New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi decision to time his visits to temples and shrines with elections has once again come under scrutiny, with his planned visit to Orakandi in Bangladesh on March 27. While the Election Commission has not been able to fault him, the opposition has cried foul at these visits.
March 27 is the day of voting for the first phase of West Bengal’s assembly elections and the prime minister will pay his respects to Harichand Thakur, the founder of a Hindu sect known as Matuas, at Orakundi.
Voters from the Matua community can swing the election in many constituencies of West Bengal. With a population of nearly one crore, they are said to have a significant presence in four parliamentary seats and around 29 assembly segments in the state.
However, while Modi may be cutting it fine when it comes to violating the model code of conduct (MCC), former chief election commissioners (CECs) with whom The Wire spoke to are unanimous that there is little the Election Commission can do about it.
‘A borderline case’ as far as MCC is concerned
Former CEC T.S. Krishnamurthy described it as a borderline case. “As a prime minister, you are entitled to go. Some political parties may criticise it. But as far as the model code of conduct is concerned, it is in force in India and not in Bangladesh. It applies to political parties and candidates in India. So, as far as I am concerned, it cannot be considered a violation,” he said.
Krishnamurthy said in the election scenario, accusations flow thick and fast. “You have to see the practicality and the pragmatism in it,” he said. He reasoned that “the code of conduct is supposed to provide a level playing field to all political parties. So when he goes to a neighbouring country and you start extending the scope of model code to it, then there is no end to it.”
But other former CECs were of the opinion that there is more to Modi’s visit to the shrine than meets the eye.
‘Politicians are clever, but people have grown wiser’
Former CEC N. Gopalaswami quipped, “If you don’t find politicians clever, who do you find clever. It is not for nothing that they are politicians.”
But, he added in the same breath that one cannot expect the EC to do much about it. “You can’t keep dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’. You have to leave it to the good sense of some people or bad sense of some people, whatever it is.”
Gopalaswami said that people have become wiser as India has matured as a democracy.
“I will put it this way: If money alone were the consideration, in Tamil Nadu the biggest money bags would have won. So they take the money and yet they go by whatever their choice is. I am not saying taking money is okay. But people have their own choices. After 70 years, you do not think that they are led by their ghosts,” he elaborated.
‘Much now depends on what PM says in Orakandi’
Another former CEC, S.Y. Quraishi, said the key to the reason behind the prime minister’s visit would depend on what he says there. “If he steers clear of any controversy then the issue ends there,” he said.
Quraishi added that Modi was not going to an election-going state, he is travelling outside the country. So technically, it cannot be flawed. “But,” he added for good measure, “our prime minister is a very intelligent person and nothing that he does is without a deep thought.”
In any case, he said, it would be for the Election Commission to take a view as they keep a watch on everyone’s activity.
In the past, the opposition has often criticised Modi for his timing of temple visits during elections in the states or to the Lok Sabha.
The EC has often just settled with advising the prime minister to remember that the MCC was in force.
PM’s visit to Nepal temples during Karnataka polls drew Congress’s ire
In 2018, the Congress had termed Modi’s visit to several temples in Nepal on the day of voting in Karnataka a poll code violation. Its leader Ashok Gehlot had asked: “As there is model code of conduct in Karnataka, PM Modi planned to pray at temples in Nepal instead, just to influence voters. This is not a good trend for democracy. Why did he only choose today as the day?”
The following year, in 2019, Modi chose the eve of the last day of polling during the Lok Sabha elections to offer prayers at the Kedarnath shrine in Uttarakhand. The Election Commission had given its consent for the visit but not before “reminding” the PM that the model code of conduct was still in force.
When asked how such instances – which verge on but do not necessarily constitute a poll code violation – could be prevented, a former CEC said: “In 2019, if the Election Commission had issued a notice of poll code violation after then election commissioner Ashok Lavasa had dissented on five EC decisions giving a clean chit to Narendra Modi and Amit Shah for alleged violation of model code, then more violations would not have happened.”
Following the NDA’s reelection, some members of Lavasa’s family were targeted by the Income Tax department. This led to further allegations that the Modi government was using its agencies to target and harass dissenters. In August 2020, Lavasa, who was supposed to take charge of the EC in April 2021, was appointed vice-president of the Asian Development Bank and thus his tenure with the poll panel came to an end.