Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar told Scroll on Monday that the Election Commission had deliberated over poll code violations during the 2024 general elections at length and had decided to not admonish two top leaders each from the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian National Congress – Narendra Modi and Amit Shah of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra of the Indian National Congress.

Kumar was responding to Scroll’s query about why the Election Commission of India had failed to rein in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election speeches targeting Muslims throughout his campaign.

“We deliberately decided – this is such a huge nation – that the top two people in both the parties we did not touch. Both party presidents we touched equally,” Kumar told Scroll after the poll body’s press conference at Delhi’s Rang Bhavan. “Why did we leave two this side and two that side? The persons in position in this huge country also have responsibility. We reminded them of their responsibility.”

At an election rally in Rajasthan’s Banswara on April 21, Modi claimed the Congress manifesto had promised to seize and redistribute private wealth of Indians among “infiltrators” and “those who have more children” – a dog whistle reference to India’s Muslims. In the same speech, the prime minister claimed that the Congress would snatch away the mangalsutras worn by married Hindu women in its bid to distribute wealth among Muslims.

Scroll has repeatedly debunked Modi’s untruthful claims which pit India’s Muslims against other disadvantaged communities.

The Election Commission responded to complaints from the Congress and other political parties over Modi’s speech by sending a directive to BJP president JP Nadda to ensure that all star campaigners of the party “set high standards of political discourse and observe provisions of model code of conduct in letter and spirit”. It did not name Modi.

The directive failed to deter the prime minister. On April 30, Modi told an audience in Telangana that as long as “he is alive, he will not allow the Indian Constitution-mandated reservations for the SC, STs and OBCs to be distributed to the Muslims at any cost”.

On May 7, in a rally in Madhya Pradesh, the prime minister said that the Congress’s intent “is to give minorities a preference in sports” and it will decide who stays in the cricket team and who does not on the basis of religion.

The chief election commissioner added that the commission did not notify Modi because the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court had rejected petitions that demanded the poll body to act against Modi.

“Twice it went to court,” said Kumar. “It is written in that order. Once to Delhi HC and once to SC. The thing which is judged…you cannot over and over say anything on that.”

On May 14, the Supreme Court had asked one of the petitioners to first approach the Election Commission for redressal.

The chief election commissioner, however, contended that these leaders had been reminded of their responsibility because of the commission’s “strong directions”.

Asked about the efficacy of sending directions to the party presidents, not leaders accused of hate speech, Kumar said: “So? What is the party president? Because of that party president’s direction, at least 80% of the second rung has not said anything.”

By second rung, Kumar said he meant Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath, Union information and broadcasting minister Anurag Thakur and Tamil Nadu chief minister MK Stalin.

Contrary to Kumar’s claim, Sarma, a star campaigner for the BJP, has repeatedly made anti-Muslim speeches, going to the extent of accusing 1.25 crore residents of Assam of being infiltrators from Bangladesh. Nor have the Election Commission’s notices stopped Adityanath and Thakur from hateful speeches. Adityanath in a Uttar Pradesh rally said that this election “is between Ram Bhakts and Ramdrohis” – devotees and haters of Ram. The poll body did not send a notice to these leaders.

The chief election commissioner added that the poll body “did not touch equally glaring things on the other side also”, meaning the Opposition parties.

“After all, you have to give a space to the topmost person to also feel responsible,” said Kumar. “If Mr [Jairam] Ramesh has said something, he is in a high position, he must feel responsible. When will you understand your responsibility?” Jairam Ramesh is the communications head of the Congress.

The poll body had earlier issued directions to Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge asking him to ensure the party’s star campaigners do not spread the fear about the Constitution being abolished, or indulge in “any political propaganda involving activities of the defence forces”. Congress leaders had protested saying the Opposition should have the freedom to criticise the government’s defence recruitment policy, the Agnipath scheme.

The Election Commission’s efficiency and impartiality has come under intense scrutiny during the 2024 general elections. It has been criticised for inaction in penalising hate speech by BJP leaders, overlooking serious allegations of vote suppression in Sambhal and Beed constituencies, the delay in releasing voter turnout data, the lack of explanation for significant differences between provisional and final voter turnout data, and its refusal to release this data in absolute numbers.

The poll body’s press conference on Monday came after 10 weeks, having held the last one on March 16 – a departure from the standard practice of holding press conferences at the end of every polling day.