Updated: April 4, 2021 7:55:04 am
The Election Commission Saturday reduced its 48-hour campaign ban on Assam Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma to 24 hours after the powerful BJP leader offered what he called an “unconditional regret” and requested the poll panel to halve the ban period.
Withdrawal or relaxation of campaign bans is rare. During the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the EC had lifted its ban on BJP leader Amit Shah’s electioneering in Uttar Pradesh after he assured the poll panel that he would not “make any utterances violative” of the conduct code.
Saying it was “deeply dismayed and disappointed,” the Opposition Congress, which filed the complaint that led to the ban, said the move raised “several doubts” and the poll panel had “singularly failed” to discharge its obligations to preserve the purity of the electoral process.
With Saturday’s rollback, Sarma, who is contesting from the Jalukbari seat in the third and final phase of Assam elections on April 6, can now attend rallies and meetings during the last 24 hours before campaigning ends in the state. Beginning 8 am Sunday, he is slated to appear at a string of rallies and road shows including one with Home Minister Amit Shah in Suwalkuchi at 3 pm.
The EC’s initial order Friday debarred Sarma for the rest of the campaign. He was penalised for his remark against Bodoland People’s Front Chairperson Hagrama Mohilary. Interestingly, the same day, the EC also transferred his brother and Goalpara SP Sushanta Biswa from the district.
The EC decision to ban him was taken on a complaint by the Congress that Sarma had “openly threatened” to send Bodoland Peoples’ Party (BPF) chief Hagrama Mohilary to jail by “misusing” the National Investigation Agency. BPF is part of the Congress-led alliance.
In his speech at a rally held on March 28, Sarma had said, “If Hagrama Mohilary does extremism with (insurgent) Batha he will go to jail. This is a straight talk… Already got a lot of evidence. This case is being given to NIA (National Investigation Agency)… And I do not care any Hagrama .. Tagrama. These arms recovery cases will be counted one by one after the election.”
On Saturday morning, Sarma submitted a representation to EC urging a rethink: “…I would like to humbly state that during my entire career in politics more particularly during my election campaigns I have not attacked anyone at personal level and also, never violated any norms of Model Code of Conduct issued by the Election Commission of India.”
He said that a ban in the last leg of elections would cause “irreparable loss and prejudice” to him and his party since his seat goes to polls on April 6.
“Therefore it is my most earnest and humble prayer to Your Honour to accept my sincere regret and assurance of abiding MCC in future and be further pleased to reduce the period of debarment from election campaign from 48 hours to 24 hours,” he wrote in his letter to Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora.
The Commission accepted his request and ordered a partial rollback by Saturday afternoon.
An official in the EC toldThe Sunday Express that the Commission took a lenient view because of Sarma’s candidature. “It would be harsh to penalise a candidate when he has given an unconditional apology and assurance to follow the MCC in future,” he said.
This rollback comes after the EC ordered a repoll in a polling station in Assam and suspended four officials for transporting an Electronic Voting Machine in a vehicle owned by a BJP candidate.
The second phase of voting in Assam, on April 1, recorded a 77 per cent turnout – the third and the final phase covering 40 seats is April 6.
“This is unheard of in the annals of Parliamentary history that the chief election watchdog reverses its own decision made upon a complaint by a complainant without the courtesy of even a notice to that complainant,” senior Congress leader Ashwani Kumar said. “We do not know under what circumstances the Commission was persuaded by a mere letter from Mr Sarma…The people of India who are wise, who are sagacious will understand what the real reasons could have been.”
Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi took to Twitter saying that the EC seems to have torn out he page on “impartiality” from its rulebook. “Under what pressure was the ban on a BJP leader who had issued a threat reduced from 48 hours to 24 hours?” she tweeted.
“Election ‘Commission,’” senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said in a cryptic tweet.
The Congress said Sarma’s letter didn’t throw any new light. That he is a candidate was known before the order was passed, the party said. “There is nothing new that has been brought to the notice of the Election Commission except for the fact that in the earlier complaint he had denied the allegations and in the latest application he expressed regret. So even after he has admitted to wrongdoing his punishment period has been reduced. This is unheard of in any judicial or quasi judicial proceeding without notice to the complainant,” Kumar said.
Sarma’s debarment was the second this election season.
On April 1, the EC banned DMK leader A Raja from the poll campaign for 48 hours and removed his name from the star campaigners list for his derogatory remarks against Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami. The decision had come days after he issued a public apology for his comment.
However, in his interim reply to EC’s notice, Raja sought a copy of the complaint and an opportunity of personal hearing, which the EC said was an “attempt to buy time”.
(with ENS, Guwahati)