UP Elections: Congress outwits EC, chants communal mantra
by Hari Om on 17 Feb 2012 13 Comments

Union Steel Minister Beni Prasad Verma has, in the manner of an experienced relay race runner, picked up the communal card that his colleague Salman Khurshid was forced to drop by an irate Election Commission, thus making it clear to a bemused electorate the Congress is in dire straits in UP, desperately needs for minority votes, and will stoop to any level in its bid to conquer the estranged bastion at Lucknow.

At an election rally on Feb 16 in Kayamganj assembly constituency in Farrukhabad district, Verma
deliberately reignited the Muslim quota war by promising that the Congress party would go in for reservation for Muslims if it captured power in UP. The “Muslims have not got their dues and the erstwhile non-Congress governments in the state have done nothing for their betterment. We will reserve quota for Muslims; we will ensure enhanced quota for them; it will require amendment to the constitution”, he said.

Asked if he had not violated the Model Code of Conduct, he responded that he had not. “I had just said we need to give them [Muslims] enhanced reservation”, and “if the EC wants to serve me a notice, I will reply to it”

It is obvious that the Election Commission has erred in its decision not to press for further action against Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid after he expressed “regret” over precisely such comments at an election rally on Feb 10. Reacting rather quickly to Khurshid’s formal letter of “regret”, the EC decided to treat the matter as closed “after he (Salman) promised not to create such a situation in future”, according to news reports. 

Salman Khurshid, it may be recalled, had while addressing an election rally in Khatakpur locality, Farukkhabad, where his wife Louise Khurshid is contesting as a Congress candidate, stated that the “EC had censured him, but even if the ‘Commission hangs him or does anything else’, he would ensure that people of Pasmanda community (read Muslims) get their rights… If they (EC) want to hang me they can, they can hang me for committing to people for a quota. We will change the fate of the poor, even if we have to go against EC, we will change the fate of the poor. I will then come and stand in front of the court of the people and fight my case. I want to stand in the court of the people and ask isn’t it the right of the people?”

Khurshid had deliberately defied the EC and reiterated his Jan 9 stand on religion-based reservation for Muslims in government jobs and educational institutions. The EC censured him after a complaint by the BJP that the Union Law Minister had not only violated the Model Code of Conduct, but had also violated the Indian Constitution to communalise the UP election scene and garner Muslim votes for the Congress party.

Barely a month later, Khurshid reiterated the same communal propaganda, and the Election Commission could not digest this affront to its authority from the Union Law Minister, the one man who should know that it is his fundamental duty to strengthen constitutional institutions and not undermine their importance for petty vote-bank politics. To let him go scot-free would mean open bias towards the erring Salman and the Congress for vitiating the electoral process in UP.

Since Khurshid was repeatedly thumbing his nose at the Election Commission, the Commission took the extraordinary step of approaching the President of India to help it conduct free and fair elections in UP. It sent a strong letter to the President after the Prime Minister’s previous assurance on its complaint against Salman Khurshid had failed to produce the desired results. That time, Khurshid virtually told the poll panel that it had to work under the overall control of the
government! This was his way of reminding Mr. S.Y. Qureshi that he had been appointed to his post by the Congress party. Unsubtle yes, but quite pointed.

Then too, the context was the same: Khurshid’s advocacy of religion-based reservations when the election process was already on. Campaigning in his wife’s constituency, Khurshid said that the Congress, if voted to power, would enhance the sub-quota for Muslims from 4.5 per cent to 9 per cent within the quota reserved for Other Backward Classes (OBCs).

Upset at Khurshid’s obduracy which diminished the status of the Commission in the eyes of an Indian public that has got used to ringmaster-type Chief Election Commissioners since the days of Mr. T.N. Seshan, the Election Commission complained to the President of India,

“The Commission is shocked that instead of being remorseful about the violation of the Model Code, that carries the consensus of all political parties and the sanction of the Supreme Court, the (Law) Minister has chosen to be defiant and aggressive. This is unprecedented … We have found the tone and tenor of the Union Minister dismissive and utterly contemptuous about the Commission's lawful direction to him, besides the fact that his action is damaging the level playing field in the election.”

This is a severe indictment of Salman Khurshid; even the thick-skinned Congress party was embarrassed, or had to pretend to be. The President promptly forwarded the EC missive to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the same evening and directed him to take “appropriate action” in the matter.

The cognoscenti of course knew that the nominated Prime Minister could do nothing at the suggestion of the President of India because Sonia Gandhi and her coterie rule the roost and so it was for them to take the final call.

More pertinently, what Salman Khurshid did was as per the grand strategy evolved by the party with a view to vitiating the whole electoral scene in UP, capturing Muslim votes and somehow forming the government in Lucknow. That is why Salman Khurshid reiterated the party position on Feb 10, despite a censure from the EC for making the same poll promise in January! His was a willful reiteration and deliberate snub to the EC.

For form’s sake, however, the party pressed Khurshid to mend fences with the Commission, and so
on Feb 13, he sent a single-page “regret” letter stating, “I feel disturbed with the developments arising out of one of my statements made in the course of the election campaign. It has also caused me equal measure of sadness… It has never been my intention to transgress the law or the Model Code of Conduct... I have great respect for the Commission and the decisions it takes and has taken… I treat this matter as unfortunate and regret this statement. I bow to the wisdom of the EC and remain personally committed to ensure that such situations do not arise… As responsible citizens of this country, it is our duty to promote the spirit of law, its adherence and enforcement. This is the ethos on which I have woven my entire life and am committed to the EC’s effort towards the conduct of a free and fair election process”.

This is not genuine regret, but an attempt to deflect the EC’s anger, knowing full well that others in the Union Council of Ministers and Congress party will pick up the refrain and continue preaching what he began in Farrukhabad to communalise the ongoing election process.

The Election Commission should have known better, but it walked into the Congress trap and decided not to take any further action in the matter. It merely advised “all the contending parties and those campaigning in elections, particularly those holding public offices, to be extremely careful, so that a situation, as in this case [violation of the model code], does not recur.”

But, it was all a ploy. Congress continued its divisive agenda for vote-bank politics. Hence, immediately after the Khurshid imbroglio ended, Union Steel Minister Beni Prasad Verma – who contemptuously dismissed Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati as “chor” and “chorni” (thieves) – informed all and sundry that in 2014 Manmohan Singh will be 82 years old and Rahul Gandhi will be Prime Minister.

And, as stated above, he took up the enhanced reservation for Muslims chant where Khurshid had left it.

More pertinently, this was in the presence of Salman Khurshid and Digvijay Singh, the other arch-champion of minority rights. This unambiguously conveys that the Union Government and the Congress party are working in unison to not only communalise the election scene and polarise Muslim votes, but also to destroy the institutional authority of the Election Commission.

Even bitter critics of the BJP are now fed up with the Congress, so much so that they are reluctantly coming to the conclusion that it may be better if BJP replace Congress! Veteran journalist Praful Bidwai lamented, “Realistically, the Congress party is unlikely to correct policy course unless it’s admonished by the people. I hate to say this, but in today’s circumstances, this means that the electorate ensures that it performs relatively poorly in UP. True, this will adversely affect leadership transition in the Congress and might temporarily help the Right (read BJP), which would be undesirable. But if nothing else can shake the Congress’s leadership out of its complacency, what’s the choice?”

The ball is now in the Election Commission’s court. Will it dare reopen the case and take stringent action against Salman Khurshid, Beni Prasad Verma, Digvijay Singh and ensure a free and fair poll?

Never, in recent years, has a Chief Election Commissioner been so professionally challenged as Mr. S.Y. Qureshi, ironically, by the party which appointed him, and by and on account of his co-religionists! The credibility and dignity of both the Commission and the CEC are at stake in the bar of public opinion. This is a litmus test for both; we the People of India shall wait and watch how they acquit themselves.

The author is former Chair Professor, Maharaja Gulab Singh Chair, University of Jammu, Jammu, & former member Indian Council of Historical Research

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