The Supreme Court seems to have resolved to begin the new year with a new vigour. Not only did it remove the top two cricket administrators in the land for obstructing reforms, it also passed a landmark decision that could alter India's political landscape significantly.
The apex court has barred all political parties from seeking votes in the name of religion, caste, race, community or language. The seven-judge Bench, headed by Chief Justice TS Thakur, said in order to make elections a secular exercise, the secular ethos of the Constitution had to be maintained.
"The relationship between man and god is an individual choice. The State is forbidden to have allegiance to such an activity," according to the Bench.
Setback for parties
The order has come as a major setback for all political parties with stakes in the upcoming Assembly elections in five states, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, where the electorate is divided on the line of religion and caste.
Even in states like Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa, these factors play a significant role in wooing the electorate to vote in favour of a particular party or candidate.
The order will be a cause of concern for political parties in UP, where the construction of a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and caste-based mobilisation top the list for all political parties and candidates.
Stressing on the fact that elected representatives should be secular, the court said: "Religion has no role in the electoral process, which is a secular activity. Mixing State with religion is not constitutionally permissible."
The court went on to add that elections can't be contested by making a pitch to the candidates', opponents' or voters' religion, caste, race, community or language.
Impact on BJP
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is hopeful of a return to power in UP after 14 years, must be rattled by the court's order, considering it has been seeking votes on religious lines and has been accused of communalising state politics before the Assembly elections.
Several political parties have accused the BJP of playing the Hindu card during its election campaign and otherwise. Even Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which has been a champion of the Dalit cause in the state, is likely to suffer politically after the court's ruling.
In Punjab, caste and religion play a significant role amongst the voters to decide who gets to rule the state.
In Goa, political parties are trying to use the promotion of local languages over English to woo the electorate. In fact, a section of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leadership quit and floated a new party to take on the ruling BJP, which they believed was giving precedence to English over Konkani and Marathi.
In the Northeastern state of Manipur, various ethnic groups decide the fate of political parties, forcing them to use it as a top poll-plank.
With the Election Commission likely to announce the polling dates in these states in the next few days, the order is likely to change the way elections will be contested this time around.
What led to the judgement
The apex court passed the judgement while hearing several petitions in the Hindutva case, which deals with electoral malpractices arising out of its 1995 judgment. Earlier, the court had said it would not revisit the earlier judgement, which called Hindutva 'a way of life and not a religion'.
One of the petitions was filed by social activist Teesta Setalvad, who had asked the court to revisit the 1995 judgement and sought its intervention on the matter that politics and religion should not be mixed, and that an order should be passed to delink the two.
Meanwhile, of the seven judges, three dissented, and said such an order would lead to "judicial redrafting of the law" and reduce "democracy to an abstraction".
The dissenting judges said: "No government is perfect. The law doesn't prohibit dialogue or discussion of a matter which is of concern to the voters."
The dissenters, while referring to the term 'his religion' used in section 123(3) of the Representation of The Peoples (RP) Act, maintained that 'his' religion refers to that of the candidate only, while the majority view was that it includes the religion and caste of all including voters, candidates and their agents, etc.
Edited by Shreyas Sharma