Democracy is a fruit of the age of reason, and voting and campaigning are central to its mechanism in actual polities. In India, however, standards of rational speech and action in contesting politicians begin falling dramatically during the run-up to general elections. And this spectacular decline of civilizedness in public behaviour has now become part of the legendary rough-and-tumble of Indian elections. But a modern nation is also a polity and a society built on ideas of order, which, in turn, are founded on the more-or-less peaceful cohabitation of adult citizens; hence, the vigilance of the Election Commission and its regulations. So, when a video begins doing the rounds in which a Congress candidate in Uttar Pradesh gives himself a sore throat threatening to chop Narendra Modi into little pieces if Mr Modi treats minorities in UP in the way he is alleged to have treated them in Gujarat, or when a Bharatiya Janata Party MLA in Rajasthan threatens, at a rally, to disrobe Sonia and Rahul Gandhi before sending them back to Italy, then it is time to draw the line on hate speech, which is a kind of incendiary rowdyism.
Talk about rowdyism, and the sport that suggests itself instantly is not democracy but football. The EC should perhaps be empowered to become more a Fifa-like regulatory body, with real powers to referee and punish the gladiatorial excesses between players of the vote-winning game. For instance, parties should be made responsible for their candidates, cadre and supporters and be penalized for the latter’s misbehaviour, just as in football the teams are punished for the hooliganism of their fans. When a candidate breaks the rules of behaviour, his or her party could be penalized with not being allowed to field candidates for that particular seat for the next few elections, depending on the degree of the offence. The rules and ethos of the EC were framed when the agents, and therefore the nature, of demagoguery were very different, more consensual on the definition of civilized behaviour than they are today. The sole exception to this history was the Left, whose leaders, even at their most genteel, thought it integral to fighting the class war to bad-mouth opponents beyond the limits of petit bourgeois decency — even going to the extent of drawing upon their opponents’ physical disabilities. This has become a more general habit now. Hence the need, in some instances, for an EC with real and sharper teeth.