The EC has limited power to control the terms of public discourse
The obvious asymmetry in the Election Commission’s response to the “plummeting levels of public discourse” is reprehensible as it is an irresponsible and deliberate disregard for the independence and impartiality it was designed to uphold by the Constitution. Tracing the roots in the litter of abusive exchanges between the two main national parties, the BJP and the Congress in election season, in Parliament and in the times in between, which is pretty much all the time, is an exercise in futility.
The EC’s responsibility or failure to fulfil its constitutional obligation is a different matter. Armed with a set of rules and the Model Code of Conduct, which is not a law, the EC has limited power to control the terms of public discourse. It does, however, have the power to issue notices, demand explanations, impose small penalties like temporarily stopping political campaigners from addressing public meetings that in the peak campaign period can be deemed a punitive measure.
As soon as the BJP complained that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had called its superstar campaigner Narendra Modi “pannauti”, that seems to have acquired a political interpretation as a colloquial term for pickpocket, the EC jumped to issue a notice demanding an explanation within days. When Mr Modi called Rahul Gandhi “moorkhon ka sardar”, the leader of fools, the Congress’ complaint to the EC was ignored. Depending on political allegiance, the voter and India’s always willing to be entertained public is relishing this name calling.
After the BJP complained that the Bharat Rashtra Samithi was blatantly bribing voters by announcing that Rs 5,000 would be deposited on November 29 in the Rythu Bandhu accounts, the EC put a stop to the disbursement days before Telangana votes on November 30. The EC was neither prompt nor impartial when it failed to haul up Mr Modi for announcing the five-year extension of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana on November 4, almost four weeks after the Model Code of Conduct came into effect on October 9, when the election schedule for the five states were announced.
If the Rythu Bandhu payout, for a scheme almost 10 years old, is a bribe, then the PMGKAY extension is also a bribe. The upgrade in the amount paid under the Laldi Behna scheme in Madhya Pradesh announced by Shivraj Singh Chouhan during the campaign in violation of the Model Code is as much a bribe to the increasing number and significance of women voters in the state.
The levels of public discourse are touching new lows with every election. In Chhattisgarh, Union home minister Amit Shah thundered that the state government was an “ATM” for the Gandhi family. The BJP made the same accusation during the Karnataka elections to no effect, since the Congress won. The Congress has likewise linked the BJP’s affluence and lavish election spending to funding from crony capitalists through the electoral bonds and other pathways.
Out of poll season, the public discourse is just as violent and offensive. The game of politics has sunk to an exchange of abusive labels rather than a serious, informed and critical appraisal of policies, practices, actions and omissions, which would allow voters to reach a considered decision on the merits of programmes and political agendas instead of checking feverishly for updates on social media platforms for laughs.
Name-calling of the “pappu”, “moorkhon ka sardar” and “pannauti” kind have value. These labels polarise. They are meant to draw blood. Some labels by the sheer length of time they have been significant, like “maut ka saudagar”, indicate the barb is still firmly lodged in the thin skin of the target: namely Gujarat’s former CM and now Prime Minister Modi. Every time Mr Modi uses it, he knows it will affect not only his core support but the newly-mobilised defenders of the Sanatan Dharam spin on Hindutva and be a reminder that the Congress is “sympathetic to terrorists”, engages in “appeasement politics” and is anti-national.
Since public discourse is unlikely to hoist itself out of the pit of abusive labels, politicians have a choice: develop a thicker skin or counter the attack with smarter political messages. Running like a cry-baby to the EC is a tell-tale sign of insecurity. The same is true of the all too lopsided and obvious raids, arrests and interrogations by the “agencies”: ED, I-T, CBI, NIA; the overuse of draconian laws like the UAPA against political rivals of the BJP. The effectiveness of these intercessions has got blunted as the Opposition has learnt to turn them into a campaign issue, making the use of the ED, I-T, CBI, NIA, etc an inappropriate nuisance rather than a scare.
Words were and will remain weapons. Words have the power to conjure myriad responses. The worst possible response is to get lured to play by the other side’s gambit. The truism “if the cap fits” is politically dangerous. It is exactly how the BJP reacted to the “pannauti” jibe; it ran to find shelter in the EC’s powers. The problem with the EC is that its power to control the Opposition’s message is limited to the period of the elections. Once the counting in over, the complaints and explanations have no effect.
This round of Assembly elections in five states has revealed what scares the BJP as the defending champions. It is words like “pannauti” because these are designed to entertain and attack at the same time. This is an entirely new game for which the old BJP playbook has no counter. As the challenger, the Congress must first score victories and then pursue its playful attacks further, faster in the run-up to the 2024 general election.
As the defender, the BJP has to find a strategy of dodging the bullets and containing its knee-jerk reaction of running to the EC to gag its foes. Using the “agencies” is overkill and in the public mind, is an overbearing reaction of a bully.
The best thing about democracy, elections and campaigning is the message that political parties attempt to deliver to voters to win support. The BJP has its tested arsenal of words and thoughts that circle around the centrality of the religious majority to rule India in its “Amrit Kaal”. The Congress has its more abstract and particular appeal of “Nafrat ka bazaar mohabbat ki dukan” gift-wrapped in the practical promise to increase welfare spending.
In the intensely competitive election politics, the EC’s responsibility is not to be a party pooper. It is not equipped to play the role. The more it sticks to its basic function, the healthier it will be for the competition.