The Model Code of Conduct is a set of guidelines issued by the Election Commission of India to regulate the conduct of political parties and their candidates in the run up to elections and is aimed at ensuring free and fair elections. Though the Code doesn’t have any statutory basis, it has an indisputable legitimacy and parties across the political spectrum have generally adhered to its letter and spirit.
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.
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Kerala was the first state to adopt a code of conduct for elections (in 1960 Assembly elections).
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.
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.
When it comes into force?
It is also applicable to a “caretaker” government on premature dissolution of a State Assembly, as was the case in Telangana.
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?
The EC ensures that ruling parties at the Centre and in States adhere to the code, as part of its mandate to conduct free and fair elections under Article 324 of the Constitution. In case of electoral offences, malpractices and corrupt practices like inducements to voters, bribery, intimidation or any undue influence, the EC takes action against violators. Anyone can report the violations to the EC or approach the court. The EC has devised several mechanisms to take note of the offences, which include joint task forces of enforcement agencies and flying squads. The latest is the introduction of the cVIGIL mobile app through which audio-visual evidence of malpractices can be reported.
There are examples of the EC taking punitive action against violators. For instance, 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.
What are the key malpractices?
Any activity aggravating existing differences or creating mutual hatred or causing tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic, is a corrupt practice under the Representation of the People Act. Making an appeal to caste or communal feelings to secure votes and using places of worship for campaigning are offences under the Act. Bribery to voters is both a corrupt practice and an electoral offence under the Act and Section 171B of the Indian Penal Code. Intimidation of voters is also an electoral offence, while impersonating them is punishable under the IPC. Serving or distributing liquor on election day and during the 48 hours preceding it is an electoral offence. Holding public meetings during the 48-hour period ending with the hour fixed for the closing of the poll is also an offence.
What if a party or politician ignores the notice?
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