By Swapan Dasgupta
A recent assertion by Union law minister Salman Khurshid at an election meeting in his parliamentary constituency that the Congress was intent on enhancing the reserved quota for backward Muslims from 4.5 per cent to nine per cent has, quite predictably, created a stir.
The BJP has been vocal in its opposition, arguing, quite legitimately, that the Muslim quota is at the cost of the Other Backward Classes who have hitherto been the principal beneficiaries of the post-Mandal extension of reservations all over India. Others have seen it as an overdue measure to correct the implicit discrimination against Muslims (and, for that matter, Christians) in the matter of reservations.
The debate on Muslim reservations has just about begun and the coming months will witness rival groups mustering public support for their respective positions. This is exactly as it should be in a democracy — policy announcements being deliberated with passion at different levels, particularly during elections. That is why it comes as a surprise to learn that the Election Commission has issued Mr Khurshid a showcause notice for his promise to enhance the Muslim quota.
By making this announcement about what the Congress intends to do in the unlikely event of it being voted to power in Uttar Pradesh, Mr Khurshid, it is being suggested, violated the model code of conduct for candidates and parties.
Regardless of our personal views on the Congress’ attempts to play the minority card with gusto, the EC’s action against Mr Khurshid is somewhat ridiculous and smacks of needless over-zealousness. An election is a festival of democracy, an occasion when the ordinary citizen gets an opportunity to elect both a government and representatives to law-making institutions of the state.
Like in most festivals there is both seriousness and frivolity in elections, and the process is governed by a drill. The EC exists to ensure two things. First, it is responsible for ensuring a degree of fairness which is possible if there is a semblance of a level playing field. And, secondly, it assumes overall responsibility to guarantee that the festival is orderly and does not degenerate into a drunken brawl where unruliness and muscle power prevail.
Over the years the EC has demonstrated its ability to be counted as one of the institutions that works. Beginning with the imperious T.N. Seshan, successive Chief Election Commissioners have maintained and upheld the independence of the body and freed it from political interference. In the process they have ironed out many of the creases from the electoral process.
Although no system can be regarded as perfect, the EC has done its bit to ensure that election expenditure by candidates and parties are not extravagant, that voting is peaceful and orderly, and that the counting of votes is accurate. There have been occasional lapses but these owe mainly to the laxity of individual election officers.
It is precisely because the EC is an exemplary institution that occasional criticisms of its operations deserve to be taken seriously and viewed as exercises in democratic improvement.
The foremost criticism of the EC is that it often seems preoccupied with a draconian implementation of the rules at the cost of the spirit of democracy. The showcause against Mr Khurshid is a classic example of bureaucratic over-interpretation.
The Congress is well within its rights to propose a nine per cent Muslim quota in government jobs and educational institutions. It is also within its rights to propagate this ridiculous scheme, just as Mulayam Singh Yadav is fully within his rights to promise free water and power to farmers. Both sets of assurances are populist and calculated to create social and economic distortions in the polity. But that is not the point. Democracy cannot be artificially sanitised or confined to an ideological straitjacket.
Parties are at liberty to advocate national suicide in the garb of national salvation. Other parties are at liberty to denounce their opponents. As long as no one advocates violence or makes a hate speech, the EC need not concern itself as an ideological ombudsman. Like the norms governing free speech, the idea is to give a campaigner wide latitude.
Unfortunately there are occasions when an attitude of disdain towards rumbustious democracy is manifested in the conduct of election officers. In the Karnataka Assembly election of 2008, the script of Sushma Swaraj’s TV broadcast was censored because it contained a sharp attack on the government for its failure to control prices of foodstuff. Otherwise, too, election officers in their role of censors have disallowed parody, interpreting humour as being tantamount to personal attacks.
The election authorities have also adopted an excessively rigid distaste for the public display of posters, cut-outs and flags. This has prevented political parties from publicising their candidates and has been a deterrent to political information, a perquisite of informed choice.
These are not major complaints but they are needless babu-inspired hurdles to the proper celebration of democracy. The EC is quite right to keep a strict eye on the conduct of political parties and the candidates. However, it would also be well advised to give all its election officers lessons in the spirit of democracy.
The application of rules in a thoughtless manner by officials who may be out to get their own back on arrogant politicians doesn’t enhance the quality of India’s democracy. Having established some order in the conduct of elections, it’s important the EC doesn’t err on the side of arbitrariness.