What is the philosophy behind the Model Code of Conduct?
The Model Code of Conduct (MCC) is a consensus document. In other words, political parties have themselves agreed to keep their conduct during elections in check, and to work within the Code. The philosophy behind the MCC is that parties and candidates should show respect for their opponents, criticise their policies and programmes constructively, and not resort to mudslinging and personal attacks. The MCC is intended to help the poll campaign maintain high standards of public morality and provide a level playing field for all parties and candidates.
Adherence to the Code is most important for the government or party in power, because it is they who can skew the level playing field by taking decisions that can help them in the elections. At the time of the Lok Sabha elections, both the Union and state governments are covered under the MCC.
How has the MCC evolved over the years?
Kerala was the first state to adopt a code of conduct for elections. In 1960, ahead of the Assembly elections, the state administration prepared a draft code that covered important aspects of electioneering such as processions, political rallies, and speeches. The experiment was successful, and the Election Commission decided to emulate Kerala’s example and circulate the draft among all recognised parties and state governments for the Lok Sabha elections of 1962. However, it was only in 1974, just before the mid-term general elections, that the EC released a formal Model Code of Conduct. This Code was also circulated during parliamentary elections of 1977.
Until this time, the MCC was meant to guide the conduct of political parties and candidates only. However, on September 12, 1979, at a meeting of all political parties, the Commission was apprised of the misuse of official machinery by parties in power. The Commission was told that ruling parties monopolised public spaces, making it difficult for others to hold meetings. There were also examples of the party in power publishing advertisements at the cost of the public exchequer to influence voters. At this meeting, political parties urged the Commission to change the Code. So the EC, just before the 1979 Lok Sabha elections, released a revised Model Code with seven parts, with one part devoted to the party in power and what it could and could not do once elections were announced.
The MCC has been revised on several occasions since then. The last time this happened was in 2014, when the Commission introduced Part VIII on manifestos, pursuant to the directions of the Supreme Court.
Part I deals with general precepts of good behaviour expected from candidates and political parties. Parts II and III focus on public meetings and processions. Parts IV and V describe how political parties and candidates should conduct themselves on the day of polling and at the polling booths.
Part VI is about the authority appointed by the EC to receive complaints on violations of the MCC. Part VII is on the party in power.
So, what is permitted and what is not under the MCC for the party in power?
The MCC forbids ministers (of state and central governments) from using official machinery for election work and from combining official visits with electioneering. Advertisements extolling the work of the incumbent government using public money are to be avoided. The government cannot announce any financial grants, promise construction of roads or other facilities, and make any ad hoc appointments in government or public undertaking during the time the Code is in force. Ministers cannot enter any polling station or counting centre except in their capacity as a voter or a candidate.
However, the Commission is conscious that the MCC must not lead to governance grinding to a complete halt. It has clarified that the Code does not stand in the way of ongoing schemes of development work or welfare, relief and rehabilitation measures meant for people suffering from drought, floods, and other natural calamities. However, the EC forbids the use of these works for election propaganda.
Is social media covered under the MCC?
The Election Commission has taken the view that the MCC will also apply to content posted by political parties and candidates on the Internet, including on social media sites. On October 25, 2013, the Commission laid down guidelines to regulate the use of social media by parties and candidates. Candidates have to provide their email address and details of accounts on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc., and add the expenditure on advertisements posted on social media to their overall expenditure for the election.
Until Tuesday, when the EC ordered taking down of social media posts showing a poster of Wng Cdr Abhinandan, there were no major examples of the Commission having acted against violations of the MCC on social media. This is probably because the EC did not have a mechanism to coordinate with Internet companies to take down impermissible content. However, these firms have now assured that they would cooperate with the EC during the coming Lok Sabha elections.
Over what period does the MCC apply?
The date of enforcement of the MCC has evolved over years of tussle between the EC and the government. The Code now kicks in as soon as the election schedule is announced, and stays in force until the election process is completed. Thus, the Code came into effect on March 10, when the EC had its press conference to announce the Lok Sabha elections, and will remain in force until the Commission notifies the list of elected representatives. Counting of votes is scheduled for May 23.
The current arrangement is based on an agreement between the poll panel and the central government reached on April 16, 2001, after protracted negotiations. It was agreed that the MCC would be effective from the date of announcement of elections; however, the Commission can’t make its announcement more than three weeks ahead of issuing the formal notification of elections. It was also agreed that the inauguration of any completed or new project would be done by civil servants, so that the MCC did not hurt the public interest. The agreement was put before the Supreme Court, after which the court disposed of a special leave petition filed by the Union government against a Punjab High Court judgment on the question of when the MCC should kick in.
Is the MCC legally enforceable?
Although the MCC has been around for almost four decades, its observance is left to parties and candidates. It is not a legally enforceable document, and the Commission usually uses moral sanction to get political parties and candidates to fall in line.
Governments have in the past attempted to amend The Representation of the People Act, 1951, to make some violations of the MCC illegal and punishable. Although the EC’s stand in the mid-1980s was that Part VII of the MCC (dealing with the party in power) should have statutory backing, it changed its position after the conduct of Lok Sabha elections in the 1990s. The EC is now of the opinion that making the Code legally enforceable would be self-defeating because any violation must be responded to quickly — and this will not be possible if the matter goes to court.
But how does the EC enforce the MCC without statutory backing?
There are examples of the EC taking punitive action against violators. For instance, during Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh in 2003, the then Chief Minister of Punjab Amarinder Singh used state government aircraft to travel from Chandigarh to Indore for an official purpose. From there he travelled to Bhopal to campaign. The EC forced him to pay the government the cost of the entire air journey from Chandigarh to Bhopal and back for having violated the provision of the MCC that forbids ministers from combining official work with electioneering.
Among the strictest of punitive actions under the MCC was taken by the EC during the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, when it banned BJP leader Amit Shah and Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan from campaigning in Uttar Pradesh, and ordered criminal proceedings against both politicians for making “provocative” and “prejudicial” statements while canvassing. The ban on Shah was lifted after he apologised and promised to not violate the MCC again. Khan showed no remorse, and he remained banned from campaigning for the rest of the election season.