Caste is a reality in our social life and politics is merely a reflection of our society.
The importance of Indian judiciary in bringing about important policy changes in various fields cannot be underestimated. And if the intervention is by the apex court, the Supreme Court of India, its impact is far more deep and wide. The past decade has witnessed several interventions by the Supreme Court on important matters of public importance ultimately resulting into legislations, most of which have been appreciated by the people at large.
When there is a ruling by the Supreme Court on matters of reforms in Indian elections and politics, it is welcomed by much more enthusiasm compared to any other reform. In 2002, it directed all candidates to file affidavit detailing their criminal antecedents, educational qualifications and details of their asset.
In 2003, the SC ruled that an elected representative would be immediately disqualified on conviction and sentence of more than two years. Then came NOTA (none of the above, a ballot option that a voter can choose to apply instead of giving their vote to any of the contesting candidates), which again was widely celebrated. The recent ruling of the Supreme Court declaring use of religion and caste as “corrupt practice” and call for disqualification of the candidate has certainly created some euphoria among the common man, but I doubt this would have the desired impact in bringing about reforms in Indian elections or nature of campaign.
The recent judgment by the seven-judge bench of the SC in a majority decision held that an appeal for votes during elections on the basis of religion, caste, race, community or language, even that of the electorate, will amount to a “corrupt practice” and call for disqualification of the candidate. The judgment says: “Election is a secular exercise and, therefore, a process should be followed. The relationship between man and God is an individual choice and state should keep this in mind”. The Supreme Court held in a majority judgment of 4:3. The court was interpreting the pronoun “his” used in Section 123 (3) of the Representation of the People Act. The provision mandates that it would amount to a “corrupt practice” if a candidate or his agent or any other person, with his consent, appeals for votes on religious or such grounds. The majority on the bench — the Chief Justice and Justices Madan B. Lokur, S.A. Bobde and L. Nageshwara Rao — interpreted that Parliament meant by “his” a complete ban on any referen
ce or appeal to religion, race, community, caste and language during elections. This meant the pronoun extended to the social, linguistic and religious identity of the voter also.
What this judgment does is only re-emphasise these rules/provisions, which is already there in Section 123 (3A) of the People’s Representation Act, which prohibits use of religion and caste for political mobilisation and considers its use as illegal. It says, “The promotion of, or attempt to promote, feelings of enmity or hatred between different classes of the citizens of India on grounds of religion, race, caste, community, or language, by a candidate or his agent or any other person with the consent of a candidate or his election agent for the furtherance of the prospects of the election of that candidate or for prejudicially affecting the election of any candidate” has been declared as illegal under Representation of People’s Act under section 123 (3A), which has never been taken seriously by candidates and political parties.
While we may find instances when charges may have been filed against candidates using name of religion or caste for mobilising voters, hardly any candidate have been convicted for that resulting in his/her being debarred from contesting election. The only name that comes to my mind is Balasaheb Thackeray who was debarred from contesting election and voting rights for six years in 1999. The ban was lifted in 2005 and he voted for the first time after that in 2007 Bombay Municipal election. While the new ruling of the Supreme Court will be a matter of discussion for some time in near future, I doubt this would have any significant impact on the nature of campaign on the ground.
While we could celebrate these reforms that are seen as efforts towards cleaning Indian politics, some did make an impact, but most of these reforms are merely lip service. Candidates have been barred from contesting elections in different states on various grounds, mainly on issue of not filing return about their expenses in election. However, we hardly have cases where candidates have been debarred from contesting election on other grounds. Disclosure has been celebrated and still being celebrated by common people but hardly any candidate has been debarred from contesting election due to false disclosure. There is hardly any check on the authenticity of the declaration. Similarly, the introduction of NOTA has been widely celebrated, but is there any after effect of that? What if large number of people voted for NOTA? Even if majority of voters opt for NOTA it may not affect the election result in that constituency.
In a multi-cultural society like India, with voters of varied religious belief, multiple caste identities, various languages and similar such identities with which people have strong affiliations, it is difficult to imagine how political parties and candidates would be able to reach out to their voters without any reference to the identity of religion, caste or language. This is much truer since in our multi-party democracy, various regional parties own their existence to having appeal amongst voters of particular caste or religion. Caste is a reality in our social life and politics is merely a reflection of our society. How can we expect candidates not mentioning caste when they raise issue of discrimination and make their commitment to fight such injustice? What may be desired is to refrain from attacking other religion and caste but not a blanket ban on candidates not using caste or religious appeal.