as defined by it) by the party’s star campaigner. Its warnings to the Opposition on ‘instilling fear’, and its silence when the same is done by the most powerful in the land, send a frightening message. This was an institution we were all proud of.

(Jyoti Punwani is a senior journalist.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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