By ordering a ban on the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s yatra in Gujarat, the Election Commission has exceeded its own powers
The art of democratic government is in avoiding excess. Even an excess of political correctness. Democracy functions through a delicate balance between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. The dysfunction of one of the three or over-activism destroys the balance and perverts the democratic process. In India, this has happened again and again. In recent months, the judiciary has taken to a kind of activism because of the failure of the executive and the abuse of power by the legislature. This has taken the judiciary far beyond what should be its focus: the implementation of law and the meting out of punishment when the law is violated. Under Indira Gandhi and her principal mandarin, P.N. Haksar, a committed bureaucracy became the slogan. This went against the ideal of a bureaucracy. The idea was to make the bureaucracy the motor of social change in a context in which civil society was immature and fragile. Such an experiment had terrible consequences and created conditions in which democracy itself could be suspended. Noble intentions often create unnatural vices. This tendency is now visible in some of the decisions of the chief election commissioner, Mr J.M. Lyngdoh.
Nobody doubts Mr Lyngdoh’s intentions in Gujarat. He wants to ensure free and fair elections in a state which witnessed one of the worst pogroms in the history of independent India. The Election Commission is thus paying particular attention to avoid a recurrence of any kind of violence and the fanning of communal passions. All these are laudable. But Mr Lyngdoh somewhat blots his copybook by ordering the state government to withdraw permission to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to organize a yatra from Godhra on Sunday. Secular fundamentalists may well rejoice at Mr Lyngdoh’s order, but there is something more important lurking in the implications of Mr Lyngdoh’s order. The VHP, whatever be its faults, is not a political party and is not contesting the elections in Gujarat. It projects itself as a quasi-religious and quasi-cultural organization. Because it is outside the electoral process, it cannot technically be accused of queering the electoral pitch. The argument that the VHP yatra might kindle communal passions is based on suspicion. The latter cannot be the ground for the withdrawal of what is the right of any organization — the propagation of its views. Mr Lyngdoh’s order would have been justified if there was evidence that the VHP’s yatra had led to violence in Gujarat. In the absence of such evidence, it is no exaggeration to suggest that the EC has been a little too overbearing and enthusiastic in its attempts to protect secular values.
It is nobody’s argument that the VHP is pure as driven snow. But because it may have been guilty of provoking violence in Ayodhya in December 1992, it cannot be concluded that it will do the same a decade later in Gujarat. By acting on the grounds of suspicion and apprehension, the EC has exceeded its own powers. The excess admittedly has an ominous context, but that cannot extenuate the excess.