Editor : Satish Ohri    Edition : January 2018

Need a Moral Code of Campaign

Governments are found complaining about the model code of conduct because it prevents launching of new projects and programmes once the election commission has announced the poll schedule.The ruling party wants simultaneous polls for assemblies and parliament, as was the case till 1967. But after watching or reading mediareports on poll campaign in recent months many would have felt that the ‘model’ code needs to be reinforced urgently by another code, a ‘moral’ code that defines the limits of decency and decorum within which campaigns should be conducted for all polls, from parliamentary to state assemblies and local bodies. It is said that with almost yearly polls in the country the model poll code goes against the interest of the people, depriving them of the fruits of new plans etc. That, of course, is misleading because the pre-poll announcements are primarily intended to lure the voter, no matter what the government or politicians say. The implementation of poll promises is anybody’s guess. Governments or politicians in power are not known to follow up their promises; sometimes they are dismissed as ‘Jumlas’, or mere poll-time rhetoric.The majority of voters are gullible and easily come under the spell of a podium oracle. In support of the call for holding simultaneous polls for state assemblies and parliament it is stated that it will enable governments in the states and the Centre to continue with ‘development’ projects uninterrupted throughout their five-year term except for a few days before the polls. This argument would suggest that announcement of major development projects that benefit the people comes just days before the polls. Why should it be so, assuming it is true? Development is not hindered by polls. While the simultaneous polls issue continues to be debated a moral code of conduct for poll campaign deserves to be enforced without any loss of time for sanity’s sake. Itshould have more stringent rules to punish its breach. At the very least, it should provide for disqualification of candidates and imposing hefty fines. Above all, better ways will have to be found for enforcing the rules. The model code already in operation does debar use of objectionable language which may incite hate, communal violence etc. It also prohibits corrupt practices like distribution of cash or liquor during the poll campaign. It cannot be said that violation of these norms is followed by strict punishment as more often than not the alleged violators get away easily. The run up to the recent polls in UP and Gujarat saw some very ugly campaigning in which rivals resorted to personal attacks against each other and plunging poll campaigning to a new low. Religion figured rather prominently with clear intonations that were questionable. Even a cursory reading of reports on campaigning would show that ‘Vikas’ (development), supposedly an important poll issue in the country, was perhaps the last thing in the minds of most campaigners. Some weeks before the Gujarat polls, a derisive slogan, ‘Vikas gando thaigayo’ (development has gone crazy) had enlivened the social media. It mocked the ‘Vikas’ promise made by the ruling party. The slogan itself does not look objectionable but the social media, as is its wont, went to great lengths to vitiate the atmosphere in trading charges. Circulation of fake news and voyeuristic tapes are becoming a notable feature of poll campaigning. Nothing is heard about those responsible for their circulation and, therefore, nobody gets hauled up before the law.

Since social media warriors are not covered by any poll code there is not much that can be done to stop them from using coarse language or injecting obscenity. But it is different when practitioners of aggressive and questionable language are actually public figures who are expected to talk with some restraint in public. The language spoken by a person holding a responsible position cannot be that of the so-called man on the street. In both UP and Gujarat campaigns religions figured prominently. Many suspect that it was intended to polarise the electorate for getting votes, though the charge is always denied. It will be said that religion is not a taboo subject. But subtle or crass attempts to pit one community against another or to denigrate a rival to get votes cannot be commended. The religion of a candidate or a campaigner matter in a country that prides itself in respecting all religions cannot be an issue at any time. The election commission and its code have failed to arrest the tendency to use religion for electorate politics. It is disturbing that during in Gujarat a hideous hyphenated word, ‘non-Hindu’, suddenly reared from a much worshipped temple and became a campaign issue. Henceforth will all those who profess a religion other than Hindu be clubbed together? ‘Non-Hindu’ may sound harmless but its ramifications can be dangerous. A ‘moral’ code should strictly bar such thoughtless words to be brought into campaigns. Slogans or speeches that talked of uniting the country were rarely heard during the poll campaigns but plenty of words were spoken that have the opposite effect. There is no need to quote excerpts from some of the deplorable speeches made by politicians during the poll campaign in the two states. Suffice it to say that the utterances were provocative enough to invariably invite cruder response. It was surprising that in Gujarat, for instance, ‘Vikas’ meant the ruling party taking credit for just about every good thing that has come to the state since its inception in 1960. While the ruling party can flaunt its achievement, a question that it has to answer is why the state is lagging in many social indices. A moral code could perhaps outline topics that can be covered and the ones that cannot be. While opposition parties should dwell on the alternatives they have to offer, a ruling party will add to its appeal by being honest about its shortcomings. That would be an act of humility that is now almost totally missing in speeches of politicians on any occasion, poll or no poll. In short, poll campaigning in India can do with a bit of refinement. If it requires a new regulatory body with more teeth so be it.

-BAZH Special

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