2019 polls: Stop this vituperative campaigning now

| Updated on April 21, 2019 Published on April 21, 2019

Political discourse has sunk to a new low in this election

When it’s done and dusted, the 2019 election will stand out in memory for the sheer nastiness and hate-filled rhetoric slung about by candidates of all parties. The viciousness of the campaign touched new heights when the BJP nominated Pragya Singh Thakur, the accused in the Malegaon bomb blasts who’s on bail due to ill-health, as the party’s candidate for the Bhopal Lok Sabha seat. Thakur got two notices in swift succession from the Election Commission (EC) for hate speech. The first was for remarks about Mumbai terrorism squad chief Hemant Karkare, slain by terrorists during the 26/11 attack, who she claims tortured her while the second was for expressing pride over the Babri Masjid demolition. Though the BJP sought to distance itself from Thakur's Karkare remarks, it was clear from the fact it nominated her the party was giving the thumbs-up to firebrands who are unlikely to be measured in their speech.

In a way, the campaign’s been a continuation of the last five years during which India's top politicians have exchanged insults on a virtual daily basis. But even then, the level of unpleasantness since the campaign began has been startling. The BJP’s top leaders regularly call Rahul Gandhi “Pappu. He’s retaliated with the “chor hai” jibe in wake of the Rafale imbroglio. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been playing up the Balakot attacks and making speeches that come close to infringing on the EC’s Code of Conduct. Amit Shah, referring to Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Wayanad in Kerala, said he couldn’t make out if “it was India or Pakistan” because of Muslim League flags in a photograph. Other politicians followed suit and the EC slapped a 72-hour campaigning ban on Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath after the Supreme Court rebuked the commission and reminded the body of its powers to act against hate speech. Adityanath, who spent his ban visiting temples, returned to the campaign trail and described a Muslim candidate as a “successor to Babur”. Meanwhile, BJP leader Maneka Gandhi became star of a video in which she warned Muslims they shouldn’t expect anything from her if they didn’t vote for her. And other reports are pouring in daily about candidates, even in places like Kerala, making derogatory remarks about members of minority communities. From the opposition side, Mayawati was also handed a 48-hour ban for remarking Muslims shouldn’t split their vote between the SP-BSP combine and the Congress. She returned to campaigning and immediately fired a broadside against the EC for acting against her.

Can this vituperative electioneering style be halted? The answer, though it may seem surprising, is very definitely yes. The EC needs to act swiftly and strongly against any hate speech and it mustn’t be afraid to come down hard even on senior leaders. Unfortunately, the EC has acted slowly and tentatively and many commentators believe it has favoured the ruling party. It’s now high time the commission found its backbone so this style of campaigning in India doesn’t become embedded as the norm rather than the exception.

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Published on April 21, 2019
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