In a significant setback to laissez-faire politics, the Election Commission has unsheathed its extraordinary powers to put on ice four leaders who have been firing from the lip in the course of what is turning out to be a very vituperative election campaign. UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Azam Khan of the Samajwadi Party have been taken off the campaign trail for 72 hours, while BSP chief Mayawati and BJP minister Maneka Gandhi have got off lighter, with 48 hours. This institutional response to disregard for the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) was overdue, and desperately necessary for maintaining the integrity of the poll process and the perceived validity of the next government which takes office.
The offences of the four campaigners, cutting across party lines, are similar. Mayawati has been pulled up for appealing explicitly to Muslim voters in Saharanpur and Bareilly, though the MCC forbids references to particular religions. Gandhi’s offence was similar — she had indicated that she would be unsympathetic to Muslims of Sultanpur who did not vote for her. Her position disregards constitutional assurances of equality, and the obvious principle that an elected representative must stand for her entire constituency. Adityanath had expressed a loaded religious binary, and Khan had made a gender-insensitive remark about Jaya Prada, the BJP candidate from Rampur. Khan has been treated as a serial offender, and is the only one of the four who was not given a chance to explain himself.
These strictures were extremely necessary not only to ensure the sanctity of the polls, but also to salvage the institutional reputation of the EC, which has suffered some damage in the course of this campaign. This is how institutions should assert themselves when they are treated with impunity. In the past, the custodian of the world’s biggest election has been globally admired as the gold standard, thanks to the exertions of reformist chief election commissioners, the most radical being T N Seshan, who put every polling booth and every voter under watch. But this year, 66 former bureaucrats felt impelled to write to the President about the EC’s perceived reluctance to deal with poll code violations, especially when the ruling party transgressed. Having clipped the wings of four major leaders, the institution is regaining its footing, though it remains to be seen if it is prepared to deploy its maximum powers when the most powerful campaigners in contemporary politics transgress. Perceptions matter. How tall an institution stands is gauged by the shadow it casts. In Seshan’s time, booth capturing parties feared the EC as the wrath of God. It has stood diminished in recent weeks on account of lethargic responses, but now, it appears to have got a grip on the situation.