India’s election watchdog on Monday banned two outspoken politicians from campaigning in the country’s national vote for making provocative speeches which it said could stir communal unrest.
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 through to May 19.
Mayawati, a leader for low-caste Dalits, was banned from campaigning for 48 hours for calling on Muslims to vote in a bloc against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Yogi Adityanath, firebrand BJP chief minister of India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh, was sidelined for three days for 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.
Both politicians 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.
Indian politicians are often accused of using hate speech and intimidation to win votes.
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” anyone who votes against him — while another BJP contender, Maneka Gandhi, said Muslims should vote for her or their future requests could be shunned if she wins.
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 them (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.