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4 January 2017 Editorial


4th January 2017

Secularising the election

The Supreme Court has grappled with the question whether a provision in electoral law that makes it a corrupt practice to use religion, race, caste or language as a ground for canvassing votes in an election is a bar limited to the groups to which candidates or their rivals belong, or whether it is a general prohibition on sectarian appeals. Section 123(3) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, as amended in 1961, gave rise to this doubt. By a four-three majority, a seven-member Bench has ruled that it is a general prohibition on the use of religion or any other communal or sectarian value in the electoral arena. The minority favoured limiting the ambit of the sub-section to cover only candidates who sought votes on such grounds, or the rivals they wanted the voters not to back on similar grounds. That secularism is the bedrock of our democracy is undisputed. That the electoral process ought not to permit appeals to the electorate on these narrow grounds is equally beyond doubt. Against this backdrop, it is only logical that the Supreme Court should decide that it is a “corrupt practice” for candidates to use any caste or communal parameters to canvass for votes or to discredit a rival, regardless of whether the candidates themselves belong to such religious, communal or linguistic groups.

It is interesting that the dispute turned on a single pronoun, ‘his’, that was introduced in the 1961 amendment. The majority opinion favours a ‘purposive interpretation’, holding that it covered the candidates as well as the voter. It finds support in legislative history and our constitutional ethos. The purpose of the amendment was to widen the scope of the particular corrupt practice. Given that secularism is a basic feature of the Constitution, it has been interpreted in the light of Parliament’s intention to prohibit any religious or sectarian appeal for votes. There is a justifiable worry that a wider interpretation may lead to eliminating from the poll discourse political issues that turn on religion, caste or language. After all, this is a country in which sections of society suffer deprivation and historical injustices based on religious or caste identity. But the overall message is clear. It is left to the wisdom of judges dealing with election cases to draw the line between what is permissible and what is not, and look at the context in which some statements are made before deciding whether they constitute a corrupt practice. The majority verdict will find resonance with all those who swear by the primacy of secularism in the public domain. The minority view nuances this with a reminder that legal issues need to be seen in their social context.


A nudge to borrowers

The State Bank of India’s decision to cut its marginal cost of funds based lending rate (MCLR) by 90 basis points is a timely nudge to borrowers, especially given the sharp slowdown in credit growth in the current fiscal year. The timing of the cut is not surprising, given that the country’s largest commercial lender is awash with funds held in current and savings account (CASA) deposits following the Centre’s decision to withdraw high-value banknotes and impose withdrawal curbs on account-holders. With demand across sectors having taken a knock in the wake of the resultant cash crunch, the SBI’s decision to reduce borrowing costs is likely to spur some credit-fuelled buying including in sectors such as automobiles. Latest data from the Reserve Bank of India show that growth in bank credit decelerated to 1.2 per cent in the April 1-December 9, 2016 period, compared with the 6.2 per cent pace witnessed in the comparable period in 2015. Deposit growth, on the other hand, almost doubled in pace, accelerating from 7.1 per cent in the same period in 2015 to 13.6 per cent in 2016. Banks have thus found themselves in an unenviable situation where their liabilities (the money they owe depositors) have jumped sharply, while their assets (the loans they give) have instead almost stagnated. This has added to their woes at a time when mounting bad loans have pushed most public sector banks to post record quarterly losses. The demonetisation decision has willy-nilly ended up providing banks with the windfall of low-cost deposits that could potentially serve as the launch pad to a credit-backed demand stimulus\ in the economy.

Other banks have also cut lending rates, and lenders are now vying with each other to innovatively structure credit products, including home loans, in a bid to capitalise on what they hope will be an enduring revival in the appetite for borrowing. Still, the constraint of needing to fund the substantially higher interest commitments on deposits that have swelled the bank’s liabilities have also forced the SBI to raise the spread it applies on home loans — the additional markup interest it charges over the benchmark one-year MCLR — to a minimum of 50 basis points from 25 basis points earlier. The question is whether this reduction in borrowing costs will be enough to restore consumer confidence. With the Union budget less than a month away, the coming weeks could well serve to provide clear signals on the potential need for a fiscal stimulus to reinvigorate flagging economic growth, especially if a revival in credit growth is going to be slower than anticipated.


Listen to dissent

Interpreting a provision of the Representation of People Act (RPA), a seven-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court has ruled that “religion, race, caste, community or language would not be allowed to play any role in the electoral process” and that the election of a candidate would be declared null and void if these considerations are invoked in the campaign. The ruling expands the scope of what constitutes a corrupt practice as defined by the RPA: Earlier, the RPA provision covered appeals made on behalf of the identity of the candidates whereas reference to the voter’s identity too now comes under the ambit of the law. Any mention of the religious, racial, caste, communal or linguistic identity of voters by a candidate could now attract censure under the RPA. The intent of the judgement — to censure hate and divisive campaigns — is certainly laudable. But the dissent expressed by three judges is more weighty. It is sensitive to the Indian social reality and responsive to the history and nature of political mobilisations in this country.

In his dissent, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud has observed that Parliament excluded reference to any of the social identities of the voter as a corrupt practice as defined by the RPA provision because “the Constitution… recognises the position of religion, caste, language and gender in the social life of the nation. Individual histories both of citizens and collective groups in our society are associated through the ages with histories of discrimination and injustice on the basis of these defining characteristics”. Caste, religion, language, etc, have been the basis of social discrimination in India. Political groups invoke these categories to mobilise people: In fact, many political parties have been products of mass mobilisations against caste, linguistic, religious and racial discrimination and oppression. The Constitution too recognises these social infirmities and has protective provisions to safeguard the rights of minority and marginalised groups. It is this social vision that influenced the founding fathers of the republic to allow parties like the Akali Dal and Muslim League, which clearly identify with specific religious communities, to participate in electoral politics. Not surprisingly, religion, caste, race, language and so on resonate in electoral campaigns and debates. For instance, the largest mobilisations in the past year — the student protests following the suicide of Rohith Vemula, the Jat/Patidar/ Maratha agitations, the Una Dalit protests — have centred on issues of social identity. The willingness of the Indian state to negotiate with these seemingly divisive political agendas and accommodate their purveyors is one of the remarkable success stories of Indian democracy

But if the discourse stoops to incitement of hatred and violence, it should surely be dealt under existing laws. Any move to sanitise electoral politics of references to religion, caste, race, etc, will inadvertently stifle genuine political expression, especially of minority and marginalised communities whose cause of marginalisation and discrimination are their social identities.


Misogyny party

It was once known as the “city of gardens”. But after December 31, 2016, Bengaluru could be renamed the city of horrors. As peaceful pedestrians gathered on the city’s famous MG Road, hoping to welcome 2017 with goodwill, a mob of men reportedly stormed the crowd, groping women, harassing them physically and verbally. A telling picture shows a young girl weeping against a policewoman, her skirt and top in disarray, her feet shorn of shoes abandoned while fleeing the mob, watched mostly from the sidelines by Bengaluru police, which made lackadaisical comments later about how they were outnumbered and that no official molestation complaints have been made.

It seems highly unlikely that these complaints will ever be made, given the remarks coming from G. Parmeshwara, Karnataka’s home minister. Instead of severely castigating the molesters and promising speedy, tough action, Parmeshwara blamed the victims. The minister remarked of the women, “They tried to copy westerners, not only in their mindset but even in their dressing… so some girls are harassed,” reportedly adding a callous, “These things happen.” The minister apparently also said he couldn’t force people to “dress like Kannadigas”.

Perhaps the message from the state’s silent authorities is the same. Women not covered in traditional costume will be molested; the state will criticise the victim’s apparel, not the criminal’s behaviour. Implications for Bengaluru’s residents aside, Parmeshwara’s statement will make “westerners” visiting India’s IT hub think again.

Bengaluru’s night of shame mocks the cultured cosmopolitanism the city is famous for. Having benefitted from “western” business, blaming crimes on “western culture” is unacceptable — and an attempt to mask a glaring lack of law and order with a disturbing misogyny that flares approvingly when women, in pursuit of happiness or work, are attacked in public places. Once, Bengaluru was the harbinger of cutting-edge modernity for India. The molestation incident now makes it seem the foretaste of a dreadful medieval nightmare where women aren’t citizens with equal rights to public spaces and personal dignity. Instead, women are just bodies to be assaulted by strangers and chastised by the state. For Bengaluru — and the rest of India — this is not the start of a happy new year.

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