The BJP is — characteristically — using institutions to intimidate opponents
Coyness does not befit institutions of eminence. The Election Commission had recently confessed to the Supreme Court that it was powerless to crack down against hate speeches that are being delivered with the intention of seeking votes. However, the EC’s powers were restored, as if by magic, after the apex court warned the commission that it would summon the chief election commissioner. The EC issued instructions to ban four prominent leaders — Yogi Adityanath, Mayavati, Maneka Gandhi and Azam Khan — from campaigning for specific periods of time for their violation of prescribed rules. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party have been penalized for their provocative speeches; the comment made by Ms Gandhi has been billed ‘corrupt practice’ while Mr Khan has been punished on grounds of poor general conduct. The EC’s gag order is welcome. Swaying public opinion by employing unethical means must be discouraged. What is worrying, however, is the eagerness of Indian politicians to flout the directives of the model code of conduct. Has the EC’s toothlessness contributed to their sense of impunity? After all, the commission is not vested with the authority to either disqualify candidates or derecognize political parties for their misconduct. Perhaps it is time to mull the scope of the EC’s punitive powers to return errant politicians to righteous ways. A temporary gag order is not enough to rid India of the menace of poisonous views.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, however, reposes considerable faith in the strategy of silencing opponents. Two days before Tamil Nadu went to vote, raids were conducted by income tax officials on the premises of a senior leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. It turned out to be a false tip, lending credibility to the accusation that the BJP is — characteristically — using institutions to intimidate opponents. The possibility of a poor electoral harvest in the state, apparently, forced the BJP’s hand. Ethics, as is apparent from the conduct of some of the politicians finally hauled up by the EC, are not the only entity under threat. Nearly every kind of organization, from airlines and railways — Air India was made to withdraw boarding passes bearing an image of the prime minister — to institutions considered to be the guardians of democracy, is being forced to be subservient, imperilling the spirit of democracy.