Prime Minister Narendra Modi came under intense criticism on Sunday for claiming at an election rally in Rajasthan that the Congress would distribute citizens’ property “to those who have more children and those who are infiltrators” if it came to power.

Many on social media appealed to the Election Commission to take action against Modi, contending that his remarks violated the Model Code of Conduct. Until this story was published on Monday evening, the commission had not reacted to the statements.

The developments have once again brought into focus on allegations that the Election Commission is biased in favour of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

This is not the first time the Election Commission has faced allegations that it has failed to punish BJP leaders for violating the Model Code of Conduct.

What does the Model Code of Conduct say?

The Model Code of Conduct is a set of guidelines issued by the Election Commission for political parties and candidates to follow during poll campaigns. It sets guardrails for speeches, meetings, processions, election manifestos, polling and several other areas.

The general conduct section bars “any activity which may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension” between groups. It also mandates that parties and candidates must “refrain from criticism of all aspects of private life” of their opponents.

It also prohibits appeals “to caste or communal feelings for securing votes”. The guidelines note: “mosques, churches, temples or other places of worship shall not be used as [a] forum for election propaganda”.

Photo: Election Commission website

BJP’s campaign on religious grounds

In Modi’s speech in Rajasthan’s Banswara city, he claimed that the Congress-led government under Manmohan Singh had said that Muslims have the first right over the nation’s resources.

“This means that they will collect people’s wealth and distribute it to whom?” Modi asked. “To those who have more children. To the infiltrators. Should your hard-earned money be given to infiltrators?”

He added that when the Congress redistributed wealth, it would not even spare the mangalsutras worn by many married Hindu women.

This is not the first time during the Lok Sabha campaign that the prime minister has appealed to voters on the basis of religion.

On April 17, on the Hindu festival of Ram Navami, the prime minister asked the crowd at a public meeting in Assam to switch on the flashlights of their mobile phones to participate in the “surya tilak” ritual taking place at the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

After the meeting, Modi tweeted photos of himself saying that he watched a video of the “surya tilak” ritual. The official handle of the BJP tweeted a photo of the ritual with the caption: “The power of your ‘one vote’!”

Several other BJP leaders have also used the Hindu deity Ram as a symbol to ask for votes. The party’s candidate from the Meerut constituency, Arun Govil, received a notice from the district magistrate’s office after he displayed a photo of the deity at an election rally.

However, the action did not deter BJP leaders from repeating such gestures. In election roadshow shortly after, Union Home Minister Amit Shah also held up a photo of Ram.

At a public meeting held in Meerut on April 18 as part of Govil’s campaign, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath urged voters to “bring to power the person who brought Ram”. Adityanath then went on to say: “Here, Arun Govil, who played the role of Shri Ram is himself your candidate.”

Adityanath was referring to Govil's portrayal of the deity in Ramayana, a popular TV serial in the 1990s.

The Hindi slogan “Jo Ram ko laayen hain, hum unko layenge” has also been used as hashtags and campaign slogans by BJP leaders. We will bring in those who have brought Ram. It is a reference to the BJP’s support for the Ram temple inaugurated by Modi in Ayodhya on January 22 on the site of the Babri mosque. The mosque had been illegally demolished by Hindutva supporters in 1992.

The Election Commission has drawn criticism from Opposition leaders and social media users for failing to take decisive action against BJP leaders. In cases where it has responded, the poll body’s actions have raised questions.

For example, after a video of Madhavi Latha, the BJP candidate for the Hyderabad seat, miming at shooting an arrow at a mosque created a controversy, an official of the Election Commission said that he had not seen the clip even though it had been widely shared on social media. The Hyderabad Police have filed a first information report against Latha.

But in the absence of action from the Election Commission, BJP leaders have continued to appeal for votes on religious grounds.

What can the Election Commission do?

Delhi-based Senior Advocate Sanjoy Ghose told Scroll that Modi’s comments at the Banswara rally on Sunday are a clear violation of the Model Code of Conduct. “The Election Commission can suspend Modi, or whoever makes such a speech, from campaigning for a certain duration and it has done so many times in the past,” Ghose said.

He also said that the speech violated Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code (promoting enmity between different groups) and Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act.

The law deems it to be a corrupt practice if an election candidate makes an appeal to voters to cast their ballots “based on his/her religion, race, caste, community, or language”.

“The Election Commission should take steps to file cases against Modi, or whoever else, is violating these laws,” Ghose said. “It will be an important message if this is done right at the top level. Once you allow this, it will percolate to the karyakarta [functionary] level.”