In a first, in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls, the Election Commission has asked Facebook to remove two political posters featuring the photo of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman alongside those of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and BJP MLA Om Prakash Sharma. These posters, according to the EC, were a violation of the Model Code of Conduct that came into effect with the announcement of elections a few days ago. There is a welcome message in this: That the EC is watching, especially the ruling dispensation, for any bid to misuse public money or monopolise public spaces to skew the playing field. The poll monitor is mindful of the fact that Pulawama-Balakot aftermath could provide an irresistible invitation to throw responsibility and caution to the poll winds. Its decision marks a first because it holds to account a political player in the social media space. So far, so reassuring. But the EC action is also an invitation to ask a question, search for an answer: While the Commission must ensure that the campaign broadly maintains a modicum of fairness and mutual civility, must it also be ceded the authority to police the list of subjects that must or must not be politicised? In a lively democracy, surely the political parties in the fray must be free and able to make that choice for themselves?
The spectre of the EC becoming the arbiter of what can and cannot be talked about by contestants ahead of polls is not entirely unreal. An important reason for that is the abdication of responsibility by the political party. In the case of the face-off with Pakistan, even as the ruling party tries to squeeze votes out of a grave moment of escalation with a neighbouring country, and labels the Opposition’s interventions as anti-national or unpatriotic, the Opposition seems unable to challenge the allegation and make its point. But this tableau — of a rampaging government and a tongue-tied Opposition — is not new or specific to Pulwama-Balakot. Over the last five years, ever since the Modi-led BJP assumed charge at the Centre, it has played out over and over again. The BJP has repeatedly thrown down the gauntlet of a muscular nationalism, hurled names at the Opposition like the “tukde tukde gang”, and the Opposition has repeatedly looked unable to confidently frame a political response. The result is the clamour that the issue be quarantined altogether from the electoral fray, and that the EC should mind the political parties’ poll language.
It is true that even the Model Code of Conduct is not an external imposition on the political parties — it draws its power from a shared consensus about the rules of the game. Yet, political parties need to think about whether they are reducing their own space for manoeuvre — and, importantly, constricting the possibilities of democratic debate — by delineating one no-go area too many. The Opposition needs to come up with its own vocabulary, powerful and evocative, that calls out the abuse of patriotism. To let EC play the monitor on this is lazy and ineffective.