A civilized contest between ideas of governance is at the heart of democratic politics. When contestants in a democratic election speak and act as though they belong, not to a sane society, but to a lunatic fringe, it is a grave threat to the culture of democracy. The current election campaign in India has been marked by an appalling fall from the accepted standards of civilized debate. Political parties seem to be competing with one another in using hate speeches to score partisan points. Previous election campaigns, too, have seen the political class behave in irrational and irresponsible ways. But the campaign this time seems to be beating all past records in such ugliness. The latest to join the hate brigade are men like Praveen Togadia, leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Giriraj Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Ramdas Kadam of the Shiv Sena. Mr Togadia’s call to Hindus to not allow Muslims to buy property in “Hindu localities” violates not only the norms of the social order, but also the provisions of the Constitution that allow all citizens an equal right to choose their place of work and residence. Mr Singh’s remark that the people opposed to Narendra Modi should move to Pakistan smacks of both the bizarre and the dangerous in electoral rhetoric.
The crucial question is how institutions, political leaders and society at large should deal with such threats. The one thing that none of them can afford to do is let such irrational conduct go unchallenged and unpunished. It would be dangerous for India’s democratic polity to treat such errant behaviour as part of the farcical side of elections. It is time that the Election Commission’s rules and codes of conduct were suitably modified to add more teeth to them. As an earlier leader in The Telegraph had suggested, not only the errant candidates but also their parties should be punished for such offences. Offending individuals and parties can be barred from contesting elections in particular constituencies for a certain period. While the laws must bite, the parties and their leaders also have to do more in order to stem the rot. Mr Modi reacted to Mr Togadia’s remarks by saying that he “disapproved” of irresponsible statements from those claiming to be the BJP’s well-wishers. He could have sent out a stronger and clearer message to assure the people that he does not subscribe to the divisive agenda of men like Mr Togadia.