23 Jan 2012
Allergic to elephants
Author: A Surya Prakash
The Election Commission's firman to cover the statues of elephants has
generated much mirth. It also smacks of partisan politics.
While the Election Commission of India has done exemplary work over
the last two decades to clean up the election process and to curtail
the influence of money power and muscle power in the electoral arena,
some of its recent decisions make it vulnerable to the charge that it
is not always even-handed while dealing with political parties.
The poll panel's directive to cover the statues of Chief Minister
Mayawati and her party's election symbol — the elephant — in Uttar
Pradesh has drawn a lot of flak and ridicule.
If the elephant is to be banished from public view, what about the
bicycle (symbol of the Samajwadi Party) and the hand pump (symbol of
the Rashtriya Lok Dal) and the ubiquitous hand of the Congress? The
Commission's logic appears to be as follows: The statues of Chief
Minister Mayawati and the elephants have been built at State cost by
the BSP Government, which is in power.
Therefore, these statues need to be out of public view, lest they
influence the electorate. Hand pumps and bicycles are not on the same
footing. While there can be some justification for covering the
statues of the Chief Minister of the State, the Commission was
obviously stretching it a bit too far by putting all elephant statues
under a shroud. The Commission's firman has generated much mirth and a
genre of election jokes. For example, it is asked if the Mayawati
Government will be taken to task if a herd of elephants from the Jim
Corbett Park were to stray into constituencies in Uttar Pradesh?
Let us for a moment accept this logic and go along with the
Commission's argument. Since Ms Mayawati has spent public money to
promote herself and her party, the statues need to be tucked away
until the election is over. Should the statues be visible to the
people, it would give the BSP undue advantage in the election.
In other words, anything built or created by a political party out of
public funds and which has the effect of placing that party at an
advantage must be erased from the public consciousness, else it give
that party an undue electoral advantage. If that be so, how is it that
the Election Commission sees nothing wrong in the Congress naming
every conceivable Union Government scheme after its icons?
In a petition to the Election Commission in March, 2009, this writer
had drawn the attention of the commission to the fact that over 450
Government schemes, programmes and institutions were named after icons
of just one party — the Congress.
For example, among programmes of the Union Government which involve
huge expenditure annually are the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran
Yojana with an outlay of Rs 28,000 crore during the Eleventh Plan
period; Rajiv Gandhi Drinking Water Mission (Rs 7,000 crore annually);
the Indira Awas Yojana, a housing programme for the poor with outlays
of around Rs 8,000 crore per annum; the Indira Gandhi National Old Age
Pension Scheme with allocations of around Rs 3,500 crores per annum;
and the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission in which the Union
Government invests over Rs 10,000 crore per annum.
The main contention in the petition was that the way these schemes are
named, citizens are made to feel as if they get a roof over their
head, electricity and drinking water in their homes, crèche facilities
for their children and pensions in their old age because of the
munificence of one family and one political party.
In such a situation, would it be possible to ensure a level playing
field for all political parties? The Election Commission rejected the
petition and said that in the performance of its constitutional duty,
it "is not called upon to interfere in the normal functioning of Union
and State Governments, like, drawing up of welfare schemes and
projects, giving names to such schemes/projects, etc, during the
non-election period". It said, "During the election period, when the
model code of conduct becomes operative, the commission ensures
compliance with the provisions of the Model Code of Conduct".
If, according to the Commission, the launching of welfare schemes and
naming them in the non-election period is the "normal functioning of
Union and State Governments", then it goes without saying that the
construction of monuments and statues to commemorate the work and
sacrifices of Dalit icons by the Mayawati Government in Uttar Pradesh
is also part of the "normal functioning" of the State Government.
Further, the Commission says that during the election period, it
"ensures compliance" with the Model Code of Conduct. Therefore, the
Commission directed the Uttar Pradesh Government to cover the statues
of Mayawati and the elephants. In which case, logically speaking, it
should also direct the Union Government to remove the names of icons
of the Congress from central schemes and programmes.
It is difficult to understand how the statues of elephants disturb the
'level playing field' in election, but the Rs 1.50 lakh crore invested
in central schemes in the name of Rajiv Gandhi and Mrs Indira Gandhi,
who are icons of one particular party, do not! Given the Commission's
logic, it would only be proper to permanently ensure politically
neutral names for Union Government schemes, because one cannot hide
the names of schemes temporarily during the election period like
The Mayawati Government deserves to be complimented for erecting
monuments in honour of BR Ambedkar, whose contribution has never been
properly acknowledged by the Congress. However, there can be no doubt
that the Mayawati Government's decision to erect her statues and that
of her party's symbol in different parts of the State is in poor
taste. But the Election Commission's directive smacks of partisanship
when it fails to deal with greater infringements by the Congress.
Apart from the statues issue in Uttar Pradesh, there are other
decisions of the Commission that are contentious. For example,
choosing January 30 as the date of polling in Uttarakhand, when most
of the hilly regions of the State will be under snow-cover, is
inexplicable. The Commission could have chosen a later date for the
poll, especially when it changed the date of the first phase of
polling in Uttar Pradesh because of a religious festival. Surely,
adverse weather conditions ought to warrant a change of polling date
in secular India.
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