New Delhi: Within the next few days, the Election Commission of India (EC) will announce the dates for the Lok Sabha polls, bringing into force the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) across the country.
From Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Congress president Rahul Gandhi, and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, several top politicians have been censured in the past by the EC for violating this code in the heat of elections.
At a time when there is much speculation about when the poll body will announce the elections and bring in the Model Code of Conduct into force, ThePrint explains its purpose, scope, features and limitations.
Purpose and history
Simply put, the MCC is a non-binding set of guidelines issued by the poll body which regulates the conduct of political parties and candidates in the immediate run-up to elections.
It comes into force immediately after the EC announces election dates, and remains until the results are declared.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the MCC came into force on 5 March and was operational till 16 May, when the final results were announced.
According to the Press Information Bureau (PIB), “The MCC intends to provide a level playing field for all political parties, keep the campaign fair and healthy, avoid clashes and conflicts between parties, and ensure peace and order.
“It aims to ensure that the ruling party, either at the Centre or in the states, does not misuse its official position to gain an unfair advantage in an election,” it says.
Evolution and scope
First introduced in 1960 for the assembly election in Kerala as “a small set of dos and don’ts”, the MCC has evolved significantly over the last six decades. In the beginning, the code loosely regulated election meetings, speeches, slogans, etc.
Two years later, the same code was extended all over the country during the Lok Sabha elections.
The Election Commission has consistently sought to expand the MCC’s scope to increase its effectiveness and relevance to changing social, political and technological realities.
In 1979, the need was felt to add a separate section to the MCC which would specifically regulate the conduct of the “party in power” in order to prevent it from misusing the government machinery to secure an advantage over other political parties. According to the ECI, the purpose of this section is to ensure that “no cause is given for any complaint that it (the party in power) has used its official position for the purposes of its election campaign”.
The section prohibits ministers from combining official visits with electioneering work, using official machinery, personnel and government vehicles for electioneering, using government platforms for political advertising, etc.
The MCC is, however, silent on the release of manifestos by political parties. Therefore, a party can release its manifesto any time it desires, irrespective of whether or not the MCC is in force.
In 2013, the Supreme Court asked the ECI to introduce regulation in this area after due consultation with political parties, given the ability of manifestos to influence people. In its judgment, the apex court said, that it “cannot be ruled out that distribution of freebies of any kind, undoubtedly, influences all people”.
“It shakes the root of free and fair elections to a large degree,” the SC added.
However, the EC’s attempt to amend the MCC and restrain political parties from releasing their manifestos 72 hours before polling has faltered due to the lack of consensus among political parties.
Other than the ‘party in power’ provision, the MCC has seven other provisions — general conduct, meetings, procession, polling day, polling booth, observers and guidelines on election manifestos.
General conduct stipulates a generic code of conduct for parties and candidates prohibiting them from whipping up communal or caste sentiments, bribing or intimidating voters, among others.
While the MCC is fairly comprehensive and wide-ranging, it is criticised for having little prohibitory impact on parties and candidates since it has no statutory backing — nobody can be tried for violating a provision of the MCC unless a criminal complaint is separately registered.
The EC, which monitors the conduct of all political players, including the central and state governments, can issue a notice to either a candidate or party for an alleged breach of the MCC. It can either take suo moto cognisance or act upon a complaint it has received.
Upon issuing the notice, the candidate or party is required to send a written reply to the EC admitting or refuting the allegations against them. In the latter case, the candidate or party would receive a written censure from the EC if the allegations are subsequently proven.
However, when the allegations are graver in nature, the EC can file a criminal case against the candidate or party under the relevant sections of the IPC.
Model Code of Conduct violations by top politicians
It is no surprise then that some of the most prominent politicians in the country have been pulled up by the EC for blatantly violating the MCC without facing any real consequences.
During the 2014 election, the EC sent a notice to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for flashing the BJP symbol outside the polling booth on the voting day.
Underscoring the ineffectiveness of the ECI notice, Modi again flashed his inked finger outside the polling booth in the 2017 Gujarat assembly elections, even though the MCC clearly prohibits canvassing anywhere within 100 meters of a polling station.
The same year, then Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi was pulled up by the EC for giving television interviews a day before the final phase of voting in Gujarat.