New Delhi: The Model Code of Conduct was dismissed by many as ineffective after the vicious campaign of the Delhi elections, but Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora says it’s as relevant as ever and does not need legal backing.
“There is no need to give legal backing to the code, as one needs flexibility to deal with unprecedented situations,” Arora told ThePrint in an exclusive interview.
“It is a document designed in consensus with political parties. Any attempt to bind it legally would affect the spirit of consensus arrived at.”
In the Delhi elections, the Election Commission was criticised for allegedly not doing enough to curb hate speech, with the panel only imposing temporary campaign bans on leaders accused of violating the Model Code of Conduct (MCC), such as BJP members Anurag Thakur, Parvesh Verma and Kapil Mishra.
The EC’s decision to send a notice to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, also accused of making incendiary remarks, only after the campaign had ended triggered criticism too.
Arora said the strength of the MCC lay in its “moral binding on all stakeholders”, and made light of questions raised about its conduct, including former Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi’s suggestion that the EC should have ordered FIRs for hate speech during the elections.
It is the responsibility of the state machinery, Arora added, to file FIRs for any crime. This general principle of law does not get suspended under the MCC, he said.
“Under the CrPC (Criminal Procedure Code), police can file FIRs for any crime or incident… If there is an accident or rape, police can file FIR on its own even during the MCC,” he added. “The inherent powers of law granted to various regulatory bodies, including police, do not get suspended under the… MCC.”
He said the EC had taken the “unprecedented decision” of revoking the star campaigner status of Thakur and Verma.
The CEC also highlighted the need for greater vigilance warranted by social media. Its growing popularity as a campaign tool for parties and leaders, Arora said, has “added a new dimension to the task of monitoring adherence to the MCC”.
Talking about the ‘Voluntary Code of Ethics’, which was agreed upon by social media platforms ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and will now guide their conduct through all elections, Arora said it “covers a wide range of electoral offences, including MCC violations”.
Even so, he emphasised the need to “fine-tune and synchronise” the commission’s policies in the face of social media’s evolution.
Remote voting & how it would work
Speaking on the commission’s proposal to enable remote voting, Arora said the idea was to help service voters, overseas Indians, students studying outside their registered constituencies, and migrant workers.
“Conceptually speaking, such voters would need to inform the Returning Officer in advance of their intention to vote from a remote location,” he said. “Remote polling stations would be set up in designated urban centres and blockchain security features would be worked out to ensure secure electronic voting.”
Arora said he was confident the proposal would be rolled out by the next general elections in 2024.
He also defended the Election Commission’s proposal to link Aadhaar with voter IDs. “The voter details are in a secured environment of the ECI (Election Commission of India) and any linkages with the Aadhaar will be done by creating an air gap between the two systems,” he said.
“For this, a separate data vault will be created. This vault will be a secure system inside the ECI data centre infrastructure and would be accessible only on a need-to-know basis,” he added. “The vault will reduce the footprint of Aadhaar numbers and hence eliminate the risk of unauthorised access and ensure complete data security.”
Withdrawal of I-T exemptions
The Modi government, in a budget announcement this year, said it would withdraw the income tax (I-T) exemptions extended to the chief election commissioner and the election commissioners on the value of their rent-free residences, medical and conveyance facilities, and sumptuary allowance (for entertaining visitors).
After the announcement, there were reports that the EC would ask the government to reconsider its proposal on constitutional grounds. However, Arora said the commission had not taken up the issue with the government. “The EC also became aware of this through newspapers. There has been no official communication sent to EC in this regard,” he added.