The Supreme Court’s verdict that votes cannot be sought in the me of religion, caste, race, community or language has now got political parties acting holier than thou and pointing fingers at rivals. But long-term, fundamental questions still remain over the verdict. The complexity of the issue can be gauged from the fact that the seven-member SC constitutiol bench was split 4-3 while delivering the verdict. On the face of it, the legal question looked simple enough — when the Representation of People (RPA) Act, 1951 in Section 123(3) says that it is ‘corrupt practice’ for an election candidate, his agent or anybody else with their consent to seek votes on ground of religion, race, caste, community or language — do these aspects of identity refer to that of the candidate, or of the voters too? The majority verdict of the constitutiol bench says that the statute in question includes both candidate and voters. The difference appears subtle, but carries huge implications. A candidate can not only be disqualified if he seeks votes on the ground that he is Hindu or Muslim, but also if he appeals that voters should vote for him because they are Hindus or Muslims. But what if a dalit candidate seeks votes from dalits invoking their shared history of discrimition and injustice by upper castes? That too will be a corrupt practice, according to the majority verdict — based on the ideal of limiting the electoral process to strictly secular concerns and thereby keeping it pure, as well as to keep out all separatist tendencies during the election campaign. But this is the major point where the minority verdict differs, arguing that the RPA statute should apply ‘only to the candidate’ who has sought votes for himself or has appealed voters not to vote for a rival candidate on grounds of identity.
According to the minority verdict, ‘social mobilization’ is an integral part of electoral politics in India’s democratic polity. The discourse during an election campaign can justifiably focus on the injustices experienced by a segment of the population in terms of caste, race, community or language; Indian democracy will be reduced to ‘an abstraction’ if candidates are forbidden to speak of such legitimate concerns of citizens. While the candidate cannot point to his own or his rival’s identity aspects, the electorate can surely vote on ‘lived experiences’ of social discrimition and deprivation — so goes the reasoning in the minority verdict. Considering this fundamental difference between the majority and minority verdicts of the SC constitutiol bench, it is clear that identity politics will remain a grey area. Overall, the fil verdict must surely be welcomed, for it promises to clamp down on intemperate speeches by candidates to whip up mob passions on the campaign trail. But is there any guarantee that complaints lodged against offending candidates will not remain stuck in court for years on end? This is where the country needs an Election Commission with more teeth to pelize offenders. However empowered, can the EC enforce the Supreme Court’s ruling by keeping track of manifestos and activities of parties like All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, Shiv Se, Shiromani Akali Dal, Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party, Telugu Desam, AIADMK and DMK — whose electoral politics have long been on religion, caste, community and language? And of course, the largest grey area over Hinduism vis-à-vis Hindutva remains uddressed, with the Supreme Court refusing to revisit its 1995 verdict last October. In that verdict, Hindutva was bracketed with Hinduism as a ‘way of life and not a religion’, and it was held that it could be legitimately invoked during election campaign. All these questions will need to be addressed if the electoral process is to be cleaned of rrow sectarian agendas. Still, a principle has been laid down by the apex court, which should impose a degree of sobriety and restraint in the coming assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa and Manipur — states troubled with major fault-lines over religion, caste, language and ethnicity .