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Indian candidates push limits in electoral battle

India's election commission receives thousands of complaints accusing candidates of flouting the panel's code of conduct, which regulates the behaviour of parties and candidates.

Narendra Modi has been accused of using religious propaganda in his speeches during India’s election. AFP / May 4, 2014
Narendra Modi has been accused of using religious propaganda in his speeches during India’s election. AFP / May 4, 2014

NEW DELHI // A massive backdrop of the Hindu deity Ram loomed over Narendra Modi as he addressed a campaign rally in the town of Faizabad.

The prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), known for his right-wing Hindu politics, invoked the deity in his speech. “I assure you from Lord Ram’s land [that] I will fight corruption throughout my life,” he said on Monday.

In doing so, Mr Modi risked flouting the election commission’s code of conduct, which regulates the behaviour of parties and candidates during elections.

Its first rule, in fact, forbids candidates from activities that “may aggravate existing differences or … cause tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic”.

One of the BJP’s rivals, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), complained about the Faizabad rally to the election commission, accusing Mr Modi of breaking the rule by using “rabid” religious propaganda, and asking officials to “take action against this electoral offence”.

But its complaint is only one of thousands that the election commission receives during every election. Parties and candidates complain about their rivals; the public registers its own complaints; the commission’s officials, touring the country, record potential infringements of the code of conduct as well.

In this election, as the campaigning has become progressively uglier, the code’s efficacy has frequently seemed shaky.

“The code’s intentions are good and its rules are clear,” said Anil Verma, who works with the Association for Democratic Reforms, a New Delhi-based non-profit organisation. “But it’s easy to wonder if the code has any real teeth.”

The code of conduct came into effect during state elections in Kerala in 1960, but it began to be strengthened and expanded only in the 1990s. Before that, the election commission concerned itself mainly with organising fair, safe and smooth polling, offering few moral objections to campaigns.

Apart from maintaining decorum, the code of conduct also forbids bribing or intimidation of voters, canvassing within 100 metres of a polling booth, campaigning in the 36 hours before polling, and the use of state resources by the campaigns of incumbent parties.

“By and large, the code of conduct manages to enforce these regulations,” Mr Verma said. “It’s only when it comes to decorum in campaigning that they haven’t really been able to forcefully implement their rules. There has been so much petty language and name-calling in this election already.”

In at least two instances, the election commission has cracked down on politicians who violated its regulations.

Last month, Amit Shah, one of Mr Modi’s aides, was banned from campaigning for a week in the state of Uttar Pradesh, as was Azam Khan, a politician from the Samajwadi Party, which rules the state.

Both politicians had made “highly inflammatory speeches”, the election commission said in a letter to the Uttar Pradesh government.

But in other cases, action has not yet been taken. Mr Modi, for example, flouted the rule against canvassing near a polling booth, by photographing himself in Vadadora with the logo of the BJP prominently displayed. Police are still investigating the incident.

There have also been widespread rumours of cash bribes for voters throughout the month-long election. Complaints of rigging emerged in the state of West Bengal, although these were dismissed by an election commission official.

Mr Modi took on the commission directly in a speech on Sunday. He claimed it had been unable to stop rigging and violence in West Bengal and Bihar, and said: “If the EC [election commission] doesn’t like what I’m saying, they can file another case against me.”

The election commission is hampered by restricted powers in enforcing the code of conduct.

Nikhil Mehra, a lawyer who practices in the supreme court, said that in many situations the commission can only direct state governments to file cases and investigate alleged offences because of its own powers to investigate breaches of the code of conduct are limited.

If found guilty, offenders can face disqualification, fines or, in extreme cases, jail terms.

“So the election commission can write a hundred letters, but what can it do when state governments don’t comply?” Mr Mehra said. “It can go to the supreme court and sue a state government, maybe.” But the chance of that happening was slim, he said.

The commission is empowered to declare a particular election invalid or even suspend the recognition of political parties if an investigation by a state government reveals deliberate breaches of the electoral code, but these are extreme measures and not often used.

Another challenge the commission faces is a lack of time.

“When the heat is on, there is very little time to investigate and give a decision quickly,” Mr Verma said. “They feel that a rap on the knuckles is enough.

“But because of that, the politicians have figured out that they can do and say what they want during the campaign, and merely tender an apology when the commission demands it,” he said. “They know now that they can get away with this.”

ssubramanian@thenational.ae