The prime time debate on Times Now on 9th April was sparked off by the Congress Party’s complaint to the Election Commission against Sri Sri Ravishankar and Ram Dev. The person representing the Congress Party claimed that spiritual leaders who propagate political views, against or in favour of a particular party or candidate, are violating the “model code of conduct”. I am not a follower of these spiritual leaders, nor do I support the BJP. However, I find this act of the Congress Party to be in violation of the basic democratic principle that all citizens have the right to be political.

Some of the participants in the debate made this point, but the anchor, Mr. Arnab Goswami, countered them by asserting that political propaganda was the business of only registered political parties. He declared that Congress Party has no moral ground to complain because Sonia Gandhi had met with Shahi Imam Bukhari, a Muslim spiritual leader, to solicit his support. He thus presented himself as being critical of both Congress Party and BJP. But he did not support the democratic principle that every citizen has the right to express his or her political views. He argued that because Ram Dev and Sri Sri Ravishankar were influential persons, with millions of followers, they should not express any view for or against any political party or candidate.

What does Arnab Goswami really mean? Does he mean that a non-influential person can propagate political views while an influential person cannot?

What is the definition of an influential person? Am I an influential person? I am certainly influential within my own circle of family, friends and colleagues at my work place. Do I have the right to express my political opinion and propagate such opinion among my colleagues, friends and relatives? I certainly do, and I will not give up this right, no matter what. If I have this right, then so does every citizen of this country. How can this right be denied to somebody just because he or she influences several lakhs of persons and not just fifty or hundred persons?

Apart from individuals, do non-party organisations not have the right to be political? What about a workers’ union or a women’s organisation or a youth club? Can the workers of a union not come to some collective decision about political matters, and propagate a collective view about what would be good for our country and what would not be good? Can they not propagate their view among the workers belonging to other unions?

When one of the participants made the point that every member of a democratic polity has the right to express his or her political opinion, Arnab Goswami responded by asking, “Why then do we have registered political parties”?

Is political propaganda the exclusive preserve of registered political parties? If this is accepted, it means that the vast majority of people in our country have only the right to vote, while the right to influence political opinion belongs only to a special political caste. This is an extremely undemocratic position, unbecoming of someone who claims to be a champion of free democratic discussion and debate.

In her attempt to defend the position of her party, the Congress representative tried to argue that a spiritual foundation has to be “non-political” according to the Societies Registration Act. This is an archaic piece of legislation, enacted by the British Raj in 1860, soon after the great national rebellion of 1857. Its aim is to negate the rights of Indians to be political, converting it into an exclusive preserve of a privileged few. If the grouse of Congress Party is that this colonial law is being violated, it is a pathetic argument. And in any case, how does it concern the Election Commission?

In conclusion, I would like to point out that Indian epics are replete with political views and wisdom. The Anushasan Parva in Mahabharatha is a treatise on rajadharma and statecraft. Bhishma, on his death bed, educates Yudhistr on rules of kingship. Would you accuse Bhishma of violating the code of conduct, Arnab?

R. Geetha

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