In the run-up to 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Election Commission (EC) sent a notice to the BJP’s then-prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi for a “politically-charged” address to the media and for flashing his party’s symbol outside the Gandhinagar polling booth.
The EC had held that Modi violated the provisions of the Model Code of Conduct that prohibits anyone from canvassing within 100 metres of a polling booth. On the EC’s orders, the Gujarat Police filed two FIRs against Modi.
But, what is this Model Code of Conduct? Are violations a regular affair for politicians? Is it a ‘model’ or a ‘moral’ code? And what happens to those who break this code?
On Sunday, 10 March, the Election Commission imposed the Model Code of Conduct, as it announced the dates for the upcoming 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Here’s a quick primer on what it means.
What Is the Model Code of Conduct?
The Model Code of Conduct (MCC) is simply a set of guidelines issued by the EC to ensure free and fair polls. It comes into force from the day the EC announces the schedule for the Lok Sabha elections till the date the results are announced.
According to Article 324 of the Constitution, the EC has the power to monitor the Centre, all the state governments, all the candidates and their respective political parties.
What Are the Important Provisions of the MCC?
According to PRS India, the MCC deals with eight provisions – general conduct, meetings, processions, polling day, polling booths, observers, party in power, and election manifestos. Here are some of the key highlights of each of these provisions.
> GENERAL CONDUCT: While political parties can criticise the other candidates based on policies and programmes and their work record, they are not allowed to use caste and communal sentiments to lure voters. They cannot bribe or intimidate voters and most importantly, they cannot criticise them based on unverified reports.
> MEETINGS: It is mandatory for the political parties to inform the local police about their rallies and public meetings and provide them time to make adequate security arrangements.
> PROCESSIONS: Carrying or burning effigies of the opponents is not allowed. If two rival parties plan a road show in the same area, then their routes must not clash.
> POLLING DAY: All those workers who are working for their parties in the polling booth must wear a badge with party name and symbol.
> POLLING BOOTHS: Apart from voters, only those individuals with a permit from the EC will be allowed to enter polling booths. The political party must not campaign for votes within a distance of 100 metres of the polling booth on the day of voting.
> OBSERVERS: If candidates have concerns about the conduct of election, they can reach out to observers appointed by the EC.
What Are the Restrictions for the Ruling Party in the MCC?
It was only in 1979 that restrictions were incorporated for the party in power. The party in power, both in the Centre and the state:
- Must not advertise at the cost of the public exchequer or using official mass media for publicity on achievements
- No MP or minister should combine their official visit with campaigning or party work. They should also not use official machinery for the same
- Ministers and other authorities must not announce any financial grants, or promise any construction of roads, provision of drinking water, and so on
- Other parties must be allowed to use public spaces, and it must not be monopolised by those in power
From PM Modi to Rahul Gandhi: Some Infamous Violations
During the Gujarat Assembly polls in 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeated his 2014 gaffe and flashed his inked finger and waved to thousands gathered outside the polling booth. Opposition parties, again, saw this as an MCC violation. Another FIR was filed against Modi.
In the same election, the EC pulled up the then Congress President-elect Rahul Gandhi over his interviews to television networks one day prior to the final phase of voting in Gujarat. The EC directed Gujarat’s Chief Election Officer BB Swain to file an FIR against channels in the state that telecast Gandhi’s interview.
Cracking the whip, the EC censured Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal for his bribe remarks made at a poll rally in Goa, in 2017, and said if he continues to violate the model code, stern action would be taken against him and his party, including suspension or withdrawal of recognition to AAP.
As the sitting West Bengal chief minister in 2016, Mamata Banerjee earned the EC’s wrath for announcing Asansol as a district, at a public rally, when the MCC was in force. In the same year, then Assam chief minister and senior Congress leader Tarun Gogoi came under the scanner for holding a press meet when 61 constituencies in his state were yet to go for polls. In a major embarrassment, an FIR was filed against Gogoi.
Then BJP general secretary Amit Shah was issued notice by the EC for hate speech in riot-hit areas in Uttar Pradesh during 2014 general elections campaign, after he urged people from the Jat community to “avenge their insults”.
What Happens if a Party or Candidate Violates the MCC
From Modi to Gandhi, Kejriwal to Amit Shah – it is not unusual or even surprising when politicians violate MCC.
However, the Model Code of Conduct exists merely as a ‘Moral Code of Conduct.’
According to Factly, the EC does send notices to politicians or political parties for violation of the MCC, but it does not translate into any action. The candidate or the party must reply in writing.
If they plead guilty, they attract a written censure from the EC – something that many see as a “mere slap on the wrist”, the Indian Express explained.
Most violations end with a warning to not repeat the offence, even though there are multiple electoral offences defined under various laws, the report further stated.
But Wait. What About Legal Backing?
Nope. The MCC was the brainchild of the EC to ensure free and fair elections, which was in turn agreed to by major political parties. It does not have statutory backing.
This means, if someone breaches the MCC, a case cannot be filed under any clause of the code itself.
But, here’s the catch. The code still remains important because if a candidate or a party violates the MCC, in extreme conditions, the EC can file a case under relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) or the Income Tax Act.
For example, if a candidate is seen instigating communal hatred, a complaint can be filed under the IPC and CrPC.
"“Filing an FIR, particularly against a senior leader during the elections, in itself becomes a cause of huge embarrassment to the party the candidate represents. It presents the candidate as ethically wrong to the people. That is the reason most leaders castigated for breaking the Model Code of Conduct don’t usually repeat it.”" - Former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi to The Wire
But then, what happens to these cases filed against the candidates, as India rarely sees conviction in cases that stemmed out of MCC violations?
“There are more than 3 crore cases pending across the country, which also includes cases filed for violating the poll code. So it is wrong to believe that most of those FIRs don’t lead to any conviction. Many cases are still on. The EC can’t ask the judiciary to specially expedite these cases because that is beyond its domain,”another former chief election commissioner Gopalaswami explained.
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