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Varun Gandhi must be punished; but he’s not the only one in the dock

Written by Vinay Sitapati |
March 19, 2009 10:48:39 pm

Asked what drew him to poetry,Varun Gandhi,author of The Otherness of Self,explained: “Because it is so precise and illustrates the strength of language.” The politician in Varun Gandhi has reason to regret these lessons of verse. In a now-infamous speech while campaigning for the BJP in Pilibhit,his targeting of Muslims was too precise and his language too strong for his own good. Gandhi risks having his candidacy cancelled,and could spend up to three years in jail.

The Representation of the People Act and the model Election Code of Conduct prohibit candidates from campaigning by “promoting communal disharmony”; the Indian Penal Code criminalises any words that create “feelings of enmity” between “religious communities”. There’s little doubt that Gandhi’s unprintable comments are in clear violation of these laws. He now faces two different proceedings. One is in court: if found guilty,he might even spend three years in jail,rendering him unfit for elected office. The other is by the Election Commission. In his defence,Varun Gandhi alleges that the tapes are “doctored”,“a malicious attempt to brand me as communal”,and in any case did not cause any violence. But live TV is as smoking a gun as they come,and as former attorney general Soli Sorabjee says: “the question is the words and their tendency; not whether any violence resulted.”

Standing in the dock with Varun Gandhi — on lesser charges — are the Election Commission and the BJP.

The EC has a hard won reputation for free and fair elections; but its record for punishing hate speech is a blank page. Though 3423 candidates are currently barred from standing for elections due to “corrupt electoral practices”,no election has ever been invalidated because the winner made communal speeches. This is partly,but only partly,because clever candidates have managed to circumvent the laws by double-speak. In 1996,for instance,the Supreme Court didn’t invalidate Manohar Joshi’s Lok Sabha election even though he vowed that “the first Hindu state will be established in Maharashtra”; the court let him off as his words were “at best,the expression of such a hope”. Candidate Ramesh Prabhoo’s exhortation to vote for “Hindutva” was similarly held not to constitute a religious cry as “Hindutva per se” could refer to “a way of life”. But since Varun Gandhi’s precise and strong language leaves him no such wiggle room,here’s a golden chance for the courts and the EC to open their accounts and actually disbar a candidate for hate speech. They’ve made the right noises so far. With rare consensus,all three election commissioners endorsed action against Gandhi,and an FIR has been filed. The EC and the courts must see this through till the very end.

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The BJP’s reaction is just as important. From winning 57 Lok Sabha seats from UP in 1998,the BJP is reduced to 10. And with polls predicting the BJP scrambling for third place once again,galvanising the base makes electoral sense. Varun Gandhi,arms outstretched in messianic zeal,certainly hoped to do just that. And if the sporadic clapping and gentle tittering of the audience in the grainy video is any indication,they got the message. All the more important,thus,that the BJP condemn the speech and discipline Gandhi. Any sign of equivocation for electoral gain — and the BJP’s cautious “we condemn the contents of the speech,but it might be doctored” approach is exactly that — will help spread the poison of those words.

A penitent sinner,proactive watchdog and introspective party will help end this sordid affair. But there’s another voice that needs to be heard — the people’s. As it is,liberal theory finds it hard to defend limits to free speech of any kind. It’s even harder to defend curbs on political speech while campaigning — after all,should not the voter hear everything before deciding? Even legally,since “democracy” is part of the sacred “basic structure” of India’s Constitution,it can be argued that any limit to campaign speech (under Article 19(2)) is “undemocratic” and so unconstitutional. Better then,that the ultimate censors be the voter,the certificate the ballot. It’s worked before. In the 2006 Senate elections in the United States,George Allen — a conservative senator and presidential aspirant from Virginia — was videotaped calling an Indian boy a “macaca” (monkey). The courts did nothing. But the court of public opinion did. Sureshot Allen lost to a neophyte; his presidential suit is now in tatters.

The best way to counter election hate-speak is through people-speak. If the politician in Varun can’t mind his language,the poet in Varun should be left alone to put his “precision” and “strength of language” to rhyme.

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