The Election Commission has barred the political parties from releasing their election manifestos in the 48 hours prior to voting and also laid down rules against the use of social media as part of their campaign during this period of ‘election silence’.
ThePrint asks: Is EC over-regulating elections with strict code of conduct or is it doomed in digital era?
EC has commendably reached out to all social media platforms and is trying to work in tandem with them
Former Chief Election Commissioner of India
There is no question of over-regulation by the Election Commission. In fact, I’d argue we need to tighten the regulations and ensure political parties adhere to them. Over the recent elections, compliance to the model code of conduct has been going down.
The kind of hate speech, communal and casteist speeches we have been witnessing calls for more stringent regulations. No violation should go unpunished and the public should also ensure the campaign is healthy and free from personal attacks and viciousness.
The primary concern with the presence of social media is the need to completely finish all anonymity. Anonymous accounts should be banned. It is this anonymity which people use and abuse in order to spread fake news and generally make the atmosphere as hateful as possible. You take that tool away from them and 90% of the problem will go away.
The EC has, very commendably, reached out to all platforms of social media and is trying to work in tandem with them. Last year too, several bogus handles were removed. Anonymity has to go immediately, there is no question about that.
Similarly, barring the release of manifesto in the last 48 hours before the elections is also a very important step. Last elections, we witnessed certain parties releasing their manifesto on the day of the polling. This goes against the very grain of “election silence” aspect of the model code of conduct.
Maintaining the model code of conduct is the only way to ascertain a level-playing field
Former Chief Election Commissioner of India
I do not think that the Election Commission of India is overreaching itself. It is very important to maintain the model code of conduct because that is the only way to maintain a level-playing field.
Insofar as regulating the content on social media is concerned, in their relation to the model code of conduct, the Election Commission has had discussions with all the major social media platforms and has come to an agreement that any content found objectionable by any contestant or political party will be examined and brought to the attention of the social media platform concerned.
Whatever is found objectionable by the Election Commissioner of India will be taken down from these platforms. This will be on the basis of the complaint received.
No over-regulation as parties are always working to find a way around the guidelines
Maj. Gen. Anil Verma (retd)
Head, Association of Democratic Reforms
The Election Commission has laid down stringent guidelines for the political parties to follow. However, there is no question of over-regulation, as parties and candidates are always trying to get around the system through creative and ingenious ways.
The seizures pertaining to liquor, drugs and cash meant for distribution among the voters are a testament to this lack of commitment to follow guidelines.
No candidate ever submits the correct report on the money spent on campaigns — the expenditure reported isn’t even the tip of the iceberg.
The other aspect of the elections is this new beast called social media. The EC has engaged with it consistently, formulating measures with Google and Facebook to monitor content posted by political parties, which is a commendable step.
Google and Facebook control 70% of the world’s internet traffic. The number of cellphones has doubled since 2014, while the usage of WhatsApp has increased five-fold. Political parties have used the social media to its fullest potential by spreading fake news and misrepresenting facts.
Facebook has started posting weekly updates on expenditure done by political parties in their social media ads. However, the EC has no guidelines to actually curb or assess this expenditure as more often than not, political advertising is done by front companies.
The ECI has launched the cVIGIL app, which citizens will hopefully use to report instances of malpractices.
Campaigns today have become location agnostic and medium agnostic
Founder of C-voter and political analyst
The Election Commission’s intent may be right, but they are failing to comprehend what is practical, and what isn’t. The model code of conduct is only applicable to entities physically present in the country.
How does the EC distinguish what comes under “campaign” and what doesn’t in a free country like ours where speech is part of the campaign?
For instance, if people are voting in Bihar in a particular phase, how do we ensure that speeches of leaders in other states don’t reach the people in Bihar? Will we completely block internet in Bihar 48 hours prior to the polls?
While that is a technical hurdle, even legally, the EC cannot control the content of a campaign.
If Amit Shah has a rally in Tamil Nadu, and he goes all out against Mulayam Singh and Mayawati, can the EC stop him? More importantly, does it make sense to limit campaigning speech 48 hours prior to the polls? People make up their minds well in advance, they don’t wait until the last minute to take a call.
Campaigns today have become location agnostic and medium agnostic.
A WhatsApp message is part of a private communication. The EC also cannot control what foreign media houses cover, or how Twitter — which happens to be an American organisation — functions.
The EC is struggling to understand how to go about its work amid this technological explosion. The EC either needs to completely let go and let parties self-regulate, or it can further tighten the noose and censor all content. But the latter wouldn’t be all that helpful.
The problem is not strict rules but their implementation
I would personally welcome the new EC guidelines such as not allowing the use of names and photographs of defence personnel for campaigns, and providing a strict guideline about when should manifestos be released.
Rather than discussing if these guidelines are much stricter than desired or there should be stricter guidelines, one needs to question what was the need for these new guidelines, because even before elections were announced, the political leaders started using these symbols for political gains.
The model code of conduct was devised to create a level playing field for all candidates contesting elections. But sadly there are numerous instances of violation of the model code every election. The model code of conduct prohibits candidates from using caste and religion to mobilise the voters, but we all know what happens on the ground.
The new prescription is in addition to the already existing modes, but I fear even these may be violated on the ground. One might ask how effective these model codes are if they are frequently violated and do we really need them?
My answer is very clear, the problem is not in these rules, but the implementation of the code. The fear of punishment on account of such violation is missing. Candidates hardly get punished for these violations. In every game, there are rules. Elections are also like a game, a serious game, and there is a need for rules and a code of conduct for all the players. I am in favour of having strict guidelines in the model code of conduct. When players are shown yellow and red cards after violating rules and codes, why shouldn’t EC be doing the same.
Election Commission seems to be missing the forest for the trees
Principal correspondent, ThePrint
Faced with criticism over its handling of pressure from the Modi government, the Election Commission seems to be taking several measures to change this impression.
The inclusion of the release of election manifestos within the 48-hour ‘silence period’ before polling, in which political parties are barred from campaigning, is one such measure. After all, it was the BJP, which released had released its 2014 election manifesto on the day of the polling – leading to criticism from the Congress that it was trying to influence the voters.
But in the age of social media, and in a seven-phase election, the measure is unlikely to have any real impact on political parties trying to influence the voter until the last moment.
The EC’s existing rules on the legally non-binding model code of conduct, the openly flouted prohibition on exceeding expenditure limits for candidates, the government’s complete disregard for the EC’s now-public criticism on the dubious electoral bond scheme, successive governments dragging their feet on the electoral reforms recommended by the panel – are all making the EC look like a toothless tiger, which is unable to confront an increasingly unscrupulous political class that is willing to subvert all existing mechanisms for transparency.
So, is the EC trying to overcompensate for its handicaps through superficial measures? With real election-related issues becoming increasingly murky, it does look like the EC is missing the forest for the trees.
By Fatima Khan, journalist at ThePrint.
Check out My543, our comprehensive report card of all Lok Sabha MPs.