Electoral Campaigns and Freedom of Speech: The Need for a fetter 

Introduction

Eradication of political corruption is one of our long sought-after aspirations as a country to achieve an ideal democratic structure. However, in practical terms, these issues are far from being eliminated. Through media reporting, actions that count as an unethical or corrupt practice can also be seen very frequently. One of them is canvassing based on religion. While living in India we proudly adorn the title of being the largest democracy in the world and we also have the privilege of having the greatest democratic elections in human history. Elections in India are known as the Grand Festival of Democracy. However, in a country where elections are so important, there are certain things which make politics in India a dirty game, and Section 123(3) of the Representation of the People Act of 1951[1] (hereinafter referred to as ‘the Act’) is enacted to put a hold on one of the many ill practices.

Article 19(1)[2] defines the much-revered freedom of speech and expression. As mandated by the Constitution, freedom of speech and expression is a natural right which means that citizens acquire this right by birth. All the citizens hold the freedom of speech and expression but, it does not act as an unconditional licence. Therefore, certain reasonable restrictions are placed under Article 19(2) of the Constitution. Section 123(3) of the Act prohibits canvassing by an electoral candidate to woo voters in the name of race, caste, religion, community and language. It also prohibits usage of religious symbols or national symbols or flag for canvassing purposes. Usage of the aforesaid are considered to be corrupt practices. The electoral candidates cannot promise any public policy which they propose to implement on being successful. Article 25 of the Constitution guarantees the citizens of India, freedom of conscience and allows every citizen the right and freedom to profess, practice and propagate the religion of one’s choice subject to public order, health and morality.

The authors have attempted to compare Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India and Section 123(3) of the Act and have studied whether Section 123(3) of the Act is violative of Article 19(1)(a) or not in the context of the demographical feature of India and in the backdrop of the voters of the constituencies.

The Role of Election Commission

The Election Commission of India is a constitutional body, deriving its source of powers and functions from Article 324 of the Constitution of India. Entry 72 of Union List – Schedule 7 provides for the source of power to Parliament to regulate and frame laws with respect to elections to Parliament, State Legislatures and the election of the President and the Vice- President of India.

The Election Commission of India (hereinafter referred to as ‘the ECI’), over the years has passed rigid orders barring candidates like Maneka Gandhi, Azam Khan, and Giriraj Singh from campaigning and canvassing for votes, on the grounds of making communal speeches, which were against Section 123(3) of the Representation of People’s Act, 1951. In all the cases, the ECI reasoned out that the aforesaid candidates acted in contravention to the Model Code of Conduct (‘MCC’) which comes into force after the declaration of election is announced by the ECI and fell squarely within the ambit of ‘corrupt practices’, by appealing in the name of caste or communal feelings to secure votes. MCC stipulates that no political party or candidate can secure votes based on caste and religion. In many constituencies, there are poor people who do not possess the knowledge about the voting rights and the requisite knowledge with respect to corrupt practices, etc.

Some candidates try to take advantage of such public ignorance and use religion as to appeal for votes. The candidates often make hollow promises that, ‘if’ they are voted to power, then they will roll-out every possible schemes and benefits for the people of one distinct religious sect.

The Election Commission endeavours to take all the necessary measures to ensure that free, fair and peaceful elections in the country. However, it has been observed in practice, that the guidelines issued by the Election Commission are not followed strictly, rather there is an attempt to flout the rules, which leads us to an inevitable conclusion, that there is a strong need for electoral reforms in the country. The Preamble of the Indian Constitution states that India is a democratic and a secular nation. The word “democratic” means that we have the right to choose our own representatives. A Government of the People, For the People and By the People. “Secular”, on the other hand, means that our country does not have an official State sponsored religion unlike many other countries of this world. For example, Pakistan is known by the official name – “The Islamic Republic of Pakistan” which clearly indicates that Pakistan has a State religion but, on the other hand India’s Constitution bars any State religion. The election being the most important and integral part of any democracy, should remain sacrosanct and therefore, it is again important to reiterate the fact that the candidates should not appeal for votes in the name of religion or any other class differentiation; it defeats the ethos of a healthy democracy.

Judicial Interpretations

The Indian judiciary has decided multiple cases on the aspect of “corrupt practices”. In S.R Bommai v. Union of India[3], the Supreme Court observed that secularism is a part of the basic structure of the Constitution. A section of people sometimes describes such an attitude of neutrality towards religious belief as compassionate neutrality, although religious freedom is guaranteed to everyone in India, the faith, religion, and belief of a person are immune from the radar of the State. All are equal before the State and have the right to equal treatment. There is no place for religion in machinery and the working of the State.

If the Constitution mandates the State to remain neutral in perception and behaviour vis-à-vis religion, the same requirement applies to political parties and their electoral candidates as well. The Constitution does not recognise, nor, does it allow the mixing of religion and State power. Concerning Section 123(3) of the Act, the Supreme Court in  S.R. Bommai[4] judgment warranted broader interpretation of Section 123(3) of the Act, thereby rejecting the restrictive reading of the provision as limited to the candidate and her or his opponent(s). However, this was an obiter dicta made in the judgment and is a not a part of the ratio of the judgment, as the case of S.R. Bommai was not directly related to Section 123(3) of the Act, but at the same time, favoured and observed the need for a broader interpretation of Section 123(3) of the RP Act, 1951.

It is important to mention that the Supreme Court has already upheld the constitutional validity of Section 123(3) of the RP Act, 1951 way back in the 1950s in  Jamuna Prasad Mukhariya v. Lacchi Ram[5] on the touchstone of fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression.

In  Manohar Joshi v. Nitin Bhaurao Patil  [6] the Supreme Court rather opined the opposite. The case came up during the Maharashtra State Assembly elections following the ghastly and the much-detested Mumbai riots of 1992-93, where Manohar Joshi, a prominent face of a political party promised to declare Maharashtra as the first Hindu Rashtra in India, if elected to power. The Supreme Court observed that Hindutva is a “way of life and state of mind”, thus there was no problem with it being invoked during the election. The Supreme Court decided this case in favour of Manohar Joshi by resorting to a debatable reasoning that such an exhortation did not amount to “corrupt practice” and though “despicable”, it can at best be described as a “hope” and “not appeal for votes on the ground of his religion.” This judgment was widely criticised by noted jurists in India and abroad.[7] However, such a practice is in violation of Article 25, as it places reasonable restrictions and the State has the liberty to make any law that restricts such economic, financial, political exhortation or activities which may be associated with religious practices.

Section 123(3) of the RP Act, 1951, strictly prohibits any appeal of votes in the name of religion, along with other caveats. The reason being that, India is a secular nation and it has no official religion, however, if we turn a blind eye to these electoral campaigns which are squarely a part of “corrupt practices” especially wooing voters in the name of religion, shall be against the ethos of democracy and secularism which is a part of the basic structure of the Constitution.

If we try to analyse the verdict of Manohar Joshi[8], from the perspective of a common man belonging to a particular religious sect, such a decision would instil fear in the minds of those people, as it runs counter to the constitutional morality and ethos imbibed by the framers of the Constitution.

In  Kanti Prasad Jayshanker Yagnik v. Purshottamdas Ranchhoddas Patel[9], the Supreme Court stated by a majority of 2:1, that the appeal of a political leader to the mass with respect to the fact that voting for a party will be against the religion does not amount to corrupt practice. The Supreme Court observed that, vide Section 123(3) of the RP Act, the candidate or his or her agent should not appeal to the voters for voting or refrain from voting for any person on the basis of their religion, that is, the candidate’s religion which means, that they should vote candidate on the basis of qualities and not on the religious grounds.

In  Dr. Ramesh Yashwant Prabhoo v. Prabhakar Kashinath Kunte and Bal Thackarey v. Prabhakar Kashinath Kunte [10] an election campaigning speech was made on the grounds of religion and a particular religious sect was maligned. The Court agreed with the High Court, that the speeches were within the ambit of corrupt practices of wooing of voters in the name of religion as covered under Section 123(3) of the RP Act, 1951.

In  Abhiram Singh v. C.D. Commachen [11], a seven-Judge Bench of the Supreme Court held that, calling for votes in elections based on religion, caste, race, community or language, including that of the electorate, would constitute a ‘corrupt practice’ under Section 123(3) of the RP Act, 1951 and  would call for the candidate to be disqualified. The Supreme Court opined that, “Election is a secular exercise and hence a process must be followed.” The relationship between man and God is an individual decision and this should be kept in mind,” ruled the Supreme Court in a 4:3 majority judgment.

The seven-Judge Bench of the Supreme Court held that an appeal in the name of religion, race, caste, community or language is inadmissible under the Representation of the People’s Act, 1951 and would constitute a corrupt practice adequate to nullify the election in which such an appeal was made regardless as to whether the appeal was in the name of the nominee’s religion. It is not an appeal to discuss matters relating to religion, caste, race, community or language which are of concern to voters on those grounds. The issues of constitutional importance include caste, race, religion and language.  The Constitution deals with them and includes provisions based on those features for the improvement of disabilities and discrimination. These are issues of concern to the electorate, especially where large segments of the population have been deprived of basic human rights due to caste and race-based prejudice and discrimination. The majority view was that, a secular State cannot identify itself with any religion or religious domination. This necessarily means that religion cannot play any role in the governance of a country that must be secular in nature at all times. The object of the RP Act, 1951 is to achieve the purity in elections and to ensure that the elections are free and fair, which means that caste, religion, language and community must be kept out of the electoral process.

The dissenting view (minority), held that, “to hold that a person seeking to contest an election is prohibited from speaking of the legitimate concerns of citizens that the injustices they face on the basis of the characteristics of origin of religion, race, caste, community or language would be remedied is to reduce democracy to abstraction,” which means that if there is a real problem that is related to religion, democracy would be reduced to abstraction.

Conclusion

In secular politics, correct behavior or propriety requires that an appeal for votes should not be made based on the religion of the candidate, which in itself is not an index of the suitability of the candidate for membership of the House.

Article 19(2) allows for the imposition of reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by Article 19(1)(a), which means that Section 123(3) of the Representation of the People’s Act, 1951 falls within the scope and ambit of “reasonable restrictions” and Section 123(3) is not an anti-thesis to Article 19(1) (a) as observed by the  Supreme Court in the judgment of Lacchi Ram in 1955[12] and also in the judgment of Bal Thackarey[13].

It can be safely concluded, that even if it is assumed that the Section 123(3) is a fetter only to be saved as a condition under which the candidate has the statutory right to contest the election, however, the fact that the system of separate electorates had been rejected by the framers of the Constitution and that secularism has been recognised to be a part of the basic structure of the Constitution, are relevant considerations to consider the fetter imposed by Section 123(3) of the RP Act, 1951, as a reasonable restriction on freedom of speech and expression, to maintain the code of conduct, required by morality and the propriety of social norms and to ensure free and fair elections which is also a part of the basic structure of the Constitution.

However, in our opinion, an electoral speech cannot, by itself, fall within the scope of sub-section (3) of Section 123, unless it can be interpreted as an appeal to vote for a candidate on the premise that, the candidate belongs to a particular religious community and that he is trying to woo voters based on religion and announcing packages as a part of his speech, or to abstain from voting for the candidate based on his religion. The mere reference to any religion in an election speech does not come within the definition of sub-section (3) and/or subsection (3-A) of Section 123, as a reference may be made to any religion in the context of secularism or to any political party to discriminate against any religious group or, more generally, for the conservation of Indian culture. In short, the mere use of the word ‘Hindutva’ or ‘Hinduism’ or the reference in an election speech to any other religion does not bring it within the scope of Section 123(3) and/or sub-section (3-A) to Section 123, unless the additional elements indicated in the provision, are also present in that speech. It is also essential to see the meaning and significance of the speech, and how it is likely to be perceived by the audience to whom the speech has been addressed.

Therefore, it is a task for the Election Commission to ensure that a strict vigil is kept and also it is also required that the election petitions are decided in a time-bound manner, as there are examples of election petitions getting decided after a period of four to five years, which allows a returned candidate to get away with a perpetration and the concept of free and fair elections are defeated.


*Advocate-On-Record, Supreme Court of India and Senior Associate, L&L Partners, New Delhi

**3rd Year Law Student, MAIMS, GGIPSU, New Delhi

[1] Representation of the People Act, 1951

[2] Article 19 of the Constitution

[3] (1994) 3 SCC 1  

[4] Ibid.

[5](1955) 1 SCR 608

[6] (1996) 1 SCC 169  

[7] https://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/endorsing-hindutva/200472

[8] (1996) 1 SCC 169

[9] (1969) 1 SCC 455

[10] (1996) SCC  130

[11] (2017) 2 SCC 629

[12](1955) 1 SCR 608

[13] (1996) SCC 130


Image Credits: Ecuador Times

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.