The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- It has to be asked if arbitrary controls strengthen democracy

Graffito, singular: writing on wall; plural, graffiti. Man has been urged through the ages to read the writing on the wall. Graffiti have thus emerged as an integral part of human civilization. The art of graffiti was there in Greek and Roman times, it was the rage in Pompeii. Civil society discourse through graffiti was handed down from the medieval days to the modern era.

The felt need to get to know one another and to get oneself known to others has always been an irresistible impulse for human beings. Especially for the humbler species, graffiti have defined social awareness. Scribbling on the wall costs little; since generally displayed at public places, it attracts a large clientele. Graffiti, in that sense, perform the same functions as those of a public forum. The epic campaign in the United Kingdom against nuclear disarmament in the middle decades of the last century had graffiti as one of its main components: the thumbs-down to the 'no nukes' sign was repeated all over the country, in London, in big and small towns and villages, in dales and hills.

Visit France, overground or down in the Metro, never mind the decade, graffiti have kept hollering the cause: for or against Gertrude Stein, for and against existentialism, for and against the proposed new labour laws. Cross over to Latin America, the campaign against Yanqui imperialism is unthinkable without graffiti. Drop in on the Caribbeans, walls are emblazoned with slogans exhorting fellow citizens to 'throw dem out'. One of the most economical and yet devastatingly effective graffiti was seen some years ago on the walls of Dhaka in Bangladesh: 'Rascal, give us food.'

A particular reason for the wide acceptability of graffiti is the scope they provide for giving as good as one receives. Examples can be quoted from the poll graffiti during successive elections in West Bengal: synoptic statistics and arguments, rhymes, slogans and cartoons vied with one another, democracy with all its awesome splendours came alive through the graffiti. Or recall the occasion a quarter of a century ago of the Left Front leading a campaign in the state for a drastic restructuring of Centre-state relations. Walls across the state were plastered with the vibrant political slogan, 'More power to the State'. That was however also the season when West Bengal was suffering from an acute shortage of power. The production of electricity lagged way behind current demand, resulting in widespread discontent especially in the urban areas. Bengali witticism was in full flow, those opposed to the Left Front covered the till-then-empty space on the walls next to the graffiti, 'More power to the State' with a parallel slogan, again in graffiti, 'More candles to the State'.

Exchanges of this kind are assumed to be natural adjuncts of multi-party politics. It is taken for granted that citizens have the prerogative to use public space for thrusts and counter-thrusts on public issues. Such graffiti expand the frontiers of knowledge, more so for the poor who cannot afford newspapers, radio or television. Graffiti are, it can be cogently argued, the perfect mode for electoral campaigning in a poverty-ridden country.

The Election Commission obviously has a different point of view. It has prohibited, during the current round of assembly elections in some states, the use of wall writings as well as placards and posters on billboards in public places. It has extended the ban on graffiti to cover walls of private buildings too. Uneasiness, however, is not dispelled. Article 324 of the nation's Constitution of course allows the commission the right to superintendent, direct and control the conduct of elections in the country. The question can still be raised whether its jurisdiction allows it to cut athwart the fundamental rights granted to citizens by other articles of the Constitution. Article 19 straightaway comes to mind; it accords citizens the right to form associations and political parties, as also the right to express freely their views and opinions. The private precincts of a citizen are his castle and it should be his absolute right to use the exterior of this castle ' the wall ' for whatever purpose he decides upon till as long as there is no infringement of public taste. No law or interdict from the EC ought to supersede this fundamental right. To argue that political graffiti lead to environmental pollution is equally fatuous. On the contrary, their calligraphy, according to many connoisseurs, contributes in a major way to brighten up the environment.

The political parties are anxious not to be on the wrong side of the EC in this season and have therefore accepted without much demur its fiat. The matter cannot, however, be allowed to rest there. For the commission has tied itself up in knots. It would not allow graffiti on a wall but it does not mind people walking about with campaign slogans and signs overwritten on, or attached to, their apparel, including shirts, blouses, footwear and caps. The commission also does not stand in the way of placards and posters stuck in moving vehicles. A metaphysical distinction is apparently sought to be established by it between a still picture and a moving visage: the former is forbidden, the latter is not. To say the least, this sounds crazy. Nor can the fact be brushed aside that the commission's whims have raised substantially the poll expenses for a candidate, thereby narrowing the space for egalitarianism.

Finally, by enforcing a ban on graffiti in some states and not in others, is not the commission going against the letter and spirit of Article 14 of the Constitution' The fundamental right of equality before the law is clearly being denied to citizens residing in some states for reasons best known to the commission.

The EC's attitude is as much a-historical as undemocratic. A thought occurs. Perhaps the root of the problem lies in the composition of the commission. The chief election commissioner and his colleagues are as a rule picked from the civil service. While taking decisions on important matters, civil servants tend to display a love for both caution and restrictionism; the wider aspect of the deus ex machina to ensure a living, thriving democracy often escapes them; there is an overwhelming urge to enforce controls without thinking things through, such as whether controls arbitrarily administered strengthen the democratic process, or weaken it further.

The Constitution merely says that the president would appoint the chief election commissioner and his colleagues. Since Article 324 makes no explicit mention of the qualifications and background of the members of commissions, the president would be perfectly justified to select election commissioners from a much wider ambit than from the roster of the bureaucracy. In neighbouring Bangladesh, where democracy is still a fledgling exercise compared to ours, a panel of wise men supervises the national elections; administrators are there to help the panel, but they work under its direction and superintendence. Is it at all impossible to conceive of a similar arrangement for the composition of our EC' In this vast country of eleven hundred million people, to locate a handful of individuals who possess a sagacious and balanced mind, who could be depended upon to be equidistant in their dealings with political parties in the election season and who would be in a position to take a broader view of the democratic process than a group of career civil servants is capable of taking, should not be that difficult a task.

Why cannot we have, for instance, Nirmala Deshpande as our chief election commissioner'

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