Religious electioneering must be curbed

Belief in the ephemeral divine seems to have a clear edge over the faith in democracy, else political parties wouldn’t have made a beeline for temples, assorted mandals and samitis, promising their members the moon, sometimes even dangling promises of a pathway to heaven by voting for a particular candidate. If polls happen to coincide with religious festivals, all the better, because then shobhayatras and prabhat pheris can be deftly converted into padyatras for election campaigning.

Thus, as Mumbai goes to vote on Wednesday, it is natural for candidates dashing to the ganeshotsav mandals dotting the city and trying to convert pious bhakts into devoted voters. After all, as cultural anthropologist Raminder Kaur Kahlon points out, since the 1890s, Ganpati has been a “mobilised festival”, with a “political career” of its own.

But, when political parties vie with each other to promise Ashtavinayak pilgrimages and Diwali sammelans (as this daily reported on Saturday), the attempts at political mobilisation run afoul of the election law. For Section 123 (3) of the Representation of the People Act (RPA), 1951 brands as a “corrupt practice” election candidates or their agents’ appealing for votes on the grounds of religion or religious symbols. Section 123 (2)(a) (ii) prohibits inducing voters to believe they would earn divine displeasure or censure on the basis of their voting choices. As Justice Gajendragadkar, former Chief Justice of India stated in the case of Kultar Singh v. Mukhtiar Singh (1965), these salutary provisions are intended to serve the cause of secular democracy, for if the voter is swayed by any emotion other than political emotion, it is this democratic ideal which gets sullied.

Following this logic, the court, in 1996, held Shiv Sena candidate Suryakant Mahadik guilty of a corrupt practice and barred him from contesting, because he was caught canvassing in the premises of a temple at Nehru Nagar in Kurla.

The politics of the present almost proves that a purely “secular” election as envisaged by the law might remain elusive, because there is a significant gap between the ideals of the law and the reality of elections.
Moreover, the politics of electioneering in Mumbai has always kept the Ganeshotsav samitis and Sarvajanik Ganesh mandals in its attention. Be it Madhukar Sarpotdar inciting a crowd of devotees at a Kherwadi mandal on 27 December 1992, or the joint maha artis of the Shiv Sena and BJP in the run up to the Assembly elections in 2003.

But the immediate present is different, because it isn’t asking for votes in the name of religion which has to be proved to make out a strong enough case, since the facts speak for themselves. Surely, candidates are not approaching the mandals to seek divine blessings or to hold inter-faith meetings and burnish their secular credentials. What is going on, and quite rampantly so, is plain bribery, which is also punishable under the RPA.

Promising “picnics” to holy places cannot be placed on a footing different from throwing currency notes at prospective voters. In fact, even though the supposed yields from the promised trips are intangible, the promises in themselves are much more persuasive than those bought by money power.

A member of a mandal in Andheri is quoted as saying, now they are making sure that tickets for the pilgrimages are booked first, and then votes are cast upon furnishing proof of such voting. This makes proving the unholy nexus between the inducement and act of voting a cakewalk.

Besides the religious and communal, there is a definite criminal angle to this enterprise. Many years ago, Y C Pawar, former Joint Commissioner of Police, had busted some Ganesh mandals which had become hotbeds of the power generated by criminalised politics. It is a safe bet to assume that things have not taken a drastic turn for the better, especially with the alarming number of candidates with criminal records.

The Election Commission, which pulled off quite a decent performance in the recently concluded Lok Sabha polls, must wake up from its torpor and deal with this brazen bribery strictly, and in accordance with the law.

The writer is an academic

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