Bhaiyon aur behnon, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s familiar words rang in the Lok Sabha last Thursday. Some MPs chuckled. Modi was replying to the debate on the Motion of Thanks to the President’s address but something else was weighing on his mind. He quickly corrected, “Mananiya adhyakshji (Respected Speaker) aur….”
According to the rules, a member of the Lok Sabha has to address the chair. In this age of live telecast and social media, MPs know their real audience. In Modi’s case, the slip of the tongue gave it away. It was the last day of campaigning in the Delhi election. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots dominated Modi’s 90-minute speech. He chose to reply in the Rajya Sabha on the same day.
The Delhi election campaign ended that evening. The Model Code of Conduct (MCC) bars leaders from holding public meetings for 48 hours before the end of polling. The next day, the Prime Minister addressed a rally in Kokrajhar in Assam, saying that the country will not tolerate or forgive the “anti-India mentality” over the CAA. He didn’t refer to Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh — he didn’t have to.
Bypassing the code
Modi didn’t violate the MCC; he was speaking in Assam. His political adversaries squirm over what they feel is more than a coincidence that the PM addresses functions and meetings — telecast live and buzzing on social media — after election campaigns have officially ended or when the voting is still on.
When voting was underway in Jharkhand on 20 December 2019, the PM was addressing an ASSOCHAM event, claiming that he saved the Indian economy from disaster.
Two years before that, on 13 December 2017, he was at a FICCI event, showcasing his government’s achievements and the UPA-era scams. It was the day after campaigning for the Gujarat assembly election had ended.
On the day of voting, on 14 December, TV channels were beaming live the PM commissioning the country’s first Scorpene-class submarine, INS Kalvari, into the Indian Navy in Mumbai and showcasing it as a success of ‘Make in India’.
These instances may be mere coincidences. But there are many others, suggesting a pattern. Are they in violation of the MCC? Of course not. It’s a smart election strategy to get around the Model Code of Conduct.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has been no different. People discovered him as a Hanuman-bhakt after his recital of Hanuman Chalisa in a TV interview.
On Friday, a day after the campaign officially ended, he went to a Hanuman temple in central Delhi to offer prayers — with reporters and camera crew capturing every moment, of course. Known to emulate Narendra Modi, Kejriwal was trying to do through his temple visit what his political idol was doing in Kokrajhar — getting around the MCC and continuing with the campaign.
On Saturday, when voting was underway, voters in Delhi were receiving a voice message from “aapka apna (your own) Kejriwal”. What could the Election Commission do about this last-minute campaigning? Nothing.
EC’s selective interventions
The MCC’s genesis lies in a set of dos and don’ts in the 1960 Kerala assembly election. It was consolidated in its present form in 1991 when T.N. Seshan was the chief election commissioner (CEC). Much water has flown under the bridge since then. The code probably needs to be made legally enforceable, as recommended by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice in August 2013. “It is expedient to enact law for giving statutory back-up to MCC leaving no vacuum for ECI to exercise its power which is residuary in nature,” the committee said.
But it didn’t take into account the possibility of the election watchdog deciding to sleep and play a partisan role, as the present-day Election Commission has done. No MCC can ensure a fair poll in such a scenario.
After BJP MP Parvesh Verma called Kejriwal a “terrorist”, the EC banned him from campaigning for 96 hours. But when Union Minister Prakash Javadekar repeated it, saying that there is ample evidence to prove the Delhi Chief Minister is a terrorist, the EC looked the other way.
Parvesh Verma must be thanking the EC. A colleague in ThePrint heard a beaming Verma telling his aides, “Look at them (queues of foreign and Indian TV channels outside his house). All these years, I kept talking about development but nobody heard!” His profile in the BJP went up. The BJP chose him to initiate the debate on the Motion of Thanks on the President’s address in the Lok Sabha.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath ran a vitriolic campaign in Delhi, making wild allegations in his speeches against Kejriwal. He accused the Delhi CM of feeding ‘biryani’ to Shaheen Bagh protesters and of having “partnership” with Pakistan. The EC waited until the last day of campaigning to issue Adityanath a notice, giving him time until Friday evening to respond.
A Congress mistake
It’s not the first time that the EC’s actions have raised questions about its objectivity. It had delayed the announcement of Gujarat election in 2017, drawing insinuations about it waiting for PM Modi to hold a rally in Ahmedabad and the BJP government to announce multiple sops for Gujarat.
The EC’s decision to conduct elections in Maharashtra in a single phase and in Jharkhand in five phases didn’t help its image either.
In a stinging indictment of the commission, former CEC S.Y. Quraishi wrote in The Indian Express Saturday: “In its notice to BJP leader Anurag Thakur, EC cited Section 123 and 125 of the RP Act. What is baffling, however, is that if the commission had found them guilty of offences deserving punishment, why did it stop short of filing FIRs?…Not taking action under the IPC encouraged the worthies like Parvesh Sahib Singh Verma to commit a repeat offence…”
The Congress cries foul over the EC’s conduct but the opposition party has itself to blame.
When it was in power, it should have heeded to then opposition leader L.K. Advani. In a letter to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2012, Advani had recommended a collegium system — comprising the PM, the Chief Justice of India, the law minister and the leaders of opposition in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha — to appoint the election commissioners. He had argued that the existing selection process — the President appointing the commissioners on the advice of the Prime Minister — was vulnerable to “manipulation and partisanship”.
The Congress, then the ruling party, had simply ignored the letter — yet another mistake for the Modi-led BJP to revel in.