The Supreme Court on Tuesday took note of how the Election Commission of India (ECI) quickly changed tack and passed a flurry of orders against leading political candidates, who delivered communally laced speeches, hours after facing the wrath of the apex court for describing itself as “toothless” and “powerless” in the face of hate.
“Seems you have got your powers now,” Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi asked the ECI.
The CJI was referring to action taken by the ECI against Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Bahujan Samaj Party Mayawati, Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan and BJP leader Maneka Gandhi. They have been prohibited from addressing public gathering variously for 48 to 72 hours.
“We found we have several powers…” senior advocate C.A. Sundaram, who appeared for the ECI in the case, acquiesced.
“So, ECI has woken up to its powers,” Chief Justice Gogoi said pointedly, again.
On Monday, the ECI had claimed it was mostly helpless if candidates spewed communal vitriol in their campaign speeches for Lok Sabha polls of 2019.
This stand of the ECI had riled a Bench led by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, who initially threatened to summon Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora to take the court’s questions. The court had then decided to delve deep into the ECI’s claims that its powers were “circumscribed”. It had given the Commission exactly 24 hours to be ready with a response.
Shortly after the order was passed on Monday, the ECI passed orders against the four politicians, gagging them.
“Pursuant to order passed yesterday (April 15), ECI has taken action, appropriate details of which have been submitted. No further order called for today. Mention (the case) as and when required,” the Supreme Court recorded in its order on Tuesday.
However, Mayawati’s lawyer and senior advocate Dushyant Dave cried foul against the ECI action on her. Mr. Dave said the ECI’s gag is “extremely drastic”. He sought an urgent hearing at 2 p.m. on Tuesday.
“This is harsh. Meetings are already scheduled,” Mr. Dave urged the court for a hearing.
“File an appeal if you want. Not commenting on anything now,” Chief Justice dismissed the plea.
On Monday, the Chief Justice lashed out at the ECI, saying, “You are basically saying you (ECI) are toothless and powerless against hate speeches. The highest you can do is send a notice to the offending candidate. If the candidate replies, send him or her an advisory. Despite this, if there is violation of Model Code of Conduct, you may then file a criminal complaint… That is all? That is your powers under the law?”
The Court said the ECI was “duty-bound” to act promptly against hate speech given in violation of the Model Code of Conduct under place in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
The Court was hearing a petition filed by an NRI, Harpreet Mansukhani, highlighting the increase in hate and divisive speeches in the name of religion in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019.
The petition had called for strict action against political leaders and party representatives spreading hatred on religious and caste lines through the media, especially social media platforms.
The petition said the communalism of Indian politics and caste-based parties were a “great threat to the spirit of the Constitution”.
Ms. Mansukhani, represented by senior advocate Sanjay Hegde and advocate Arup Banerjee, said “India is beginning to look like Turkey under Erdogan or Russia under Putin, which is turning towards a populist majoritarian leader and right-wing politics for its salvation”