Legally, it is impermissible to mix religion and politics in most countries, including India. There will be an uproar if any top political leader in India goes for a religious retreat. And it looks a remote possibility for any religious leader to kiss the shoes of our political leaders to persuade them to refrain from whipping up religious, communal or casteist emotions during campaigning for general elections. Why would they, when political leaders are queuing up to kiss the feet of religious leaders to improve their election prospects, apart from attempting to appease the gods and goddesses every now and then.
In India, secularism is the core of the constitutional scheme of governance. But on the ground, this core philosophy has always been wounded by parties, howsoever the political leaders may filibuster about adherence to the constitutional ethos.
To overcome the deepseated societal division on the basis of caste and religion, Section 123(3) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, prohibits a candidates from making systematic appeal to vote on the ground of caste, race, community or religion by terming such action as corrupt practice which would render the candidate disqualified.
Amendment to Section 123 (3) in 1956 broad-based the ambit of the provision by including not only the candidate but his agent or any other person. After two more amendments, the law as it stands today was amended in 1961 and reads, “The appeal by a candidate or his agent or by any person with the consent of the candidate or his agent to vote or refrain from voting for any person on the ground of religion, race, caste, community or language or the use of religious symbols or the use of, or appeal to, national symbols, such as national flag or the national emblem, for the furtherance of the prospect or for prejudicially affecting the election of any candidate” will be considered as corrupt practice, making the candidate liable for disqualification.
This provision would convince a person, unaware of the ground reality of Indian elections, that it is mandatory for candidates to shun reference to religion, race, caste and community in their campaign speeches. Despite the stringent law which threatens to disqualify a candidate on a single appeal to voters on the prohibited lines, caste and religious credentials of a candidate continue to be the key factor of her success in elections, depending on the demographic structure
of a constituency. Parties have sprung up on the foundation of caste and religion. Campaign speeches are getting shriller on caste and community lines.
A seven-judge bench of the SC in a 2017 judgment (Abhiram Singh vs C D Commachen) had further expanded the ambit of Section 123(3) to maintain purity of the electoral process. It brought within the ambit of corrupt practices “any appeal made to an elector by a candidate or his agent or by any other person with the consent of the candidate or his election agent to vote or refrain from voting for the furtherance of the prospects of election of that candidate or for prejudicially affecting the election of any candidate on the ground of religion, race, caste, community or language of (i) any candidate or (ii) his agent or (iii) any other person making the appeal with the consent of the candidate or (iv) elector”.
This means no candidate in Odisha can tell voters in the state not to vote for BJD on the ground that its leader and chief minister does not speak the local language fluently. Surprisingly, many who campaigned questioning Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin and her religion and nationality did not fall foul of Section 123(3) in the last three general elections.
Congress candidates in the 2007 Gujarat assembly elections did not attract disqualification when Sonia threw the “dharm aur maut ka saudagar’ barb at then CM Narendra Modi. Congress candidates did not attract disqualification when the Congress president in April 2014 met the shahi imam of Jama Masjid Syed Ahmed Bukhari and sought his support. Bukhari appealed to Muslims to support Congress all over India. Similarly, an association of church leaders had issued an appeal to voters in 2014 asking them not to vote for BJP.
BJP leaders, Modi included, have never lost a chance to subtly mix religion in campaign speeches. The latest being Maneka Gandhi openly telling Muslims that consequences would follow if they did not vote for her.
Apart from religion being used by candidates to either seek votes or prejudice voters against their rivals, caste equations still continue to be a key parameter for a candidate’s success in polls. The stringent laws enacted by Parliament to prohibit the use of race, caste, religion and language of a candidate or electors during campaigning, and the Supreme Court’s attempt to sharpen the provisions by widening their ambit, has done little to deter candidates from using these very prohibited means to seek votes.