On Friday, the Election Commission of India directed the Chief Secretary of Uttar Pradesh to prevent any further political rallies from being addressed by Amit Shah of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Azam Khan of the Samajwadi Party. It further directed the government to file First Information Reports against the two politicians for speeches that were apparently meant to fan communal tension. Both politicians are powerful in their parties. Mr Khan is urban development minister in the UP government, and is known for his closeness to the party's leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav; Mr Shah is likewise believed to be the right-hand man of the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. Mr Shah had spoken of elections as "revenge" in riot-hit Western UP, while Mr Khan reportedly claimed that the Kargil War in 1999 had been won by Muslim soldiers, and no Hindu had died.
On one level, Messrs Shah and Khan might well complain that their freedom of speech is being curbed. However, it is also a well-established principle that intemperate speech that might lead to violence, particularly communal violence in an election cycle, is to be avoided. Whatever the merits of the Commission's action, the unfortunate fact is that the SP and the BJP have both been gratuitously irresponsible in trying to create religious polarisation that they suspect will help them at the ballot box. And, unfortunately, it does not stop there. The 2014 election has been fought with considerable bad feeling and cynicism, especially in battleground states like UP. And there appears to be a veritable epidemic of intemperate language as the pitch of electioneering rises. The BJP has put up candidates accused of involvement in the recent riots, who have spoken of the "self-respect" of the majority community; the local Bahujan Samaj Party made an ill-advised comparison with the Partition violence. Nor were Congress party candidates immune to the virus - one, Imran Masood, said Mr Modi would be "chopped into pieces". If primary responsibility belongs to the BJP and the SP for inflaming communal tension, there is little doubt that the entire political class has not done enough to extinguish the fire.
But then, again, what better can be expected of the Samajwadi Party in particular? Born of the assertive xenophobia and cultural conservatism of the Ram Manohar Lohia school of socialism, its leaders have often demonstrated their unwillingness to commit themselves to liberal principles. Its status as the only major party to object to reservation for women in Parliament - whatever the merits of that Bill - is born less of liberal principles than a well-entrenched misogyny. This is clear, for example, from the disturbing views of party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav, who recently said, essentially, that "boys will be boys" capable of making "mistakes" - like brutal rapes. This was followed up with a pitch, from the SP's Mumbai outpost of Abu Azmi, for introducing new principles to Indian law - such as the following: "Any woman who, whether married or unmarried, goes along with a man, with or without her consent, should be hanged." That Mr Azmi's son, a candidate from a Mumbai constituency, and his wife, a film actor, both repudiated Mr Azmi's statement merely threw into sharp relief the silence of the SP's young hope, UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav.
All that can be hoped for is that India's famously young electorate will examine such statements, whether arguing for patriarchy or for communal tension, and reject them as unsuitable for an India that is slowly but surely moving away from such things. However, that rejection will not happen in isolation. Major political parties, especially the Congress and the BJP, must do far more to distance themselves from such statements.