An unintended consequence of the staggering popularity of social media in the world is the mushrooming of completely useless controversies that have a life-span of a few hours. One such erupted last week over the countrywide release of the film PM Narendra Modi starring Vivek Oberoi on April 12.
The announcement of its release got some people very hot under the collar. One person who was particularly agitated was the writer Ramachandra Guha. He tweeted: “That such a film will be shown and promoted during the elections demonstrates the joke and farce that the ‘model code of conduct’ is; how can the Election Commission allow it?”
Guha’s objection seems grounded in his fierce dislike of real Prime Minister Modi, although to be fair he also objected to a lesser-known biopic on Rahul Gandhi that will also be launched this election season. As a political concern of those campaigning on the single plank of Modi hatao, Guha’s worry is warranted. However, it will not enhance the democratic credentials of India’s liberal community if it seeks an outright ban on a film that dares to hero worship Modi or, for that matter, Rahul Gandhi. Consequently, a temporary restriction, at least people have voted, seems a second best but contrived solution
Of course, there are ominous implications of this demand for the EC to intervene and put the film in cold storage till counting day. If a film can be put on hold on the ground that it seeks to influence public opinion, then it follows that similar restrictions should accompany other creative projects that also seek to mould voter behaviour.
This includes books — both fiction and non-fiction, poetry, theatre, works of art and even opinionated columns (such as this one) in print and online, in fact almost anything that can be construed to have a direct or tangential political dimension.
The whole idea of sanitising India from political influences seem absolutely preposterous, especially when the avowed objective is to ensure the exercise of political choice. That eminent individuals should be lending their names to such a strange initiative is sad. However, sadder still is the belief the distortion of what the Code of Conduct (CC) is all about.
When it was evolved, the CC wasn’t aimed at preventing any articulation of politics. It merely sought to first, negate any unfair advantage accruing to the incumbent government through the improper and partisan use of official machinery; second, to monitor and often regulate the use of financial resources by parties and candidates; thirdly, to insulate the ordinary citizen from any significant inconvenience to their lives; and, finally, to ensure free and fair polling.
In time, often with the benefit of hindsight, the EC has extended the CC to extend to opinion polls and the use of media. Regulating and monitoring “paid news”, however, remains work in progress. Despite its imperfections and lax implementation by individual officers with a bias towards a party or candidate, the CC has made a big difference to the culture of political campaigning. Some of the changes are visible and felt by the ordinary citizen.
Till the 1991 general election at least, the use of loudspeakers was totally unregulated. One of the noisiest campaigns I witnessed was the ‘Ayodhya election’ of 1991 in Uttar Pradesh when loudspeakers blaring rival political messages and campaign songs drowned each other at market venues and bus stops, and went on all day and night. It was also customary for political meetings to extend late into the night and the early hours of the morning.
In fact in the Hindi heartland, the political worth of a leader was often judged from how many hours late he was running from his original schedule. This pattern of electioneering is now history. The ban on public meetings and use of the public address system after 10pm is now an accepted facet of life and often gleefully imposed by the administration.
Another area where the CC has made a big difference is in the use of government facilities and public buildings. One of the first campaigns I covered as a journalist was the 1991 general election when the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi was still at the helm. One of the features of that election, in North India at least, was that the Congress candidates routinely requisitioned the Circuit House for the use of the candidate. This doesn’t happen today.
These, however, are the easier facets of the CC. The more daunting challenge before the EC is to ensure an environment free from harassment and intimidation of voters. Today, apart from the Maoist belt in Chhattisgarh, West Bengal poses a challenge. EC has staggered voting in the state to include all seven phases and contingents of para-military forces have started patrolling sensitive areas, sometimes with the cooperation of the local police and often independently of them.
Another big step is to ensure that the media is in synch with the larger objectives of democratic functioning. But this is a more problematic area where the media’s right to be partisan has to be balanced with some do’s and don’t’s, without inviting charges of compromising the rights of expression.
The more blatant cases of ‘paid news’ are easy to handle — by adding a notional charge to a candidate’s expenses—but how is the touchy area of a campaign freeze in the 48-hours before polling in a seven-phase election to be achieved? And how will the dissemination through WhatsApp groups be effectively monitored? Today’s technology makes a mockery of regulation and control.
These are just some of the issues that will test the EC’s effectiveness. Diverting its attention to non-issues is hardly helpful. But then, this is also an election where some groups of people are also fighting to ensure their own future relevance in a changing India.
Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.