Lok Sabha polls: Is EC struggling to enforce model code of conduct?

What: There has been a barrage of complaints since the model code of conduct came into effect on March 10, when the Election Commission of India (ECI) announced the dates for the 17th general election that begins next week.


These ECI guidelines primarily aim to prevent the ruling parties, at the Centre and in the states, from misusing their position to gain electoral advantage. A non-statutory document, the model code contains eight parts — laying down minimum standards of good behaviour and conduct for political parties, candidates and workers during campaigning and at polling booths; setting guidelines for holding public meetings and processions; bringing complaints to the notice of ECI-appointed observers; framing manifestos that do not contain anything repugnant to the ideals and principles enshrined in the Constitution, and so on. Part VII, most critically, deals with issues relating to the government and its ministers, use of government facilities, and puts a freeze on announcing schemes and projects that may influence the voter in favour of the ruling party. It also disallows politicians from making hate speeches.


When: Kerala was the first to adopt a model code of conduct for political parties during the state election in 1960. In 1962, the ECI circulated the code to several state assemblies and in 1979 it convened a conference of parties to discuss a more comprehensive code, bringing the role of ruling parties within its purview. In the 1980s, it sent a proposal to the Centre seeking statutory sanctions for provisions of the code, especially dealing with ruling parties. Bills were moved in Parliament, but they weren’t passed. The ECI now maintains that adding the model code in the statute book will be self-defeating as violations warrant quick decisions during polls, which a regular judicial process may not allow.

How: Under Article 324 of the Constitution, the ECI is entitled to issue instructions exercising sweeping power to ensure fair elections. Despite its lack of legal sanctity, several of the model code's provisions have enabling laws in the Indian Penal Code and the Representation of the People Act, 1951, where malpractices mentioned in the code are listed as “corrupt practices” and “electoral offences”.


In the run-up to the 2019 election, among the complaints alleging violation of the model code of conduct are Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s television address (since cleared by the ECI) to the nation on the successful testing of an anti-satellite missile, the launch of a TV channel focused on broadcasting the Prime Minister’s rallies and speeches, and pleas challenging the planned release of a Modi biopic.


Former Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi says although the commission cannot take punitive measures, instances of issuing notices or warnings to a chief minister or prime minister show that its power cannot be underestimated. “What is worrying is that the number of model code violations, including hate speeches, has increased,” he says, adding that action under laws that include certain provisions of the code is taken but the results aren't immediate. “The judicial process must become faster.”


Jagdeep Chhokar, founder member of the Association for Democratic Reforms, says the ECI is unable to do much as it is swamped with complaints of violation. “Some people say it’s actually a moral code of conduct, not legal. It came at a time when the Congress was dominant and the opposition was nowhere in the picture.” He points out that the judiciary cannot interfere once elections are underway, so punishments can only be served later. The ECI, however, can cancel or countermand elections. For instance, in a first-ever decision of its kind, the commission had deferred elections in two Tamil Nadu constituencies in 2016 after evidence of use of money power.

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