India’s election watchdog on Monday banned four outspoken politicians, including two top members of prime minister Narendra Modi’s party, from campaigning in the country’s national vote for making provocative speeches.
The measures came after the Supreme Court called on the election commission to get tough on hate speech during the world’s biggest election, which started last Thursday and runs to May 19.
Indian politicians are often accused of using hate or intimidation to win support of the electorate, but soliciting votes on religious lines or threatening voters is prohibited.
Maneka Gandhi, the widow of former politician Sanjay Gandhi, received a 48-hour ban for saying Muslims should vote for her - or their future requests could be shunned if she wins.
The election commission said she had violated a provision against appealing ‘to caste or communal feelings for securing votes’ and another against bribery or intimidation.
Gandhi is minister for women and child welfare in the cabinet of Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party is seeking a second five-year term.
Critics have accused Modi of imposing a Hindu agenda on the country and emboldening attacks on Muslims and low-caste Dalits.
The election commission gave another 48-hour ban to Dalit leader Mayawati, for calling on Muslims to vote in a bloc against Modi’s BJP.
Mayawati goes by one name.
Yogi Adityanath, the firebrand BJP chief minister of India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh, was sidelined for three days over his response to Mayawati, comparing the election to a battle between Muslim and Hindu gods.
Hindus - who make up the majority community in India - had ‘no option’ but to support the BJP, he added.
Adityanath and Mayawati made ‘highly provocative speeches’ which had ‘the tone and tenor to aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred between different religious communities,’ the commission said.
The authority issued a three-day campaign ban to Azam Khan, a senior official in the Samajwadi Party battling the BJP in Uttar Pradesh.
He was sanctioned after saying that former Bollywood actress Jaya Prada of the BJP ‘wears a khaki underwear.’ The election commission said the comments violated a directive against actions ‘repugnant to honour and dignity of women.’
The Indian campaign has been marked by headline-grabbing declarations by politicians.
Adityanath has already waded into trouble by calling Muslims the ‘green virus’ who are set to ‘engulf the nation’. BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj caused controversy last week by saying he was a ‘saint’ who would put a curse on anyone who votes against him.
The Supreme Court has in turn called on opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi to explain why he incorrectly attributed remarks to the court saying that Modi had ‘committed a theft’ in agreeing a fighter deal with France.
The election commission - often accused of being ineffective - has been flooded with complaints since campaigning started in March, and the Supreme Court told it to ‘act very promptly’ on potential violations.
The watchdog told the court its code of conduct limits the punishments it can mete out, however.
‘We can’t de-recognise (parties) or disqualify candidates,’ the counsel representing the commission at the hearing on Monday said.
The commission sought to counter critics this month by postponing the release of a fawning film biography of Modi. It also ordered a clampdown on a TV channel dedicated to the prime minister, NaMO TV.
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