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Election Campaign: DOWNGRADED TO WAR OF WORDS, Dr. S. Saraswathi, 27 Nov, 2013 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 27 November 2013

Election Campaign


By Dr. S. Saraswathi


Hectic electioneering on a scale never experienced so far in India is being witnessed, months ahead of parliamentary elections 2014. Campaigning in the five States for Assembly polls have been organized by all parties with the approaching General Election in mind. Consequently, the campaigns are not addressed to the concerned States alone, but organized for a wider audience. The entire nation is involved; all people are closely watching what the parties say and do and the latter have made this appear like a mini General election.


BJP leaders accuse those of the Congress and its allies of unleashing a barrage of attacks on their Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, in very offensive language. A senior leader of the Samajwadi Party, supporter of the UPA Government, ridiculed the background of Modi, referring to his being a tea seller in the past and asking whether a tea seller could become a Prime Minister. It provoked Modi to instantaneously retaliate by asking whether those who sell the nation were fit to become the Prime Minister.


Unfortunately, the comment about Modi, as observed by several leaders, is not a reflection on this leader, but a dig at the poor tea sellers that they have no right or opportunity to become Prime Ministers. The comment coming from a leader of a party professing to be champions of the Backward Classes can well be interpreted as reflecting the mindset of some political leaders jealously guarding their power and position confined within a small clique. Surely, power corrupts.


Personal attacks are growing day-by-day and name-calling of opponents increase and improve from speech-to-speech. TV channels and the social media carry these to the public as much as possible thus vitiating the atmosphere. If Rahul Gandhi is depicted as “shehzada” (prince) by Modi, the Congress showers the epithet “Hitler” on Modi.  The field is practically a free for all.


Modi in the course of election campaign in Madhya Pradesh, for which polling is over, has already labeled a former Congress Chief Minister of the State as “a lie manufacturing factory”.  This has not gone in vain. A few days back, the PM himself is reported to have stated that Modi was resorting to falsehoods.


The depiction of the Congress symbol “hand” as “khooni Panja” (bloody claw) by Modi has invited notice from the Election Commission for violation of the Model Code of Conduct. On the other side, Rahul is reported to have stated in a speech in Rajasthan that the BJP is a party of thieves. The election atmosphere is further spoiled by the two parties calling each other as a party of “poisonous people’ and “more poisonous people”!


Such mutual incriminations have become part of the style of election speeches. The two national parties are busy taking complaints against each other to the EC for violation of the poll conduct.     


The Model Code of Conduct, which comes into effect once elections are announced, includes several articles prescribing the limits of free expression, which includes that criticism of other political parties shall be confined to their policies and programmes, past record and work.  Parties and candidates must refrain from criticism of any aspect of private life not connected with the public activities of the leaders or workers of other parties. Criticism of other parties or their workers based on unverified allegations or distortion should be avoided.


The Code categorically prohibits any activity which may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between different castes and communities – religious or linguistic - by the parties and candidates. Under the Representation of People Act 1951, publication of false statements through election pamphlets, booklets, handbills, posters or through press is a corrupt practice. 


The war of words unleashed in the current electoral season raises some important issues.  Electoral politics is described by a scholar as a war without bloodshed. Negative campaigning, known in common parlance as “mudslinging”, appeals more to the common people than serious advocacy or rebuttal of policies.  It is easier than presenting a positive policy or programme. The receivers too find it easier to assimilate and entertaining.


Harsh rhetoric and exaggerated claims and counterclaims are said to be part of electoral politics and legislative process in all countries where free elections are held. India is not and cannot be an exception.


Almost every country prohibits hate speech targeted to attack racial, religious, or ethnic groups. The US is an exception where even blatantly offensive speeches are to some extent protected under freedom of speech and free expression guaranteed under the Constitution.  A tradition of free speech has developed since the First Amendment of the Constitution making free speech as the cornerstone of American democracy.


Indian courts have upheld the sanctity of freedom of speech fully but have outlawed vilification campaigns. Election is the expression of popular will. It should be so conducted to centre round policies and programmes of different parties from which people could make free choice. 


Justice Subba Rao, in a judgement delivered in the Supreme Court in an election petition explained that Section 123(4) of the RPA is designed to achieve the dual purpose of freedom of speech and prevention of malicious attack on personal character or conduct, etc., of rivals. This has been repeated by the Court in certain other cases also. A campaign of slander against a candidate is likely to prejudice the dual purpose of this section.


The EC has expressed displeasure over the “ tone, tenor, and content” of  certain remarks made during the current campaigns and has asked concerned speakers to be more circumspect in future.


It is rather difficult to put limits to freedom of speech and enforce these in election campaigns and also ensure free speech and wider participation in the democratic process.  It is also necessary to safeguard all individual rights and freedoms guaranteed under laws against transgression by the freedom of speech. Balancing the two is a real juridical problem.


The experiences of other countries do not provide any useful clues. Election laws in India unambiguously ban speeches inciting caste and communal hatred. Hate speech is a punishable crime.


In fact, hate speech issue is bothering American elections since 1920s. The primary concern in the US is protection of free speech. Stump speech is a term used today to signify a candidate’s standard speech. But, in the 19th century, it was used to describe a speech delivered by a candidate literally standing on top of a tree stump which was appreciated for its rough and rustic character. Containing jokes and insults directed at the opponents, stump speech was vitally different from the polite and sophisticated speeches made in cities.


Election speeches are intended for mass consumption and have to be clothed in simple, straight, and easily comprehensible language. This does not mean that these should be devoid of decency and decorum. We may be able to achieve this by mutual understanding. The real problem is about lies and allegations that may be circulated freely to tarnish the image of parties and candidates. Truth takes time to come out and in the meantime the ballot may do the mischief, unless law enforcing authorities remain extraordinarily vigilant. ---INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)











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