New Delhi: The Election Commission’s decision to give Prime Minister Narendra Modi a clean chit for his election speech in Maharashtra’s Wardha was already controversial, given that the EC sat on the complaint for nearly a month and many experts said his references to Hindus and Muslims violated both the Model Code of Conduct and the Representation of People Act.
Now, adding to doubts about whether the EC is going soft on Modi and his supporters, the Indian Express has revealed that the poll body’s second clean chit to the prime minister – for his April 9 speech in Latur – was given despite EC officers suggesting otherwise.
A complaint against Modi was filed by a Calcutta-based citizen, Mahendra Singh, on April 9. He said the prime minister’s appeal to first-time voters to dedicate their vote to the Indian Air Force team that carried out the air strike in Balakot, Pakistan, and also to the CRPF personnel killed in the Pulwama terror attack, violated the model code of conduct and EC guidelines issued in 2013 and reiterated recently.
It now emerges that both the Maharashtra chief electoral officer and the Osmanabad district electoral officer reported back to the EC that Modi’s references to Balakot and Pulwama were “inconsistent” with the EC’s directive not to invoke the armed forces for political gain.
Going by the information supplied to the complainant in this case, Mahendra Singh of Calcutta, the EC appears to have received this field assessment within five days of the controversial speech, i.e. on April 14.
Repeated requests by Singh and the media for updates on the status of his complaint were stonewalled by EC officials
EC sources reportedly told the Indian Express that the opinions of the two officials were debated at a meeting of the three election commissioners held on Tuesday, but eventually overruled because Modi, in their opinion, did not directly ask for votes while referring to the airstrikes.
It’s unclear what else the EC thinks an election rally is meant for and what else Modi could have meant when he issued his appeal to first-time voters.
Here’s what Modi said in Latur:
“Can your first vote be dedicated to those who carried out the airstrike. I want to tell the first-time voters: can your first vote be dedicated to the veer jawans (valiant soldiers) who carried out the air strike in Pakistan. Can your first vote be dedicated to the veer shaheed (brave martyrs) of Pulwama (terror attack).”
The two local officials had based their opinion on “just five lines of the speech”, which is why they were overruled, the EC source told the Indian Express by way of explaining why the election commissioners decided to overrule them. “The decision was made after taking the whole speech into consideration.”
Ironically, other politicians who have been pulled up by the EC, such as Azam Khan, have not been allowed to get away with saying that the objectionable portion of their impugned speech amounted to just a few lines.
The EC directive the two officials who found Modi’s speech to be “inconsistent” were referring to was widely publicised by the commission itself when a raft of complaints were received about the manner in which politicians, almost all from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, were making blatant use of images of soldiers, including those killed in the line of duty, as part of their election canvassing.
Modi himself addressed a rally in Churu, Rajasthan with a poster of the Pulwama dead carefully positioned behind him so that it would be part of a television frame.
Reiterating standing instructions from 2013, the EC on March 19 had said that it is “necessary that political parties and leaders exercise great caution while making any reference to the Armed Forces in their political campaigns”. The same guidelines were repeated again on April 9.
As The Wire has reported before, though, that directive didn’t have the impact the EC may have hoped for.
In its response to Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala, who had filed the complaint, the EC explained its decision by saying:
“The matter has been examined in the context of extant ECI’s advisory dated 04.12.2013, which was reiterated on 09.03.2019 and a sequel issued on 19.03.2019, provisions of the Model Code of Conduct and after examination of complete transcript of speech of eleven pages as per the certified copy sent by the Returning Officer, 40-Osmanabad Parliamentary Constituency on 13.04.2019, Commission is of considered view that in this matter no such violation of the extant advisories/provisions is attracted.”
The poll body has now cleared the prime minister in two of the five complaints filed by the Congress.
The Supreme Court will be hearing Congress MP Sushmita Dev’s petition demanding urgent action from the EC on the complaints against Modi on Thursday.
Among the major issues pending are the continued violations by Modi and the BJP of both the 48-hour silent period before the close of each polling phase during which election advertising is prohibited by the Representation of People Act. As The Wire has been reporting, NaMo TV is a serial offender in this regard but the EC has taken no action. Nor has it been stopped from telecasting election material that has not been pre-certified, another requirement of the model code of conduct and EC guidelines.