Kerala Chief Electoral Officer ruffles feathers with ban on religious propaganda, green protocol for campaigning

Soon after the Model Code of Conduct came into force, Kerala's Chief Electoral Officer ruffled the feathers of politicians by warning them against using names of gods during campaigning, setting norms for a green protocol and asking candidates with criminal cases pending against them to let voters know details of the cases.

TK Devasia March 18, 2019 09:36:46 IST
Kerala Chief Electoral Officer ruffles feathers with ban on religious propaganda, green protocol for campaigning
  • Kerala's chief electoral officer has ordered parties to not invoke any god's name during campaigning

  • The order to use environmentally friendly materials for campaigning has also not gone down well with Kerala's parties

  • The CEO's direction to candidates facing criminal cases has caused huge discomfort to all the three major political fronts

Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) of Kerala Teeka Ram Meena is quite unlike any of his peers. He has rattled political parties by stretching the Model Code of Conduct to ensure clean and transparent campaigning for the Lok Sabha election.

Soon after the Model Code of Conduct came into force, he ruffled the feathers of seasoned politicians by warning them against the use of names of gods to solicit votes, setting norms for a green protocol and asking candidates with criminal cases pending against them to let voters know details of the cases.

His direction against religious propaganda has upset the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), which had drawn up elaborate plans to exploit the popular resentment over the Supreme Court verdict permitting the entry of women of all ages to Sabarimala temple and the haste with which the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, particularly Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, sought to enforce the verdict amid stiff opposition from devotees.

Kerala Chief Electoral Officer ruffles feathers with ban on religious propaganda green protocol for campaigning

Representational image. AFP

As soon as the poll code got notified in Kerala, the CEO held a press briefing and declared that invoking Sabarimala during political campaigning would be considered a violation of the Model Code of Conduct. Prompt came the response from Congress and BJP, saying that Meena had exceeded his brief, and that they had no plans to renege on their Sabarimala agenda.

Only the LDF welcomed the move, as it has been fearing an electoral backlash for its unpopular course over the women's entry issue. At an all-party meet, Meena went a step further and declared that the poll panel would show no mercy towards political parties that invoke the name of not only Lord Ayyappa but also any other god for soliciting votes.

Signalling that he means business, Meena ordered an inquiry into the alleged circulation of posters by the BJP showing pictures of Lord Ayyappa, the deity at the Sabarimala hill shrine, along with that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Acting on a complaint lodged by the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), he has warned stern action if the circular is found violated.

Furthermore, the CEO's direction to candidates facing criminal cases has caused huge discomfort to all the three major political formations as many of them are involved in criminal cases, ranging from murder to sexual harassment. The direction has come as a big embarrassment for the CPM since one of its candidates is charged with a murder conspiracy and two others are involved in land scams.

The Congress has sought to avoid embarrassment by reconsidering its proposal to field leaders who have been accused of sexual abuse by Sarita Nair, a key suspect in the solar fraud case. While the Crime Branch has filed cases against MLAs Hibi Eden, Adoor Prakash and AP Anil Kumar in the run-up to the election for sexually exploiting the woman in reciprocation for political favours, Sarita has announced her intention to enter the fray if any of the accused, particularly former chief minister Oommen Chandy and All India Congress Committee general secretary KC Venugopal, are fielded to contest the election.

Both figure in the list of abusers she has handed over to the police. While both the senior leaders have opted out of the contest, the name of Hibi Eden figures in the first list of candidates Congress announced on 16 March. It is also learnt that the party is considering fielding Adoor Prakash in one of the remaining seats.

Another directive of Meena that has been a bitter pill for parties is regarding the use of environmentally polluting materials for the campaign. The ban applies to all campaign material, including posters, flags and festoons made from bio non-degradable substances.

Meena has also made his intentions on strictly implementing the Model Code of Conduct clear by asking district collectors to send him daily reports as well as introducing a toll-free number, enabling the public to bring any violations to the notice of the Election Commission.

Observers wonder whether Meena is trying to step into the shoes of TN Seshan, the fiercely independent Chief Election Commissioner of the 1990s, who left his indelible stamp of authority on the Indian electoral system by faithfully enforcing the Model Code of Conduct for the first time to clean up the election process.

Meena is no ivory tower IAS man. Born as the youngest son of an illiterate farmer at a remote village in Rajasthan, he had a tough childhood when he was called upon to support the family. Meena's main task was to graze the family's cattle in the jungles of the Ranthambore National Park.

However, he was lucky to be among two of the six children his father Jairam Meena chose to educate. The education facility available in their village at that time was not enough to fulfil their father's vision, which was influenced by a speech by India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru on the importance of education.

Yet, Meena and his eldest brother Ratan Lal fought all the odds in their lives and made their father proud by entering the country's elite services. While Meena cleared the civil services examination, Ratan Lal went on to become an IPS officer.

"My village was cut off from main towns, and there were no roads and schools there. We had to walk 10 kilometres to reach the school in the nearby town. It was an English dictionary that my teacher presented to me that opened a new world for me," Meena said in an interview to a newspaper.

After completing the training, Meena was posted in Kerala as there was no vacancy for an IAS officer in his home state. His first assignment was as a sub-collector in Malappuram. Finding language a barrier in discharging his duties, Meena spent time and energy to master Malayalam, and now, he speaks the local language like any Malayali.

The 1988 batch IAS officer, who has served Kerala in various capacities for more than a decade and a half, is free of controversies. Meena will need all the tact and wisdom to maintain the record and not get on a confrontation path, at the same time ensuring that the election code is adhered to.

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