The Supreme Court barred any appeals for votes in the name of religion or caste, saying that such actions would be against the secular ethos of the Constitution and amounted to corrupt poll practices.
Monday's ruling will have huge ramifications in some of the poll bound states, especially Uttar Pradesh where political parties regularly play religious and caste sentiments to win votes.
“Electoral processes are secular in nature,“ a seven-judge bench led by outgoing Chief Justice TS Thakur said in a 4:3 split verdict. “Individual preferences and choices guaranteed under Article 25 have nothing to do with secular activities such as elections.“ Appeals made only in the name of the candidate's religion or that of his rival were previously treated as corrupt electoral practices. The court now said the rule would cover any appeal, irrespective of whether it was in the name of the religion or caste of the voter, the candidate or his poll agent, his rival or even a third party .
“The court would have to uphold an interpretation that is in consonance with the secular ethos of the Constitution. Mixing state power with religion is not permissible.The state will not identify itself with any religion, especially in secular matters such as electing popular representatives,“ it said.
Appeals in the name of race, community or language are also not allowed under the wider interpretation of the law given by the court in its majority ruling. The first discordant notes against the ruling came from the bench itself. While Justices Thakur, Madan B Lokur, Sharad Bobde and L Nageshwra Rao favoured rooting out religion from elections, Justices AK Goel, UU Lalit and DY Chandrachud disagreed with that view.
Justice Chandrachud said all these issues factored in mobilising the deprived and the weak in the dance of democracy .“Any inference that religion (as a ground of appeal for votes) must mean to refer to religion of candidate and not voter,“ he said.
“Any such interpretation would amount to judicial redrafting of a legislative enactment,“ he said, speaking out in favour of retaining the earlier restrictive view of the law that made only an appeal made in the name of the religion of the candidate or his rival a corrupt poll practice.
Any such appeal would have to be systematic and not one-time as per an earlier top court ruling, which had described Hindutva a way of life and ruled that a one-off reference was not enough to fall foul of the law . The latest order makes every appeal in the name of religion a corrupt practice.