By Ritika Chopra & ANANTHAKRISHNAN G
Punishing them for their “highly provocative” speeches, the Election Commission of India invoked its extraordinary powers on Monday to bar Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath and BSP chief Mayawati from campaigning for three (72 hours) and two (48 hours) days, respectively, starting 6 am Tuesday.
Besides, Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan and Union minister and BJP leader Maneka Gandhi were also barred from campaigning for 72 hours and 48 hours, respectively.
The punitive action was taken against the BSP chief for appealing directly to Muslim voters in Saharanpur and Bareilly districts during a joint rally of the BSP-SP alliance on April 7. Adityanath was punished for his “Ali and Bajrangbali” remark at a Meerut rally on Apri 9 and the “green virus” comment which was a reference to Muslims in the country.
Condemning their remarks, the Commission, in a strongly-worded order, noted that such public utterances “contaminate the electoral process” and have the “propensity to polarise the elections”.
Both leaders have been barred from “holding any public meetings, public processions, public rallies, road shows and interviews, public utterances in media (electronic, print and social media etc.)” during the ban period.
Monday’s order came shortly after the Supreme Court questioned the poll panel over action against political leaders like Adityanath and Mayawati for alleged violation of the Model Code of Conduct through their speeches, and decided to examine the Commission’s powers in this regard.
The bench of Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and Justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjeev Khanna did not appear satisfied with the Commission’s submission that it had only limited powers in the matter. It said “we would like to examine the matter” and asked the Commission to send a “representative… who is well conversant with the issues raised” to the court at 10.30 am Tuesday when it will consider the matter again.
However, Commission officials insisted that the decision to bar the two leaders from campaigning was taken in a meeting on Sunday itself. The EC order too mentioned that the Commission deliberated on the matter Sunday.
This is only the second time that the EC has imposed a temporary ban on a political leader’s election campaign. During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the poll panel had barred now BJP president Amit Shah and SP leader Azam Khan for making inflammatory speeches in defiance of showcause notices already issued to the two leaders.
The ban on Shah was lifted only after he apologised and assured the EC the he will not violate the Model Code of Conduct again. Khan, however, offered no such apology or assistance and was, therefore, barred from campaigning for the rest of the Lok Sabha polls in 2014.
Since the Representation of the People Act does not empower the EC to take such punitive action, the Commission had to resort to its extraordinary powers under Article 324 of the Constitution. This is the second time, since the announcement of Lok Sabha polls on March 10, that the poll panel had to resort to Article 324. On April 10, EC used it to defer the release of ‘PM Narendra Modi’, the biopic starring Vivek Oberoi.
On Monday, the Supreme Court noted: “It is stated by the learned counsel appearing for the Election Commission of India that the power of the Election Commission of India for violation of the Model Code of Conduct by making hate speeches on grounds of religion, caste etc is circumscribed to issuing of notice and upon consideration of the reply to issue advisories. Only in case of repeated violation of the advisories, the Election Commission has the power to file a First Information Report with the police for initiation of criminal proceedings. Beyond the above, according to the learned counsel for the Election Commission of India, the Election Commission does not have any power to deal with such instances of making of speeches provoking enmity or hatred between classes of citizens or for voting for any person on the grounds of religion, caste etc (see Sections 123 and 125 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951).”
Earlier, the Supreme Court, hearing a petition which sought action over communal speeches, seeking votes on religious lines etc, had issued notice to the Commission.
“This is something you are duty-bound to do. Tell us what are you doing,” the CJI told Commission counsel Amit Sharma who told the bench “we are issuing notices”. He handed over a table which he said showed “specific instances where we have taken steps.”
Referring to the mention of the names of Yogi Adityanath and Mayawati in the table, the court asked the counsel what the complaint against them was and what action had been taken.
Sharma explained that a matter involving Adityanath had been closed after his explanation and, in another matter, Mayawati who was supposed to reply by April 12 was yet to respond.
“It’s the 15th. What are you doing about it?” the CJI remarked, adding “answer… or we will get the Chief Election Commissioner here… is it not a defiance of the EC order? What are you mandated to do?”.
Sharma said if there are more complaints, the EC will issue notice and lodge a complaint. “We can’t disqualify them,” he said.
The CJI then turned to senior counsel Sanjay Hegde, who appeared for petitioner Harpreet Mansukhani, and told him that the EC was saying it was powerless. Hegde did not agree and said the EC had vast powers under Article 324 of the Constitution.