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Is Election Commission of India toothless against Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

Many in India have accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of hate speech over his comments on the Muslim community during election campaigning

Deutsche Welle Published 30.05.24, 03:03 PM
Modi said his rivals would redistribute India's resources to 'infiltrators' with more children

Modi said his rivals would redistribute India's resources to 'infiltrators' with more children Deutsche Welle

When the prime minister of your country calls your community "infiltrators" you are left wondering if you really belong, said Sadaf Tasneem, a Muslim student from Lucknow in northern India.

"I have unintentionally become defensive of my identity in the face of continuous systematic and institutional attacks," she said.


Last month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a highly controversial campaign speech in western Rajasthan state.

"When they [the Opposition Congress party] were in power earlier, they said that Muslims have the first right to the country's resources. So, who will they redistribute resources to? Those who have more children. Those who are infiltrators," said Modi.

"Will your hard-earned money be given to infiltrators? Will you accept that?"

"Infiltrators" and "those with more children" are dog-whistle terms for Muslims often used by the Hindu right-wing.

Modi's speech might very well go against the guidelines included in the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) during elections, which is enforced by the Election Commission of India (ECI).

"No party or candidate shall include in any activity which may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic," reads the ECI guideline on using religion to influence voters.

Shift to targeting Muslims 'inevitable'

Two days later, Modi once again singled out Muslims and accused the Congress party of planning to provide reservations to them at the expense of marginalized and poor Hindus.

"As long as Modi is alive, I will not let reservations of Dalits, Adivasis, OBC [Other Backward Classes] to be given to Muslims on the basis of religion," he said.

Modi's speech in Rajasthan came on the heels of the first phase of voting in the Indian general election on April 19. The phase had seen a significantly lower voter turnout, an outcome the BJP wasn't counting on.

For some, like journalist and political commentator Prem Panicker, Modi's discourse is "flat-out hate speech," and "as blatant a violation of the Model Code as there has ever been."

"The shift to unbridled hate, to gaslighting, was inevitable," Panicker told DW, commenting on the issues facing the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its campaign in India's mammoth multi-stage election.

The election commission's slow response

The response from the ECI has been both slow and muted.

The commission took four days to issue a notice to Modi over his first speech.

When it did, it simultaneously issued a notice to senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi for allegedly also violating the code by trying to create a divide between north and south India.

Gandhi had previously accused Prime Minister Modi of imposing the Hindi language on the entire nation, even in states where the primary language is not Hindi — like in the key southern state of Tamil Nadu where people speak Tamil.

Also, the ECI notices did not name Modi or Gandhi directly, which is an unprecedented break from procedure.

Sumit Ganguly, a political science professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, sees the two notices as an attempt at "false even-handedness."

"Rahul Gandhi's statements might have been foolish, but certainly not intemperate. Whereas the statements from the PM, I think, are actually inflammatory," he told DW.

Deutsche Welle

The ECI's final response to the BJP was only published on May 22 — more than a month after the first controversial speech in Rajasthan.

The ECI came to the conclusion that the "utterances of the concerned star campaigners follow patterns and create narratives which can be damaging."

The election body directed the BJP president to convey to its "star campaigners" to refrain from making "speeches and statements, which may divide the society" along religious lines. Once again, Modi was not called out by name.

A senior news editor, who asked not to be named, called the ECI's conduct "half-hearted and half-baked," suggesting that the commission did not want to go against the most powerful person in the country.

The ECI's cautious reaction feeds the narrative "that they are severely compromised," according to the editor.

"I don't think there's been transparency or accountability at any stage of this long-drawn election process this time," he said.

BJP posts videos on Muslims and Gandhi

While the ECI was mulling its response, the BJP continued to focus on India's Muslim minority.

On April 30, the BJP's official Instagram shared an animated video labeling Muslims as "invaders, terrorists, robbers, and thieves" who looted ancient India.

"They used to redistribute the loot among themselves. And on top of that they used to ruin our temples. And the Congress Party has been empowering people who belong to the very same community," said the commentary on the video.

The video was eventually taken down, although it remains unclear if it was deleted by the party or taken down by Instagram for violating the platform's guidelines.

A BJP branch in the southern state of Karnataka posted a different video on X, formerly Twitter, on May 4, claiming Rahul Gandhi was diverting funds from marginalized Hindu groups to Muslims. This time, the Election Commission ordered X to remove this video for model code violation.

ECI a 'passive spectator'

DW has reached out to the ECI multiple times but has not received an answer by the time of publication.

"When the head of ECI itself becomes a political appointment with no legal and constitutional responsibility towards accountability and transparency, ECI and its officials basically work as clients of the ruling party," said a political anthropologist in southern India, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions.

The anthropologist criticized the recent change in rules in the appointment of election commissioners, saying it gave the government a dominant hand in the selection process.

"The ECI has at best been a passive spectator during this election cycle and, at worst, functioned as an umpire deliberately putting a thumb on the scales in favor of one party," said journalist Panicker.

"The body rates a zero for its performance."

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