Sunday, February 12, 2012

Unnecessary controversy between Salman Khurshid and the EC….

It’s another case of media blowing out of proportions an issue that the country’s constitutional framework is well capable of dealing with. Here’s a case where the Election Commission (EC) – a constitutional body – has all the powers in its hands to decide whatever has to be done in the process of ensuring a fair election. It doesn’t need anyone’s help – least of all media’s.

The EC has written to the President – complaining against Khurshid – maybe because it believes it’s a relatively small issue. Had it felt that the issue was more serious, it could have taken any number of harsher measures. It could have countermanded the elections in the constituency in which Khurshid’s wife is the candidate (where he apparently made the remark about 9% sub-quota for Muslims even after the EC asked him to stop doing so). It could have debarred the Congress alone from this poll if it wanted to be really harsh. But whatever it wanted to do, the Constitution – and apparently several SC judgments – give it enough power to do what it thinks is the right thing to do to ensure smooth and fair elections. Also, the CEC is headed by a strong man – one who won’t take anyone’s rubbish for an answer. The CEC also doesn’t need anyone’s help…..but there are many helping hands nonetheless. The way the matter is being discussed in media, it would like it was the biggest challenge facing the country.

As is always the case, the accused has a different story to tell. Khurshid’s point – as reported in some newspapers – is that he never repeated the 9% demand after the EC “censured” (not censored!) him. All that he’s been saying after the EC’s censure is that he will fight for Muslim quota all the time. That much is there in the Congress manifesto for UP and is a politically valid strategy. The 9% was not mentioned in the manifesto and that is what the EC had objected to. As long as Khurshid doesn’t mention specific numbers, he would be right. And the EC would not be able to object to Khurshid’s speech.

The EC may have got taken in by the melodrama in Khurshid’s speech. “Hang me if you want to” is the kind of thing that politicians love to say all the time. No one gives them much importance. Politicians also lie at political rallies. That’s the unfortunate part of the game called Elections. The EC cannot possibly get peeved by such acts of drama. The EC has to focus on the larger picture – is any candidate saying or doing anything that violates the code of conduct. In this case it is clear: if Khurshid mentioned the 9% after the warning, he violated the code of conduct; if he didn’t, then he didn’t.

I myself don’t support the policy of reservations beyond a point. I do support reservations – as a form of Affirmative Action – but with conditions. It has been my view that reservations should have a finite life. That life could be 50 years or even 100 years. But as the beneficiary class takes advantage of reservations and progresses, the % of reservations must come down gradually. I am also not in favor of reservations based on religion. Chetan Bhagat once wrote why religion-based reservation is not a good idea. He rightly pointed out that it’s easy to change one’s religion to get the advantage of reservations. It’s almost impossible to change one’s caste. Reservations based on caste cannot be misued. Those based on religion can be. But this controversy is not about whether such politics is good or bad. Religion is a clear dividing line between Congress supporters and BJP supporters. And that is fine. It’s a political strategy of the Congress. Some call it “appeasing the minorities”; others call it “secularism”. The controversy today is about whether Khurshid repeated the 9% claim or not.

If Khurshid stuck to 4.5% reservations for Muslims, he would be within the code of conduct, since that claim was made well before the code kicked in. Samajwadi Party also keeps making the claim with respect to Muslim reservations. The other parties also keep making random claims – but that’s fine because its part of their poll manifesto or was first voiced before the code came in. The issue isn’t about the reservations at all. It’s about breaching the code of conduct and the EC is right in flagging the issue off.

I also think what Arun Jaitley said was correct. His view was that this was a well orchestrated strategy of the Congress – the good cop, bad cop strategy. Expectedly, the PM has now stepped in as the good cop, admonishing his fellow Congressmen to strictly follow the law book. But the purpose of Khurshid’s speeches would have been served anyways. Well, my only response to Jaitley is that this is not an innovative poll strategy. Every political party uses this same strategy. The BJP admonishes Kushwaha at the center; likewise its central leaders pan the Porngate MLAs. But at the state level, it’s business as usual. Over a period of time, such controversies die down – but the gains at the state level stay.

Will Khurshid’s strategy of raising the pitch for Muslim reservations work? I don’t know. There are varying reports about the way the Muslims vote. All that can be said about their voting pattern is that they won’t vote for the BJP. After all, why should they? Here is a party that openly stands against any sort of Muslim gratification. The Muslims may not vote for BSP either since that party is so clearly positioned in favor of dalits. Any reservation for Muslims means that much is taken away from dalits. But whether the Muslims vote for SP or Congress or the Peace Party of JD (U) or some independent is unpredictable. Each of these parties is making an attempt to woo the community – which again is fair political strategy. But which way the community votes is anyone’s guess. I am writing this because there is a belief amongst some that the Muslims vote en-masse – and that’s why Khurshid is going so far…..that is certainly a cause of nervousness for the BJP. I don’t think that is true at all.

On a ligher note, it is such controversies that make elections so much fun. It also makes India India. You go on a holiday abroad, scan the media, and find it really boring. It is very true indeed that for us, even news is entertainment!

The real truth is that this EC-Khurshid controversy is also an unnecessary one. It looks more like a media strategy than a political strategy – a way for media to keep the citizens engaged with it. If such controversies didn’t arise, so many square cms of newspaper space and so many hours of TV time would go unfilled. So many blogs would not be written (!). Even this controversy will fade away. No one should worry about the country – it’s protected strongly enough by its Constitution!

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