Even as the television channels vie with one another to make sense of the electoral outcome in Uttar Pradesh, the hypocrisy of all that goes under the label ‘election analysis’ is apparent. The Election Law makes it a corrupt practice and an offence for a candidate to seek votes on the basis of an appeal to a voter’s religion or caste. But just look at what the pundits are saying on the channels. They explain why the Muslim voters voted the way they did, or a Brahmin or Dalit voter, for instance, voted whom and why – to drive home the point that voters vote according to their perception of who would serve their caste/community interests better. While offering this punditry, they don’t offer us any proof or data to sustain their claim – whether it is Yogendra Yadav, or Prannoy Roy. Only the other day, during the campaign, Prannoy Roy was grilling a BJP leader why the BJP campaign in the elections has been blatantly communal, as witnessed by him, while listening to the speeches of second-line leaders. Now, if the pundits could explain the voter behaviour in terms of religion and caste, what great objection could be there if candidates appeal to voters’ religion and caste either overtly or covertly. If election law bars only overt appeal by candidates, and if the pundits could continue their sophisticated analysis unhindered suggesting motives to voters and candidates, can there be a greater hypocrisy than this? Well, it is possible to suggest that the media pundits are only explaining a reality. Fair enough. But why the candidates are barred from campaigning openly on the basis of this reality? Is our democracy not open and transparent enough – at least from the point of our electoral laws? Or is it the assumption of our election laws that the voters are generally swayed by the appeals to caste and community, and therefore, it is necessary that the voters overcome such prejudices, and exercise vote in a free and fair manner? Does it not follow that there is an implicit assumption that the Indian voters are really immature – which is not the case in reality. Many post-election analysts have also shown that voters had voted beyond such narrow appeals attempted by parties and candidates.
Update: Is there an inconsistency between the bar of the election law on appeals on the basis of religion and caste, and the reality? My quick research suggests that the Representation of Peoples’ Act, 1951 bars only appeals to voters on the basis of the candidates’ religion or caste; that is, a candidate cannot ask the voters to either vote him because of his religion or caste, or refrain from voting the other candidate because of the other candidate’s religion or caste. (Section 123 (3) as interpreted by the Supreme Court). However, if a party or candidate runs a campaign appealing to the voters on the basis of voters’ religion or caste, it is not a corrupt practice under the R.P. Act. The Supreme Court had an opportunity to examine this issue in Narayan Singh v. Sunderlal Patwa (2003 9 SCC 300), but referred the matter to larger Bench of seven Judges, which is yet to be constituted. Considering this, there is considerable scope for a serious academic to examine whether the campaign speeches of various party leaders in the election in U.P. violated the R.P.Act, or short of violating, in view of the apparent lacuna in the Act, actually influenced the voters’ choice because of their communal or caste overtones. I wonder why the so-called secular parties, who have been critical of Justice J.S.Verma’s judgment on campaign use of Hindutva (justifying it as a way of life rather than as a corrupt practice) (Ramesh Yeshwant Prabhoo case (1996 1 SCC 130), have not even considered the need to amend the Act to fill this lacuna.
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15 years ago

Often ‘experts’ dont explain, they explain away :). I wonder whether the victory of BSP can be explained
as solely due to caste alignments
and alliances. The reality is likely to be more complex.There are
other factors like split of votes,
preference for one over others.
Analysis in terms of swings and
shifts in votes do not explain
these fully. But in the age of
quick sound bites, images and
graphics, news channels rely
more on them than any sound
analysis. Identity politics
is alive and kicking. It is naive to argue that caste based politics
is good while religion based politics is plain communalism.
The interface between identity
politics and law, particularly
electoral law needs further analysis. I have a question:
If a woman candidate appeals to
women voters to vote for her as she
is a woman is that permissible/
valid according to electoral law.
Does the law talk of positive and
negative identies that can be used
and not to be used, respectively,
in canvassing for votes and in
electoral campaigns.
ravi srinivas

15 years ago

I don’t understand you. Whom are you accusing of hypocrisy? The election analysts? The voters? Or the politicians?

Yes, caste and religion are a reality of our society but they are also faultlines. The last time we had open appeals along communal lines, we had the gory spectacle of partition. I presume this is why it has been decided that even though we all know that people vote along caste and religious lines, there is nonetheless a law to prevent campaigning which openly appeals to caste and religion. We all know that this law will be imperfect at best – there are any number of ways of circumventing such restrictions – but it does not follow that the law is useless. It, I think, serves the purpose of preventing the faultlines of our society from becoming deeper.

In a more mature democracy, perhaps, we would not need such restrictions. I guess the fact that we need such a law is a testament to the weakness of our polity. However, I don’t think that this law is necessarily hypocritical – all societies, at some point or the other, have such “inconsistent” laws.

At any rate, under the current dispensation, parties like the BJP, even if they appeal along communal lines, at least shy away from saying so openly – if one goes by the statements of their leaders. Would you have us lose even that minimal degree of control?


15 years ago

Dear Mr. Venkatesan,

The analysts are merely expressing an opinion. As someone (I think American) said, the only way of countering a bad argument is to come up with a better one. Banning is not going to solve the problem. I suspect you and I are not going to agree here but I would rather let the analysts have their say. We have too many infringements on freedom of expression as it is – the latest outrage in Madurai for one – and I don’t want our country going further down that slope.

So far as lacuna in law is concerned, don’t you think that no matter what we come up with, there will always be infringements? Caste and religious divides are a reality of our society and someone or the other is going to be tempted to use it in a cynical manner for electoral purposes. And if one is creative enough – by using euphemisms etc. – then one can always find ways of violating the spirit if not the letter of the law.

I have little belief that the law can be made so “airtight” so as to eliminate this type of cynical usage of religion and caste altogether. On the other hand, what I think will happen is that we will add more and more restrictions as we keep discovering violations until we reach the stage that no one knows what the law means precisely. I am reminded here of Bibek Debroy’s anecdote about how the regulations for imports at some point during our licence-permit raj got so complicated that no one knew what it all meant. Effectively, the law was whatever the relevant bureaucrat decided. (It doesn’t require great imagination to see how this lead to corruption.)

In my opinion, the situation is not so grave as to demand a change in or strengthening of the current law. But that is simply my opinion.


15 years ago

In a diverse country like ours with many fault lines, it is vital that narrow partisanship along the lines don’t get instituitionalized and legitimized in public sphere. I agree that enforcing and tightening these laws are first, going to be challenged on the basis of freedom of speech, thought, expression and second very difficult to enforce . However I believe that it is important to set benchmarks in law for decent behaviour in electioneering. This does not mean they won’t be breached, but at least they will be on the books so we all know what is permissible and what is not. This must be done in consultation with all political parties. Of course the politician will outwit the rules. But
pretension and hypocrisy are the next best thing to the ideal situation and far better than untrammelled parochialism.