The Supreme Court on Monday expressed displeasure over the Election Commission not taking quick action against politicians for communal and hate speeches during the Lok Sabha campaigning and decided to examine the ambit of its power following submission that it was 'toothless'.
The top court, irked over not getting specific answers to its queries on the powers of the poll panel to deal with errant leaders spewing venom, even threatened to ensure the presence of the Chief Election Commissioner before it within half-an-hour.
A bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi took the cases of alleged communal speeches of BSP supremo Mayawati and UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and asked about the action taken so far against them while deciding to examine the statutory powers of poll panel to deal with the violation of model code of conduct (MCC).
"So what about Mayawati. She was supposed to reply to you (poll panel) by April 12. She has not replied till today. What does the law permit you to do in such cases. Answer us," said the bench, also comprising Justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna.
The EC counsel said: "The power of the EC in this behalf is very limited. We can issue notice and seek reply but we cannot de-recognise a party or disqualify a candidate...we can only issue advisories and in case of a repeat offence, register a complaint."
Reacting sharply, the bench said, "So you are basically saying you are toothless and powerless against hate speeches."
It then said that besides sending a notice, an advisory and a criminal case can be filed only against such leader.
The top court then decided to summon a representative of the EC at 10.30 am on Tuesday to examine the contention that the poll panel has limited legal powers to deal with hate speeches of politicians during electioneering.
"It is stated by the counsel appearing for the EC that the power of the ECI for violation of the Model Code of Conduct by making hate speeches on grounds of religion, caste etc is circumscribed to issuing of notice and upon consideration of the reply to issue advisories.
"Only in case of repeated violation of the advisories, the EC has the power to file an FIR with the Police for initiation of criminal proceedings," the bench noted in the order.
It said that according to the counsel for the EC, the poll panel does not have any power to deal with such instances of making of speeches provoking enmity or hatred between classes of citizens or for voting for any person on the grounds of religion and caste.
At the outset, the bench asked from the EC's counsel about the action taken so far against the two top leaders of Uttar Pradesh.
"Tell us what are you doing... Tell us what actions you have taken," said the bench.
The bench said: "It would like to examine whether the power of the EC was circumscribed to deal with the violations of the MCC by leaders through alleged hate speeches."
EC swung into action after the court's observations and 'strongly condemned' the two leaders for their communal remarks and barred them from campaigning. While Adityanath was barred for 72 hours, Mayawati has been barred for 48 hours. The two have also also been 'censured' by the poll panel.
The apex court was hearing a PIL filed by an NRI Yoga teacher based in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), seeking a direction to the EC to take "strict action" against political parties if their spokes-persons make remarks based on caste and religion in the media in the run up to general elections.
The apex court, on April 8, had issued notice to the Centre and the poll panel on the PIL seeking direction to take 'strict action' against political parties if their spokespersons make remarks based on castes and religions in the media in the run up to general elections.
Referring to communal and caste-based speeches and remarks of political leaders, Mansukhani said he has filed the plea to 'maintain secular environment in the forthcoming Lok Sabha Election'.
In the plea, he has sought reliefs including a direction to the poll panel "to take strict actions against the political parties if their spokesperson or representative deliver speeches and make remark in media pertaining to the religion or caste.
"The 'undesirable development' of appeals to religion, race, caste, community or language of politicians would hamper the objective of fundamental rights provided under the Constitution of India, this would affect the public at large".
The plea has also sought setting up of a committee under the chairmanship of retired Supreme Court Judge 'to have close watch on entire election process and to check the loyalty of election commission'.
It has also sought a direction to the poll panel to take strict actions against media houses which hold debates on caste or religious lines.
The plea has sought a report from the poll panel on the measures adopted by it in holding 'corruption free elections'.