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Indian election body warns rival parties over divisive language

The Election Commission has cautioned the ruling BJP and opposition Congress parties about incendiary campaigning

India’s independent election body on Wednesday warned the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its biggest rival, the Indian National Congress (INC), against campaigning on the basis of caste, community, language, and religion, as the country votes to elect the next government.

In separate notices issued to BJP President JP Nadda and Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge, the Election Commission of India (ECI) asked the two parties to “exercise restraint” in their messaging. The two parties had earlier reported each other to the election body for allegedly making divisive speeches during polling, which runs until June 1.

The ECI has specifically asked party leaders to ensure their main campaigners refrain from using religious and communal undertones in speeches, and avoid statements that could incite tensions between different casts and religious communities.

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“India’s socio-cultural milieu is an enduring preserve and cannot be made a casualty to elections,” the ECI warned, adding that the “party currently in power” holds extra responsibility during polling periods.

Notably, the BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been asked to stop using “religious and communal overtones” in election rallies. The opposition Congress Party has been directed to ensure that its star campaigners do not make “false impressions,” such as suggesting that the Indian Constitution could be “abolished” or “sold.” 

Last month, Modi was accused of “hate speech” by the opposition after he claimed that if Congress came to power, it would distribute the country’s wealth among “those who have more children,” referring to Muslims, India’s largest minority.

The election body has also taken exception to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s assertion that the INDIA bloc – an alliance of dozens of parties spearheaded by Congress – would abolish the ‘Agnipath’ scheme if elected. The ECI instructed the Congress to “refrain from politicizing the armed forces” with its references to the scheme, which is aimed at recruiting soldiers on a contract basis for a four-year term, without a pension.

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The Congress, which has vehemently opposed the new armed forces recruitment formula, claims the scheme reduces the participants’ chances of gaining permanent jobs with the military, which guarantee fixed salaries and pensions, including in case of death on duty.

On Thursday, senior Congress figure Palaniappan Chidambaram questioned the election commission’s directive, claiming that it is the “right” of an opposition party to criticize government policy. “Agniveer employs a young man for four years and throws him out without a job and without a pension, and that is wrong,” he posted on X (formerly Twitter).

Last month, a plea to disqualify Modi from running for election was dismissed by the Delhi High Court. The petitioner, Anand S Jondhale, had alleged that the prime minister sought votes in the “name of god and place of worship” during a rally.

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May 23, 2024 at 04:29PM

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