Shri S.K. Mendiratta was the Legal Advisor for the Election Commission of India. The 79-year-old had been with the poll panel for 53 years, having served under all chief election commissioners except the first. While Mendiratta retired in 1997, he was retained by the EC on contractual basis for another two decades because of his vast knowledge in electoral law. Advisor to the EC on almost all matters of legal importance, he has been part of almost all of its biggest decisions. Mendiratta’s association with the Election Commission ended in 2018.
A spotlight is on Election Commission ( EC) of India which has sent a clear signal to the political parties and leaders that objectionable remarks of any sort in election speeches or meetings won't be tolerated. EC imposed a 72 hour ban on Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu from campaigning for making communal remarks. The Commission has served a notice to controversial BJP candidate Sadhvi Pragya Thakur for controversial remarks. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, BSP supremo Mayawati, BJP leader Maneka Gandhi and SP leader Azam Khan too have been taken to task by the EC which is responsible for holding Lok Sabha and assembly elections in a free and fair manner.
Upset by the election speeches from political leaders across the party lines, National Alliance for Women's reservation bill, a group of women NGOs recently sent a letter to the Commission demanding action against erring politicians for using unparliamentary language and destroying the democratic principles of the Indian Constitution.
Anju Grover for Indian Currents spoke to Election Commission’s former legal counsel S K Mendiratta to know the EC's challenges role in the current scenario.
IC: The EC has imposed a 72 hour campaigning ban on UP CM Yogi Adityanath, BSP Leader Mayawati, SP leader Azam Khan and Congress Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu for making controversial remarks. Do you think that this will be effective?
Mendiratta: In 2014, the Election Commission had ordered a crackdown on hate speeches and directed the UP Chief Secretary to initiate criminal proceedings against BJP leader Amit Shah for inflammatory speeches and Azam Khan for communal utterances. The commission later lifted the ban partly because Shah had lodged an appeal in which he vowed not to use “abusive or derogatory language” and that it would monitor his campaigning using video tracking. Under Article 324 of the Constitution, the EC has vast powers to take action to ensure a free and fair election. Azam Khan did not give any undertaking and remained barred from campaigning in 2014 elections.
The short duration ban on campaigning won’t be effective. UP CM Adityanath, who was banned from campaigning for short duration period for violating the model code of conduct, did not mend his ways. The EC gave him another notice. Cases of violations of model code of conduct are going to be there.
The Election Commission has vast responsibility but limited powers. For example, it cannot take punitive action against any political party or political leader in case of violation of model code of conduct. Under the EC provisions, it can impose restriction on campaigning for a limited period. The EC cannot disqualify a person or deny election symbol to a political party in case of violation of model code of conduct.
IC: What are your comments on the language being used by leaders of political parties in campaigning to woo the voters?
The way new words are being coined by certain political parties for their rivals, is in bad taste. If it goes unchecked, then it may harm the democratic structure of our country. I am seriously concerned about it.
IC: Do you think there should be a style sheet for election campaigning?
Whenever the EC has tried to take measures on campaigning, the political parties, barring a few, have raised objection and asserted that it was their right to campaign under the Constitution of India. The Supreme Court had told the Commission to lay down guidelines for election manifestos of political parties. The Commission had then convened a meeting of political parties to ascertain their views. Except few, most of the political parties opposed the idea. They said that it is their right to campaign in the manner they would like to. The EC cannot impose restrictions on them. As regard to election manifesto, we had told political parties to clarify to voters as to how they would fulfil the promises and raise money for the promises that involved huge money. Where will they get additional resources from or will it add any financial burden on the exchequer? It would help voters to decide who they would vote for. Unfortunately, many political parties have refused to clarify. They continue to make tall promises in their manifestos.
IC: Are you suggesting that there is no political will to strengthen the Election Commission?
Political parties have challenged many decisions taken by the Election Commission in several parliamentary debates in the last four to five years. For instance, political parties have raised doubts over the restrictions imposed by EC on the movement of ministers during electioneering.
IC: Is monitoring of poll campaigning on social media a huge challenge for the Election Commission?
Many candidates for the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections have reportedly failed to furnish full details of their social media accounts in their affidavits, despite being mandated to do so by the Election Commission. However, monitoring social media is one of the major challenges for the Election Commission. It has asked the candidates for the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections to furnish full details of their social media accounts in their affidavits. The Commission held a meeting with social media groups and asked them to cooperate. On EC's request, social media giants like Facebook, have removed pages, groups and accounts of candidates from the time of announcement of polls in the country. But the accounts of candidates' supporters, friends and relatives cannot be checked, which is a big challenge.
IC: Is it not true that the EC has adopted a soft approach towards the ruling party? Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi was let off by the Commission with a warning that he should be careful in future. Your comments.
I won't like to comment. All I can say is that the officers are competent enough to decide. A lenient view is generally taken on the first offence and that must have happened in the case of Mr Naqvi.
IC: How about PM's Balakot strike remarks?
The matter is before the EC and I won't like to comment.
IC: Religion and caste should not be used to woo the voters. Your views.
The Commission has issued guidelines on it much before the election process started. The existing election laws need to be amended to stop electoral offences and corrupt practices in elections.(Published on 29th April 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 17 & 18)