Assembly Election

The elections in West Bengal and Assam have been marked by violations of the Model Code of Conduct

Print edition : May 07, 2021

Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress leader, sits in protest against the Election Commission barring her from campaigning for 24 hours, in Kolkata on April 13. The ECI order came after her remarks against paramilitary forces and a statement which had alleged communal overtones. Photo: BIKAS DAS/AP

Suvendu Adhikari , BJP leader and Mamata Banerjee’s opponent in Nandigram, referred to her as “Begum”. He was served a notice for his reference to “mini Pakistan”. Photo: PTI

The elections, especially in West Bengal and Assam, have been marked by vituperative campaigns and communally polarising statements in violation of the Election Commission’s Model Code of Conduct.

One of the dominant features of the current round of Assembly elections, especially in West Bengal and Assam, has been the aggressive use of language and the choice of words with communal overtones. The competitive communalism in the campaigns of the top leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Trinamool Congress has seen the level of debate sink to a new low, particularly in the context of West Bengal. However, this has not shaken the Election Commission of India (ECI) enough to take cognisance of the utterances and act as it should to bring the leaders into line.

On April 8, on the basis of complaints made by the BJP, the ECI served notice to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for “openly demanding votes on communal grounds” and asked her to explain her remarks within 48 hours. It was with reference to a speech she delivered on April 3 while campaigning at Tarakeshwar in Hooghly district. The objectionable part of her comment pertained to an appeal to the minority community not to vote for the “devil” and insinuations that the BJP and the Left cadre were distributing money.

The part of her speech translated from Bengali reads thus: “I am requesting my minority brothers and sisters with folded hands… don’t divide the minority votes after listening to the devil… who had taken money from the BJP…. He passes many communal comments and initiates clashes between Hindus and Muslims… Comrades of the CPM [Communist Party of India (Marxist)] and the BJP are roaming around with money given by the BJP to divide the minority votes.” According to the ECI, the comments were in violation of the Model Code of Conduct and the Representation of the People Act, 1951.

On April 12, the ECI barred Mamata Banerjee from campaigning for 24 hours for making communally charged remarks and for insinuating that paramilitary forces would attempt to intimidate voters. In one of her speeches she exhorted her supporters, especially women, to “gherao”, or surround, the paramilitary forces. Considering her statements as a portent of “serious law and order problems across the State”, the ECI issued her a warning.

Also read: Election Commission bars Mamata from campaigning for 24 hours, cites violations of model code, the IPC and the RPA

The ECI did not buy her claim that “gherao” was a democratic right. In the fourth phase of polling in the State, four people were killed in a booth in Sitalkuchi, Cooch Behar district, when paramilitary forces opened fire following violence.

Television news channels also debated about who would get the “Muslim” vote. Never in the history of elections in West Bengal has the Muslim “vote” been the focus of such a contentious debate as it has been in this election.

While Mamata Banerjee alluded to the devil and did not name anyone, BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari, her opponent in Nandigram constituency, referred to her as “Begum”. The communal overtones were obvious. He referred to the minority community, too, in disparaging terms, but the Election Commission chose to ignore these references.

Competitive communalism

While campaigning in Cooch Behar on April 10, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that Mamata Banerjee’s Muslim vote bank was slipping away as was evident from her exhortation to Muslims to unite. He said had he made an appeal for “Hindu votes” in a similar fashion, he would have received multiple notices from the ECI. Strangely, here he was making an open appeal to the majority community and yet he has not been served any notice to date.

Throughout the campaign, BJP leaders raised the issue of “tushtikaran”, or “appeasement”, with reference to its oft-repeated charge of the opposition indulging in appeasement politics. The appeasement of the “majority”, on the other hand, has never seemed to be an issue. Along with the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the BJP also kept alive the “refugee” versus “illegal interloper” narrative.

Also read: Game-changing phase in West Bengal

On March 26, Union Home Minister Amit Shah declared that if re-elected to power in Assam, the BJP would bring laws against both “love jehad” and “land jehad”. The BJP’s fight against “land jehad” is on the presumption that land has been encroached upon by illegal immigrants; it promises to give pattas (title deeds) to the indigenous population.

At an election rally on April 13, Modi declared that Mamata Banerjee’s instigation of people to “gherao” paramilitary forces had led to the firing at Sitalkuchi. All the four killed belonged to the minority community. The ECI ignored the insinuation. According to media reports, at least three State BJP leaders justified the firing, with State BJP chief Dilip Ghosh and some others even suggesting that there would be more “Sitalkuchis”. The ECI took notice of this and asked Dilip Ghosh for an explanation.

Rahul Sinha, the BJP candidate in Habra constituency, was banned from campaigning for 48 hours for his remarks that the paramilitary forces should have killed eight persons instead of four. The ECI “condemned” it and warned him to be careful about such statements.

Suvendu Adhikari too was served notice for the contents of his speech on March 29 on a complaint made by the Communist Party of India (ML-Liberation) leader Kavita Krishnan. Alluding to the Trinamool chief, he reportedly said: “Election is knocking at the door. You are not giving votes to Begum. If you vote for Begum, there will be mini-Pakistan. A [don] Dawood Ibrahim has come in your locality.…”

The ECI found him guilty of violating Paragraphs 2 and 3 of Part 1 of the “General Conduct of Model Code of Conduct for the Guidance of Political Parties and their Candidates”. Suvendu Adhikari apparently denied that he had made appeals on caste or communal lines. He is said to have stated that he firmly believed in a fair, free and impartial election where there was no ill will between candidates and no personal attack made against opponents. The ECI let him off with a warning and advised him not to make such utterances as the MCC was in place.

Also read: Election Commission shortens time for campaigning in the last three phases of Assembly election in West Bengal amid COVID surge

The MCC states that “the criticism of political parties shall be confined to their policies and programmes, past record and work. Similarly, criticism of other parties or their workers based on unverified distortions or allegations shall be avoided.”

‘Outsider’ reference

The news agency PTI reported that on April 13, while addressing a meeting in a tea garden town in Jalpaiguri district, Amit Shah, while responding to a Trinamool barb that he was an outsider, said that it was the Left, the Congress and the Trinamool which depended on “outsiders” for votes. The reference was to “illegal immigrants”, which is a delicate issue in the region. He assured the people that all refugees would be given citizenship status.

Mamata Banerjee asked why no notices were sent to the Prime Minister who, she said, constantly referred to a “Hindu” and “Muslim” vote bank. She also wondered why no action was taken for references like “mini Pakistan” by Suvendu Adhikari in the context of Nandigram.

The ECI has an app called cVIGIL, which it launched in March, on which citizens can take and post photographs, videos or audio clips as evidence of alleged violation of the MCC. Electoral violations include distribution of money, liquor, drugs, freebies, free voter transportation, firearms display, intimidation, communal hate speech, paid news, fake news, election expenditure violations, and so on. If the charges are proven, first information reports (FIRs) are registered and criminal action is initiated, besides conducting seizures of cash and liquor.

Also read: Prime Minister Narendra Modi accuses Mamata Banerjee of politics of appeasement

The MCC, as laid down by the ECI, is transparent about what constitutes appropriate election-related behaviour. The first clause under the subcategory “General Conduct” lays down that no party or candidate shall indulge in any activity which may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic.

Modi’s visit to Thakurbari

Clause 3 in the same category states that “there shall be no appeal to caste or communal feelings for securing votes. Mosques, churches, temples or other places of worship shall not be used as forum for election propaganda.” In this context it is to be seen whether Modi’s visit to Thakurbari, the Matua community’s most sacred pilgrimage site in Orakandi in Bangladesh, in the second phase of the election in West Bengal, constituted a poll violation.

The Matuas, a Scheduled Caste subgroup concentrated in 24 North Parganas, Cooch Behar, Nadia, Burdwan and South Dinajpur districts, are considered a politically influential community. Belonging to the broader Scheduled Caste group of Namasudras, the Matuas are said to have gravitated towards the BJP. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the party won two seats in Matua-dominated areas. In the new brand of identity politics forged first by Mamata Banerjee and now by the BJP, there have been attempts to assiduously woo this community.

Hoardings

The Trinamool objected to the use of Modi’s photograph on certificates issued to those who were vaccinated for COVID. As a result, the ECI instructed the Health Ministry to take steps to tweak the software in vaccination registrations in election-bound States and Union Territories to avoid this. It basically urged the need to find a solution. The Health Ministry replied that the vaccination drive had started before the elections were notified on February 26. The ECI asked the Ministry to follow the MCC in letter and spirit. There were issues also about the Prime Minister’s image on hoardings in petrol pumps in the election-bound States. The ECI issued instructions for their removal.

Also read: No holds barred in Bengal as parties gear up for Assembly election

Incidentally, the ECI’s standing instructions issued in 2004 and 2017 say that “all hoardings, advertisements put up by the government which purport to give general information or give general messages to the masses on family planning, social welfare schemes may be allowed to be displayed. However, all those hoardings and advertisements that seek or purport to project the achievements of any living political functionaries or political party and which carry their photos or name or party symbol should be removed forthwith as no political functionary or political party can use public resources or incur or authorise public expenditure from public exchequer to eulogise himself or itself or enhance his/its own or any political leader’s personal image. Such hoardings undoubtedly amount to their individual/party election campaign at public cost.”

General conduct

Clause 2 of the MCC’s “General Conduct” subcategory states that criticism of other political parties shall be confined to their policies and programmes, past record and work. “Parties and candidates shall refrain from criticism of all aspects of private life, not connected with the public activities of leaders or workers of other parties,” it says. But the Prime Minister’s “Didi O Didi” refrain referring to Mamata Banerjee ever since his first rally has angered the Trinamool, which says that its leader is being “mocked at”.

In 2019, Nilotpal Basu, former Rajya Sabha member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), wrote to the ECI urging its intervention to “strongly initiate appropriate action to stop the pre-election atmosphere from being vitiated which is fast degenerating towards polarisation based on identity and assertion of national symbol for partisan electoral interests”. He was referring to Modi’s exhortation, while campaigning in Maharashtra, of first-time voters to dedicate their “first vote” to those who had carried out the Balakot air strikes. Nilotpal Basu appended media reports about the said event along with his complaint. He also drew the ECI’s attention to BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma’s statements that he did not need the votes of “Dhotis and Lungis”, ostensibly a reference to the minority community in Assam.

Also read: The communal narrative in the Assam Assembly election

In the recent elections as well, Sarma is reported to have said that the BJP did not need the votes of 35 per cent of the population, alluding again to the minorities. Sarma is a BJP Minister in the Assam government and the convener of the North East Democratic Alliance, a political coalition. He was issued a show cause notice on April 1 for allegedly making threatening statements against Hagrama Mohilary of the Bodoland People’s Front, which is part of the Congress-led, 10-party Mahajot in Assam.

The MCC is merely a set of norms arrived at with the consensus of political parties and has no teeth. It comes into effect the day the ECI notifies an election. The maximum penalties imposed are in the form of a temporary ban on campaigns, a “silence period” or strictures, advisories and notices in the form of warnings. Under the Representation of the People Act of 1951 and the Indian Penal Code, violations pertaining to communal speeches and holding of rallies during the “silence period” can invoke a jail term of three to six years. But these provisions have seldom been invoked. The ECI does not have the power to disqualify a candidate or derecognise a party.

The ECI’s impartiality and “independent” nature has also been questioned. After all, the appointment of the officers who lead the Commission is done on the basis of a recommendation of the Union Cabinet, which is finally sent to the President for approval. For instance, an eight-phase polling for the 294-member Assembly in West Bengal and a single-phase polling for the 234-member Assembly in Tamil Nadu seemed to make little sense. The more stretched the campaigning in West Bengal has been, the more vituperative it has turned out to be.

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