The Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Mr. N. Gopalaswami has sought to justify the stringent and often draconian steps taken by the Election Commission (EC) to curb campaigning during elections in the form of putting up posters, banners, wall writing and display of symbols.
In an article, “Election, a democratic festival?” in The Hindu dated May 31, 2008, the CEC has justified the restrictions on campaigning and dismissed the criticism of the EC as those who want “spice and colour” in the election. The entire piece and the reasoning put out by the CEC reveals the problem. It is not a matter of “spice and colour” but the right of political campaigning which is the essence of a democratic system.
Mr. Gopalaswami argues that the steps taken by the Election Commission to prevent posters and flags to be put up in the public places and in private houses have been welcomed by parties and candidates who have no money power. He also takes pains to counter the criticism that such steps had actually promoted the use of cash and liquor to bribe voters. The CEC cites various laws in the states against defacement of public and private properties. In doing so, he has taken a typical bureaucratic approach. What he does not realize is that the Election Commission wittingly, or, unwittingly has struck a blow at the right of every political party and the citizens to participate in the democratic process.
Firstly, parties like the CPI(M) consider a election not just as an opportunity to get candidates elected but also as an occasion for a party to campaign politically to put across its views and policies. It seeks to do so by postering, wall writing, leafleting and widespread display of slogans and messages with a political content. In fact, the expenditure on such campaigning would be minimal compared to the lavish expenditure indulged in by certain parties and candidates. Nobody will complain if the EC stops lavish hoardings, big cutouts, use of vehicle processions etc. All these require large amounts of money and resources. But by prohibiting ordinary political campaigning and canvassing the EC has facilitated more expensive forms of campaigning. A poor man’s party would use wall writing and in villages even handwritten posters and billboards to put across its message. In the recent years, we have seen curbs on such campaigning, while the setting up of big hoardings as used for corporate advertisements is allowed.
Secondly, the directions of the Election Commission have led to officials on election duty transgressing the fundamental rights of citizens. Time and again, in the recent period during elections, citizens have not been allowed to fly party flags or put up banners on their houses. How can the EC prevent a citizen from flying a flag in his own house? This is a violation of the fundamental right of a citizen. The restrictions have gone to the ridiculous extent in certain instances, of the trade unions not being allowed to fly the red flag on their offices because of the similarity with a party flag.
Thirdly, the guidelines of the Election Commission are getting interpreted by the officers at various levels to restrict electioneering. The situation is getting worse and worse. In the recent Karnataka election, some official interpreted the guidelines to stop the CPI(M) campaign in a constituency on the grounds that it has not put up a candidate there. So, no permission would be given for a public meeting to be held by the Party to tell the people of the constituency about its stand. At the same time, those parties and candidates with money can put advertisements in newspapers and the television cable network paying huge amounts of money to propagate their views all over the state.
Fourthly, The net result of such gimmicky and bureaucratic steps is to discourage cheap electioneering while nothing is done to prevent rampant use of money. The CEC himself states that, “The total value of hard cash, liquor, and goodies seized in Karnataka has Rs. 45.57 crore, the highest value (by a wide margin) in any general election to a State in my four years in the EC.”
As for this blatant use of illegal money power, Mr. Gopalaswami can only plead that it is a symptom of a wider malaise. While decrying this danger, he seeks to erroneously defend the restrictions on genuine electioneering.
Where the CEC and the EC have been innovative in finding ways, at times by stretching the law to deprive political parties and citizens of the right to political participation and campaigning, the question can be asked why have they not taken such firm measures against the well-known polluters of democracy and the criminal use of illegal methods. Has the EC nailed the candidates and the parties that use such illegal methods as distributing crores of rupees?
Regrettably, the truth is, the CEC is blinded by class prejudice. This makes him go after the poor activist who paints a satirical political cartoon on the walls of Kolkata while merely bemoaning the shameful and gross use of ill-gotten money.
The CEC seems driven by good intentions. But the way to hell is often paved with good intentions.