The Election Commission of India announced Sunday that the country would vote in seven phases from April 11 to May 19 and the results will be announced on May 23. With this, the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) comes into effect.
Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora called upon all political parties to strictly adhere to the Code, which lays down a list of dos and don’ts for leaders and parties ahead of elections. Amongst other things, the code bars the government from announcing policy decisions.
What is the Model Code of Conduct?
The Election Commission’s Model Code of Conduct is a set of guidelines issued to regulate political parties and candidates prior to elections. The rules range from issues related to speeches, polling day, polling booths, portfolios, content of election manifestos, processions and general conduct, so that free and fair elections are conducted.
When does the Model Code of Conduct come into effect?
According to the Press Information Bureau, a version of the MCC was first introduced in the state assembly elections in Kerala in 1960. It was largely followed by all parties in the 1962 elections and continued to be followed in subsequent general elections. In October 1979, the EC added a section to regulate the ‘party in power’ and prevent it from gaining an unfair advantage at the time of elections.
The MCC comes into force from the date the election schedule is announced until the date that results are out. As a result, it will kick in from today evening and will remain in effect until the election process is concluded.
What restrictions does the Model Code of Conduct impose?
The MCC contains eight provisions dealing with general conduct, meetings, processions, polling day, polling booths, observers, the party in power, and election manifestos.
As soon as the code kicks in, the party in power — whether at the Centre or in the States — should ensure that it does not use its official position for campaigning. Hence, no policy, project or scheme can be announced that can influence the voting behaviour. The party must also avoid advertising at the cost of the public exchequer or using official mass media for publicity on achievements to improve chances of victory in the elections.
The code also states that the ministers must not combine official visits with election work or use official machinery for the same. The ruling party also cannot use government transport or machinery for campaigning. It should also ensure that public places such as maidans etc., for holding election meetings, and facilities like the use of helipads are provided to the opposition parties on the same terms and conditions on which they are used by the party in power. The issue of advertisement at the cost of public exchequer in the newspapers and other media is also considered an offence. The ruling government cannot make any ad-hoc appointments in Government, Public Undertakings etc. which may influence the voters
Political parties or candidates can be criticised based only on their work record and no caste and communal sentiments can be used to lure voters. Mosques, Churches, Temples or any other places of worship should not be used for election propaganda. Bribing, intimidating or impersonation of voters is also barred. Holding public meetings during the 48-hour period before the hour fixed for the closing of the poll is also prohibited. The 48-hour period is known as “election silence”. The idea is to allow a voter a campaign-free environment to reflect on events before casting her vote
The fact is the MCC evolved as part of the ECI’s drive to ensure free and fair elections and was the result of a consensus among major political parties. It has no statutory backing. Simply put, this means anybody breaching the MCC can’t be proceeded against under any clause of the Code. Everything is voluntary. The EC uses moral sanction or censure for its enforcement.
The ECI can issue a notice to a politician or a party for alleged breach of the MCC either on its own or on the basis of a complaint by another party or individual. Once a notice is issued, the person or party must reply in writing — either accepting fault and tendering an unconditional apology or rebutting the allegation. In the latter case, if the person or party is found guilty subsequently, he/it can attract a written censure from the ECI — something that many see as a mere slap on the wrist.
Previous Model Code of Conduct ‘violations’
In the run-up to Gujarat polls in 2017, both BJP and Congress accused each other of violating the Model Code of Conduct. The BJP pointed to Rahul Gandhi’s interviews to TV channels during the 48-hour period before polling, while the Congress accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of violating the same provisions by holding a ‘roadshow’ in Ahmedabad after casting his vote.
During Goa elections, EC pulled up Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal for asking voters to “accept money from the Congress and BJP candidates but vote for the AAP”.
Although the Commission rarely resorts to punitive action to enforce MCC, there is one recent example when unabated violations forced EC’s hand. During the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the EC had banned BJP leader and now party president Amit Shah and SP leader Azam Khan from campaigning in order to prevent them from further vitiating the poll atmosphere with their speeches. The Commission resorted to its extraordinary powers under Article 324 of the Constitution to impose the ban. It was only lifted once the leaders apologised and promised to operate within the Code.