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Purity Of Elections: REMOVING RELIGIOUS SMOG, By Dr S Saraswathi, 19 January, 2017 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 19 January 2017

Purity Of Elections


By Dr S Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


The ban on use of religion, caste, race, community and language during poll campaigns is bound to give rise to numerous election petitions involving scanning through enormous amount of election speeches and campaigns adopted by political parties. How many results will be countermanded will be anybody’s guess.


The Election Commission has issued a stern warning to political parties against making statements that could trigger disharmony in the society on the basis of religion and hamper free and peaceful elections. This follows the recent landmark judgement of the Supreme Court against the use of religion, caste, race, community, and language during campaigns by any candidate or his agent terming it as “corrupt practice” punishable with disqualification of the candidate. The Chief Justice held that appealing on the basis of religion would amount to “mixing religion with State power”.


The judgement clearly has extraordinary significance for its timing as Assembly elections are to take place in five States, where without exception one or more of the prohibited appeals are commonly used by all political parties as the major vote-catching net. In Uttar Pradesh, the home of Mandir-Masjid politics, there can be no general election without dragging religion, which is the prime factor among the five prohibited.


Noteworthy is the fact that the verdict was passed with only a slender majority - four in a seven-member Constitution Bench with three giving dissenting verdicts. It indicates difficulties in enforcing the ruling against firmly established principles of social justice that recognise these factors and not disagreement with democratising the election process.


The verdict is for secularising or purifying elections from the polluting influence of narrow sub-national attachments in order to establish the election process and campaigns as secular democratic instruments to choose the rulers. A worthy cause indeed, but with tremendous practical difficulties to operate!


The court was interpreting the scope of the word “his” in Section 123(3) of the Representation of People Act, 1951 on prohibition of appeals on the basis of religion, etc., in election campaigns.  It held that the word covered the candidates and their agents as well as the voters thus reversing the verdict given in 1995 which restricted the reference in the word “his” to the candidate. The broad and purposive interpretation of the word has ruled out any appeal made – general or with specific reference -- invoking the parochial affinities in favour of or against a candidate in election as divisive factors.  


The judgement is apparently in conformity with the secular character of the State under the Constitution devoid of any bias and attachments while maintaining that “the relationship between man and God is an individual choice and the State should keep this in mind”. The dissenting judges wanted to limit the ban to the candidate’s religion, race, caste, community or language.


There are two factors invariably present in electoral battles – one is mobilisation of bloc votes on the basis of ready-made groups like caste, race, religion, community, language, etc., and the other is promises to appease sectarian wishes and group demands through State machinery if voted to power. 


It is now incumbent on all political parties to draw a clear line between the use of the prohibited grounds in vocal or written, visual or audio means of appeal for votes and appeasement of sectarian needs and ambitions in pursuance of the policy of uplifting the disadvantaged social groups.


The court verdict implies that religion has no place in the secular function of election, that democratic and secular  government has nothing to do with religion, and religion and caste based  identities are to be ignored by secular governments and their representatives. Voters are expected to shed their expectations based on their social identities and learn to view election as an occasion to choose non-partisan representatives.


On the contrary, the dissenting judges have said that discussions on caste, creed, and religion are constitutionally protected within and outside elections and cannot be restricted, and that the issue should be left to parliament for decision. The majority decision seems to them an instance of judicial over-reach and judicial redrafting of the law.


In India, many parties are founded on the basis of religious, caste, ethnic and regional identities though they may have members and supporters from other groups. There is no need to list such parties as their very name betrays their roots and interests like the Indian Union Muslim League,  All India Muslim League, All India Majlis-e-ittehadul Muslimeen with Muslim interests, DMK, AIADMK, MDMK, DMDK, etc, showing Dravidian pride, ethnic parties like Asom Gana Parishad, and Nagaland People’s Front, region or State based parties like Bodo People’s Progressive Front, Haryana Janhit Congress, Meghalaya Democratic Party, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena , People’s Party of Arunachal, Sikkim Democratic Front, etc., in almost every State, religion based Akali Dal, community based Shiv Sena, and language based Telugu  Desam  Party and so on.


Such parties have to enlarge their horizon at least in election campaigns – an impossible task.  Many of them will lose the reason for their very existence if they have to look beyond their immediate social context. Still, they have to learn to delink their exclusively sectional frame of mind and adopt inclusive politics accepting that governance is for all.


Unfortunately, the country has not been progressing even in the slightest measure evenly across populations or territories. Modern politics in India is group politics ever since representative institutions were imported and implanted. Some historians may attribute this to the British policy of divide and rule and their invention of communal representation in the legislatures and its extension in government services. But the Indian mind was quick to grasp and develop the idea.  Thus appeared political-social categories – Non-Brahmins, Depressed Classes, Muslims, Indian Christians, Backward Classes – long before independence in some presidencies. Current labels like Dalit, OBC, and MBC are also caste combinations.


Caste as a basis for identifying Backward Classes has not been invalidated by courts so far.  Hence, it will find a place everywhere – in all organs of government and governance. Its entry into elections may be barred by rules, but adherence to rules will require political will and public demand.


It is a delicate task to define the boundaries between electoral contests and public policy of promoting collective interests based on religion, caste, etc. Strictly considered, political parties have to refrain from making promises to SC, ST, OBCs, and religious minorities during election campaigns. Parties that are mainly depending on building vote banks by wild election promises may have to change their outlook and strategies in the effort to sanitise election field.


The recent court judgement and EC’s strict warning, if enforced in good faith, may help pushing back religion, caste, language, and race to their proper place as matters of personal faith and choice. They can have only a limited impact in curbing openly divisive politics, and cannot promote sense of nationalism.


Social identity is a universal phenomenon and not peculiar to Indian society. The question now seriously discussed in India has appeared in different forms in many countries. As long as we apply social identities for public purposes like representation in legislative bodies, college admissions, recruitment for jobs, welfare schemes, etc., we can only attempt to prohibit hate speeches and street level clashes during elections. --INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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