Of late, the poisoning of public discourse in India through frequent invocation of religion by politicians has reached alarming levels. Conventionally, the place of religion in politics has been examined with reference to the secular scheme of the Constitution. Leaders have taken recourse to deeming secularism as ‘undesirable’ and giving semantic reconstructions to religious concepts.
However, the current political class seems keen on shedding all pretences of engaging in discourse that is both constitutionally sanctioned and in the interest of democracy. Singling out of communities in the name of religion and justifying gruesome acts of violence committed against them have become so commonplace that it perhaps no longer bothers our conscience.
Philosophers and political scientists have long debated the role of ethics in politics with some insisting on a complete separation and others maintaining that an inbuilt ethical architecture exists within the very scheme of politics. At the same time, there are others who have neither disputed the indispensability of ethics to politics nor as a matter of principle decried the appeal of setting ethical limits but simply highlighted some pragmatic issues. It was against this backdrop that the principle of constitutionalism was devised. However, given the inherent limitations of constitutional law, perhaps we need to revisit the original question of exploring links between ethics and politics and its promise in pre-empting illegitimate and pernicious political grandstanding.
It has been over two years since the Supreme Court’s Constitution Bench interpreted Section 123(3) of the Representation of People Act, 1951 as outlawing the invocation of religion in electioneering. Notwithstanding the genius of this verdict, the political class of this country has continuously failed to honour the judgment.
Almost two and a half decades ago, the Supreme Court, while proclaiming secularism as a basic feature of the Constitution in the landmark Bommai case, had emphatically declared that “no party or organisation can simultaneously be a political and a religious party” in a secular state. Elaborating further, the Court stated: “If a political party espousing a particular religion comes to power, that religion tends to become, in practice, the official religion” thereby introducing an imbalance in our constitutional system. Even as the Constitution, under Article 144, enjoins the civil and judicial authorities of the State to act in aid of the Supreme Court, the continuous attempts by political parties to make references to religion without attracting any significant civil or penal consequences make the effectiveness of the verdict and of the law as a tool for ensuring ethical political conduct really suspect.
Piecemeal interventions made by the Central and State Election Commissions and tribunals in infusing a semblance of probity into the electoral process have also been largely in vain, given the creative ways in which politicians make use of religion and religious symbols while addressing the electorate, coupled with the constraints of the institutions charged with the maintenance of standards of political conduct.
The Representation of the People Act, 1951 only regulates the conduct of elections, while the Model Code of Conduct only comes into operation upon the notification of the election schedule. Besides, the requirement of strict interpretation and rigorous standard of proof in election trials stultifies the range of remedies available under the relevant enactments. Hence, as elections approach, it is not uncommon to come across instances of leaders frequenting places of worship; seeking endorsements from different religious heads; and delivering hate speeches.
Given this state of affairs, articulating a comprehensive ‘moral code of conduct’ applicable across party lines seems to be the only way out. Such a code may draw upon the wisdom of experts, both at the national and international levels. A fine example of such a blueprint as applicable to judges is the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct, 2002. Conceptualised against the backdrop of rising concerns about corruption within the judiciary, the document outlines the core virtues of judicial life — independence, impartiality, integrity, propriety, equality, competence and diligence — in operationalisable terms.
Given its pull, religion invariably tends to dominate political conversation to the exclusion of other topical issues. The contest among political parties to outscore each other in religion-based bigotry is likely to culminate in wholesale disenchantment among sections. It is only hoped that the political class will wake up to this reality sooner rather than later and devise principles of ethical conduct through consensus.
The role of the media as a watchdog of democracy will also be very crucial. It is high time that this powerful institution revisits its notion of newsworthiness and puts an end to the undue popularisation of abhorrent religious rhetoric so as to disincentivise the political class from capitalising on religious prejudices and peddling pernicious forms of intolerance.
Anmolam is a lawyer, running BDLAAAW, a non-profit organisation; Shivam is a doctoral candidate at the Faculty of Law, University of Delhi
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