A former CEC defends the decision to wrap up the BSP’s statues

Statues at Ambedkar Park in Noida in January 2012, covered in accordance with Election Commission orders. Associated Press
03 May, 2014

Every set of elections has its share of controversies and criticisms and the ones that took place in late-2011 and early-2012 were no exception. In some cases, I found myself being personally attacked in sections of the media. One such controversy related to the Commission’s decision to cover the statues of Mayawati (then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh) and statues of elephants—the election symbol of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which she heads—located in public parks that had been built using public funds.

The Commission’s decision was attacked not so much by BSP functionaries and supporters but a section of the media. Even some senior journalists made flippant remarks like why did the Commission not ban the use of bicycles (the election symbol of the Samajwadi Party) or ban lotuses (the symbol of the Bharatiya Janata Party), or cover everyone’s hand with gloves (hands being the symbol of the Indian National Congress)? Some questioned the expenditure this exercise would involve. Eminent media leader and columnist Karan Thapar in his ‘Sunday Sentiments’ (Hindustan Times, 29 January 2012) wrote a critical analysis under the title ‘So wrong, So long’ in which he questioned the merit of the decision and wondered why we often make the wrong decisions?

All of them missed the larger perspective. The facts of the matter are that some people had petitioned the Supreme Court to ask the UP government to stop the construction of the statues of the chief minister and the elephants at public parks, at public expense. It was also demanded that the elephant, as the party’s symbol, should be frozen because these statues in their hundreds, would be a permanent advertisement for the party at public expense, disturbing the level playing field among political parties. The Supreme Court referred the matter of the party symbol to the ECI.

The Commission heard the representation to freeze the elephant symbol in its quasi-judicial capacity assisted by a battery of lawyers from both sides. It decided that it would be an extreme step to freeze the symbol, though there was a lot of merit in the complaint that a huge amount of public money had been spent in building these statues, which were in fact logos of the ruling party. I consider it desirable to reproduce the operative parts of our order.

It has to be borne I mind that the BSP is a National Party and the symbol ‘elephant’ is reserved for it in the whole of the country, except Assam. Before taking any decision with regard to the withdrawal of the above symbol from the party, as prayed for by the petitioners, the Commission has to carefully weigh the implications which such withdrawal of symbol may have and cause confusion in the minds of millions of electors, apart from members, supporters and workers of the party across the country, who identify the party with its symbol ‘elephant’, on account of action taken by one of the State Governments […]

44. However, at the time of elections, the Commission would, no doubt, take appropriate steps and measures to see that Ms. Mayawati and BSP’s symbol ‘elephant’ do not disturb the level playing field and give undue advantage to the BSP vis-á-vis other political parties.

Para 44, the penultimate paragraph, deliberately printed in bold in our quasi judicial order of 11 October 2010 (as above), clearly shows that a forewarning for covering of statues was unambiguously made a full three months before the instruction to cover them was actually issued. The EC order was placed before the Supreme Court and the BSP did not question our order, neither before the EC nor the Supreme Court.

What the Commission did was ensure level playing field and neutralize the advantage that a incumbent party had. We followed the rules in letter and spirit. After all, why are even photographs of the ruling Prime Minister and chief ministers removed from walls of government offices before elections? Even a calendar of the serving political personality is removed! As N. Gopalaswami and TS Krishnamurthy, former Chief Election Commissioners, pointed out in television debates, what would be the EC’s response if other parties demanded that their symbols should also be erected at public expense in these public parks to ensure a level playing field?

Another criticism was regarding the cost of covering these statues, which was speculated to be crores of rupees. The Commission had indeed covered that issue as well. We had explored the options of closing the parks instead of covering the statues. That would have cost Rs 500 for the padlocks on the two parks. But our legal sense dictated otherwise. What if a citizen went to the court complaining that his fundamental right to a walk in the park had been violated? That, perhaps, would have been more difficult for us to argue against. Our legal advisor confirmed this. Then we did a quick check with the Food Corporation of India about the cost of covering their huge stocks of food-grain. The information was revealing. A plastic sheet to cover a stack of a size comparable to the tallest statue would be Rs 7,150. Covers for the statues would need much less demanding specifications and would cost just half of this. If a huge cost (‘crores’!) was actually incurred, it would be a matter for the CAG, in due course, and not the EC’s concern.

The record of the CEO of Uttar Pradesh, however, show that the total expenditure on covering the statues was Rs 2,23,191 in NOIDA and Rs 66,900 in Lucknow (Total Rs 2,90,091).

It is important to note that the EC’s action also passed judicial scrutiny with the Allahabad High Court’s order in the matter of covering statues dated 24 January 2012. It is equally noteworthy that the media virtually blacked out his information.

Relevant extract from the judgment:

…the direction in exercise of powers under Article 324 to cover the statues of ‘elephants’ and of the incumbent Chief Minister erected at government expense after the election notification has been issued and the dates for the elections announced has to be understood in the background that at that stage there is a compelling obligation on the Election Commission to ensure the conduct of free and fair elections and the purity of the electoral process and that no party gets any undue advantage over the contestants.

It was also argued in the media that the Election Commission’s order to cover up the statues of Mayawati and the elephants would work in favour of the then incumbent government in the state. The Commission is not concerned who benefits and who does not; it only acts in good faith according to its understanding of the concept of a level playing field and the concerns of the Model Code of Conduct that must be enforced in letter and spirit.

An extract from An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election by SY Quraishi (Rainlight by Rupa, 2014). 434 pages, Rs 795.

SY Quraishi is the former chief election commissioner of India and the author of An Undocumented Wonder – The Great Indian Election. He is currently a Distinguished Fellow at Trivedi Political Data Centre, Ashoka University.