Barely ten days after the Election Commission used its special powers to reject votes cast by two rebel Congress MLAs in the high-stakes Rajya Sabha polls in Gujarat, Election Commissioner O P Rawat spoke out against the “creeping new normal of political morality” here on Thursday.
“Democracy thrives when elections are free, fair and transparent. However, it appears to a cynical common man that we have been scripting a narrative that places maximum premium on winning at all costs — to the exclusion of ethical considerations,” he said in his keynote address delivered at the ‘Consultation on Electoral and Political Reforms’ organised by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR).
“In this narrative, poaching of legislators is extolled as smart political management; strategic introduction of money for allurement, tough-minded use of state machinery for intimidation etc. are all commended as resourcefulness.
“The winner can commit no sin; a defector crossing over to the ruling camp stands cleansed of all the guilt as also possible criminality. It is this creeping ‘new normal’ of political morality that should be the target for exemplary action by all political parties, politicians, media, civil society organisations, constitutional authorities and all those having faith in democratic polity for better election, a better tomorrow,” he added.
Rawat’s remarks are significant against the backdrop of the political storm that raged at the time of Rajya Sabha polls in Gujarat. Congress lost six MLAs in the state to BJP ahead of the August 8 elections, leaving its candidate Ahmed Patel with very little leeway in the final count. The Congress then herded its remaining 44 legislators to a luxury resort in Karnataka to prevent any further defections.
Within days, the Income Tax department searched 60 premises linked to Karnataka Energy Minister D K Shivakumar who was overseeing the stay of these MLAs. Questioning the timing of the raid, the Congress accused BJP of misusing its resources and sought the Election Commission’s protection.
However, the most dramatic twist came on the day of the election, when the EC, in a rare move, invoked Article 324 of the Constitution to revoke the decision of its Returning Officer (RO) in the state and declare invalid the votes cast by two rebel Congress MLAs in favour of the BJP candidate.
Congress party leader Shaktisinh Gohil had alleged that Bholabhai Gohil and Raghavjibhai Patel had voted for the BJP and showed their ballots to BJP party president Amit Shah, who was one of the candidates.
Although the BJP sent a high-profile delegation, led by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, to convince the EC otherwise, the poll panel concluded that the two Congress MLAs had violated secrecy norms by disclosing their choice to unauthorised persons, other than the party’s election agent.
At the ADR meet today, Rawat also spoke against the practice of paid news and said that it should be made an electoral offence punishable by two years of imprisonment. Apart from calling for a limit on the election expenditure of political parties, he reiterated the Commission’s reservations on proposed electoral bonds and the amendment to the Representation of the People Act which permits political parties to not disclose details of donors contributing funds through electoral bonds.