Electioneering in India has always revolved around campaigning for votes in the name of caste, creed or religion, and political parties with hardly any exception, have shown no scruples in appealing to the voters to cast their votes in the name of caste and in recent times, polarisation has also set in and political parties have begun to use religion as a handy tool to sway the electorate. The relevant sections of the Representation of People’s Act has outlawed this practice, but that has hardly had the desired effect. It is in this context that the recent majority judgment of the Supreme Court which has once again reiterated that the use of caste, creed, religion or language will constitute a corrupt practice and candidates found guilty would be disqualified, has gained prominence.
The relevant portion of the judgment reads, ‘Election is a secular exercise and therefore, a process should be followed. The relationship between man and God is an individual choice and state should keep this in mind.’ The court was interpreting the provision in the Representation of People’s Act, Section 123 (1) which mandates that it would be deemed a corrupt practice if any candidate or his agent or any other person, with his consent, appeals for votes on religious or other such grounds.
The apex court’s interventions in streamlining the election process and in cleaning the Augean stables have been welcomed by large sections of the society. Its judgment calling for compulsory filing of affidavits by candidates declaring their criminal antecedents if any, details of cases pending against them, educational qualifications and assets on hand, have gone a long way in ensuring a high level of transparency in elections.
Another positive development was the disqualification of candidates who had been convicted and sentenced for a term of more than two years, and this led to the cleansing of the system as it checked the entry of criminal elements into the realm of electoral politics. A long felt desire of the electorate regarding rejection of all candidates in the fray in a constituency was also granted by the Supreme Court with the advent of NOTA (None of the above). However, the number of votes cast under NOTA could hardly have an impact on the results as the candidate with the largest number of votes would emerge the winner in any case.
The present judgment however, is likely to have a limited impact, as the country’s electoral history would reveal that in spite of the existence of stringent laws regarding the misuse of religion, there have been hardly any convictions on this score. Further, in a multicultural society like ours where caste is preponderate and candidates can hardly turn a blind eye to the various caste formations, religious groups and language considerations while seeking votes, the judgment could at best contain the vituperative outbursts by candidates flaying one religion or the other, and the inevitable polarisation during election campaigns.
However, even before the ink on the judgment could have run dry, an MP (Member of Parliament) of the ruling party, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), Sakshi Maharaj has already flouted the law by referring to a religious community, that it was perpetuating the triple talak concept and was instrumental in the population explosion in the country with its four wives and forty children syndrome; though he did not name the community, the inference was obvious. The leader has been booked, but this is hardly going to be an isolated case, and with five states going to the polls in the months of February and March, including the country’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh where the stakes are particularly high, there is every chance that political parties will be employing every trick in the book to canvass votes. It would therefore be safe to presume that unless political parties decide to eschew the use of religion in toto and fall in line with the provisions of the Representation of People’s Act, the judgment can only have a very limited effect.