India’s law minister apologises for public spat with election commission

NEW DELHI (17 February 2012) — Law Minister Salman Khurshid avoided a showdown with his own government and the Election Commission (EC) by apologising for imprudent remarks he made during a public rally for the ongoing provincial elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP).

On February 11, while speaking in support of his wife who is contesting the Farrukhabad region of UP as a Congress Party candidate, Khurshid promised to include Muslims in the Hindu-majority country’s affirmative action programme.

The EC viewed the remarks as an inappropriate attempt to influence Muslim voters and a violation of election laws that bar political parties from campaigning on the promise of new policy incentives after election dates have been announced. But even after the EC’s censure, a defiant Khurshid said at another rally that he would continue to fight for Muslim inclusion in the programme even “if they [the EC] hang me”.

The Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) SY Quraishi said that the tone and gist of Khurshid’s remarks were “utterly contemptuous and dismissive” of the EC and “damaging to the level-playing field” in the UP election. Quraishi sought an “immediate and decisive” intervention by the president.

The EC’s appeal to the president was prompted by a complaint filed against Khurshid by India’s principal opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP also demanded Khurshid’s dismissal. The president forwarded the letter to the prime minister who called on Khurshid to clarify his position.

The pressure to apologise to the EC piled on Khurshid, who also holds the minorities affairs portfolio, when Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said he disapproved of Khurshid’s statement. The influential minister’s intervention came amid growing worry in the Congress Party that Khurshid’s controversial statements would spark a clash between the EC and the government.

Finding himself alienated, Khurshid wrote a letter to the EC on February 13 and apologised for his remarks, saying, “It has never been my intention to transgress the law and undermine the election code of conduct. I have great respect for the commission and the decisions it takes and has taken.”

Although the EC decided to put a lid on the issue, the opposition BJP seemed in no mood to let go.

“Khurshid should publicly apologise to the nation and to the Election Commission on the issue,” BJP spokesperson Prakash Javdekar said in a news conference on February 14.

Analysts believe that the BJP’s interest in extending the controversy lies in the fact that the affirmation action programme has the potential to polarise voters along religious lines in UP. Sectarian politics has always helped the BJP win bulk votes from its key constituency, the majority Hindu community in the state.

The Congress Party, meanwhile, is relieved that Khurshid’s spat with the EC may be blowing over. But there is also a view in the party that while Khurshid could have avoided defying the EC publicly, the commission’s decision to write to the president was also an unnecessarily extreme step.

Muslims form 18% of the UP electorate and the Congress Party has been trying hard to woo them through promises of affirmative action in employment and other areas. The election results on March 4 will show if Khhurshid’s controversy had a detrimental effect on his party’s chances.


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