Prodded by the Supreme Court, the Election Commission (EC) has demonstrated that it is not so ‘powerless and toothless’ after all. On Monday, the EC imposed a nationwide campaign ban for 72 hours on UP Chief Minister Adityanath and Samajwadi Party’s Azam Khan and a 48-hour bar on Union Minister Maneka Gandhi and BSP chief Mayawati for their ‘provocative’ communal remarks which had the ‘propensity to polarise the elections’. In an attempt to preclude any allegation of bias, the poll panel has penalised two leaders each from the ruling BJP and Opposition parties. The EC has emphatically made its intent clear to go beyond merely issuing advisories and registering complaints.
The action is laudable as well as timely, while the pan-country ban is perhaps unprecedented. During the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Azam Khan and BJP stalwart Amit Shah had been barred from campaigning in Uttar Pradesh over their controversial remarks. The ban on Shah was lifted a few days later after he assured the EC that he would not disturb public tranquillity and law and order; since Khan had not given a similar assurance, the curbs on him continued. A canvassing ban had also been clamped on BJP’s Giriraj Singh in Jharkhand and Bihar that year for saying that people who don’t vote for Narendra Modi would have to find a place in Pakistan.
Now that the EC has ‘woken up’, as the Supreme Court observed, it should initiate stricter action — if required — and not hesitate from taking to task even the most powerful leaders. There is a famous precedent, dating back to 1999. Acting on an apex court order, the EC had banned Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray from voting and contesting in any election for six years as he had repeatedly sought votes in the name of religion. Such steps can act as a major deterrent and force politicians to think twice before they make hate speeches and irresponsible utterances. More importantly, the EC needs to acquire powers to derecognise parties and disqualify candidates in case the speakers don’t mend their ways.