With the Election Commission having announced the schedule for the Lok Sabha Election 2019, the Model Code of Conduct will now come into effect. The Model Code of Conduct is a set of guidelines that political parties and candidates have to adhere to until the votes are counted. These guidelines deal with the general conduct of candidates, meetings and processions organised by political parties, polling day, polling booths, election observers, manifestos, and announcements made by the party in power.
The earliest form of Model Code of Conduct was imposed during the Kerala Assembly election in 1960. Interestingly, the Election Commission credits political parties for reaching a consensus on the poll code, which has also helped in the evolution of the Model Code of Conduct over the years. It was under TN Seshan, the Chief Election Commissioner between 1990 and 1996, that the current form of the poll code came into existence.
Guidelines for free and fair election
The Model of Code of Conduct covers a wide range of possible violations that a political candidate may commit. Under the code of conduct, candidates are barred from making communally provocative speeches, appealing to a particular community for electoral gains, and targeting rivals over their personal lives. Any form of bribery, through cash or liquor, to influence voters is a violation of the Model Code of Conduct.
Candidates holding meetings in a particular area also need to check in advance if there are prohibitory orders in place. If there are prohibitory orders in the area, candidates need to strictly adhere to them or seek an exemption beforehand. Candidates are also expected to inform the local police about any meetings. This helps the police to make the necessary arrangements for maintaining law and order. Political parties or candidates have to seek permission to use loudspeakers or any other facility for the smooth functioning of the meeting.
Political parties also have to inform the police authorities in advance before undertaking any procession. They are also expected to not deviate from the route approved by the police. Such a measure helps police to plan smooth traffic of vehicles as well as avoid a tricky situation wherein processions of two or more political parties pass through the same place and at the same time. During the procession, political parties have to refrain from carrying effigies representing rival party leaders or burning them in public.
On the day of the polling, candidates are expected to cooperate with the poll authorities to ensure a smooth and fair election process. Anyone entering a polling booth without a valid pass from the Election Commission is violating the Model Code of Conduct. Candidates are prohibited from serving or distributing liquor during polling and 24 hours preceding it. Candidates not only have to avoid coming near polling stations but also keep their camps free of unnecessary crowd in order to avoid any political confrontation. In addition, political party camps are expected not to display any posters, flags, symbols or any other propaganda material.
The Model Code of Conduct requires ministers in the state as well as at the Centre to avoid combining campaigning with their official visits. Ministers have to also refrain from using the government machinery for the purpose of elections. According to the Election Commission guidelines, the ruling party cannot monopolise public places for the purposes of campaigning. Every political party has the right to utilise these spaces for the sake of campaigning. Moreover, neither the ruling party nor any other party can use government accommodation for the sake of electoral campaigning.
Incumbent political parties which use funds from the public exchequer to advertise their achievements with a view to further their electoral prospects are in violation of the code of conduct. On the other hand, ministers are prohibited from sanctioning any funds once the elections are announced. Members of the state or central government cannot lay foundation stones of projects or inaugurate new schemes until the end of the election process. State governments or the Centre cannot make any ad-hoc appointments in the government or Public Sector Undertakings while the poll code is in effect.
Since 2013, the Election Commission has also prohibited political parties from making such promises in their manifesto that may exert undue influence on voters.
MCC not legally enforceable; violations continue to take place
It is to be noted that the Model Code of Conduct is not legally enforceable. However, certain parts of the code can be legally enforced by invoking relevant provisions of the IPC, CrPC and the Representation of the People Act, 1951.
Despite guidelines from the Election Commission, poll code violations take place at regular intervals during state and general elections. The gravity of the issue can be gauged by a March 2014 report which stated that Tamil Nadu recorded at least 55,000 complaints a month before the state went to polls. In the recently concluded Assembly elections in five states, authorities recorded over 28,000 complaints through the cVIGIL app and the National Grievance Service Portal.
Even prominent politicians have found themselves violating the code. During the last Lok Sabha elections, then Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah violated the Model Code of Conduct after calling then BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi a “mass murderer”. The Election Commission admonished him for the statement and asked him to be careful with his words.
In fact, BJP MP Jagdambika Pal was given a one-month jail term for violating the code of conduct. According to a PTI report, Pal was accused of using more than the permissible number of vehicles during a rally in 2014. He was, however, released on bail soon afterwards.