An unintended consequence of the staggering popularity of social media in the world is the mushrooming of completely useless controversies that have a life-span of a few hours. One such erupted last week over the countrywide release of the film, PM Narendra Modi, starring Vivek Oberoi on April 5.
The announcement of its release got some people very hot under the collar. One person who was particularly agitated was the writer (and, if I may say so, an old friend from my college days) Ramachandra Guha. In an uncharacteristic intervention that received some 10,000 ‘likes’ on Twitter, he wrote: “That such a film will be shown and promoted during the elections demonstrates the joke and farce that the ‘model code of conduct’ is; how can the Election Commission allow it?”
Guha’s objection seems grounded in his fierce dislike of real Prime Minister Modi. He is anxious that the inspirational facets of Modi’s life story do not lead to crowds rushing out of matinee shows and flocking to polling booths to endorse the lotus symbol. More likely, he is concerned that a possibly positive spin to the life story of the chaiwala-turned-chowkidar will negate the patiently constructed demonology around Modi by the country’s ‘eminent intellectuals’. As a political concern of those campaigning on the single plank of Modi hatao, Guha’s worry is warranted. However, it will not enhance the democratic credentials of India’s liberal community if it seeks an outright ban on a film that dares to hero worship Modi. Consequently, a temporary restriction, at least people have voted, seems the second best solution.
Of course, there are ominous implications of this demand for the EC to intervene and put the film in cold storage till counting day. If a film can be put on hold on the ground that it seeks to influence public opinion, then it follows that similar restrictions should accompany other creative projects that also seek to mould voter behaviour. This includes books — both fiction and non-fiction, poetry, theatre, works of art and even opinionated columns (such as this one) in print and online, in fact almost anything that can be construed to have a direct or tangential political dimension.
The whole idea of sanitizing India from political influences seems absolutely preposterous, especially when the avowed objective is to ensure the exercise of political choice. That eminent individuals should be lending their names to such a strange initiative is sad.
However, what is sadder still is the belief the distortion of what the code of conduct is all about.
When it was evolved, the CoC wasn’t aimed at preventing any articulation of politics. It merely sought to first, negate any unfair advantage accruing to the incumbent government through the improper and partisan use of official machinery; second, to monitor and often regulate the use of financial resources by parties and candidates; third, to insulate the ordinary citizen from any significant inconvenience to their lives; and, finally, to ensure free and fair polling. In time, often with the benefit of hindsight, the EC has extended the CoC to extend to opinion polls and the use of media. Regulating and monitoring ‘paid news’, however, remain work in progress.
Despite its imperfections and lax implementation by individual officers with a bias towards a party or candidate, the CoC has made a big difference to the culture of political campaigning. Some of the changes are visible and felt by the ordinary citizen.
Till the 1991 general election at least, the use of loudspeakers was totally unregulated. One of the noisiest campaigns I witnessed was the ‘Ayodhya election’ of 1991 in Uttar Pradesh when loudspeakers blaring rival political messages and campaign songs drowned each other at market venues and bus stops, and went on all day and night. It was also customary for political meetings to extend late into the night and the early hours of the morning. In fact, in the Hindi heartland, the political worth of a leader was often judged from how many hours late he was running from his original schedule.
This pattern of electioneering is now history. The ban on public meetings and use of the public address system after 10pm is now an accepted facet of life and, often, gleefully imposed by the administration. During the 2004 general election, a local IAS officer became a celebrity after he got on to the dais and stopped L.K. Advani, then deputy prime minister and home minister of India, from continuing with his address in Patna’s Gandhi Maidan just as the clock struck 10 pm. Such dedication to the letter of the CoC may be exceptional since in Uttar Pradesh at least I have seen election rallies continue past 10 pm.
Another area where the CoC has made a big difference is in the use of government facilities and public buildings. One of the first campaigns I covered as a journalist was the 1991 general election when the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi was still at the helm. One of the features of that election, in North India at least, was that the Congress candidates routinely requisitioned the Circuit House for the use of the candidate. In fact many of them operated as campaign centres. Today, while a visiting politician — especially in remote areas — may avail of these facilities for overnight stay, there is a complete ban on using them for meetings and displays of flags. True, the rules are occasionally violated but local officers are only too aware that they face disciplinary action by the EC for their wilful indulgence of politicians.
These, however, are the easier facets of the CoC. The more daunting challenge before the EC is to ensure an environment free from harassment and intimidation of voters. Apart from the areas where the Maoists ruled the roost, Bihar used to present a big challenge in the 1990s. Today, that pride of place has been taken by West Bengal where last year’s panchayat elections set new standards of high-handedness. It is to meet this challenge that the EC has staggered voting in the state to include all seven phases. And it is to rebuild local confidence in the democratic process that contingents of paramilitary forces have started patrolling sensitive areas, sometimes with the cooperation of the local police and often independently of them. Success in West Bengal, despite the fierce opposition of the state government that colluded in the derailment of democracy during the panchayat polls, will be a big feather in the cap for the EC. It will strengthen India’s reputation as a robust democracy.
The next step is to ensure that the media are in sync with the larger objectives of democratic functioning. But this is a more problematic area where the media’s right to be partisan has to be balanced with some dos and don’ts without inviting charges of compromising the rights of expression. The more blatant cases of ‘paid news’ are easy to handle — by adding a notional charge to a candidate’s expenses — but how is the touchy area of a campaign freeze in the 48 hours before polling in a seven-phase election to be achieved? And how will the dissemination through WhatsApp groups be effectively monitored? Today’s technology makes a mockery of regulation and control.
These are just some of the issues that warrant public vigilance and will test the EC’s effectiveness. Diverting its attention to non-issues is hardly helpful. But then, this is an election where some groups of people are also fighting to ensure their own future relevance in a changing India.