Free and fair elections form the bedrock of democracy. This envisages a level playing field for the contestants and an equal opportunity for all parties for presenting their policies and programmes to voters. In this context, the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) gains relevance.
The need for MCC is felt for the following reasons:
- 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.
- 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.
The MCC is a set of norms for conduct and behavior on the part of the Parties and candidates, in particular.
The uniqueness of the MCC is the fact that this was a document that originated and evolved with the consensus of the political parties.
The origin of the MCC dates back to 1960 when the MCC started as a small set of Dos and Don’ts for the Assembly election in Kerala in 1960.
The Code covered conducting of election meetings/processions, speeches, slogans, posters and placards. In 1962 Lok Sabha General Elections, the Commission circulated this code to all the recognized political parties and the State Governments were requested to secure the acceptance of the Code by the Parties.
The Model Code of Conduct was consolidated and issued in the current form in 1991.
Evolution of the MCC and its implementation since 1967
- In 1968, the Election Commission held meetings with political parties at State level and circulated the Code of Conduct to observe minimum standard of behavior to ensure free and fair elections.
- In 1971-72, during General Election to the House of the People/State Legislative Assemblies the Commission circulated the Code again.
- At the time of general elections to some State Assemblies in 1974, the Commission issued the code of conduct to the political parties in those States.
- The Commission also suggested constituting committees at district level headed by the District Collector and comprising representatives of political parties as members for considering cases of violation of the code and ensuring its compliance by all parties and candidates.
- For the 1977 Lok Sabha general election, the Code was again circulated to the political parties.
- In 1979, Election Commission, in consultation with the political parties further amplified the code, adding a new Section placing restrictions on the “Party in power” so as to prevent cases of abuse of position of power to get undue advantage over other parties and candidates.
- In 1991, the code was consolidated and re-issued in its present form.
Effects of Application of MCC
- The present code contains guidelines for general conduct of political parties and candidates (no attack on private life, no appeal to communal feelings, discipline and decorum in meetings, processions, guidelines for party in power – official machinery and facilities not to be used for electioneering, prohibition against Ministers and other authorities in announcing grants, new schemes etc.).
- Ministers and those holding public offices are not allowed to combine official visits with electioneering tours.
- Issue of advertisements at the cost of public exchequer is prohibited.
- Grants, new schemes / projects cannot be announced. Even the schemes that may have been announced before the MCC came into force, but that has not actually taken off in terms of implementation on field are also required to be put on hold.
- It is through such restrictions that the advantage of being in power is blunted and the contestants get the opportunity to fight on more or less equal terms.
MCC has got the judicial recognition of the highest court of land. The dispute over the date when the Model Code of Conduct should come into force, the issuance of the press release by EC announcing the poll dates or the date of actual notification in this regard was resolved in the Union of India V/s Harbans Sigh Jalal.
The apex court gave the ruling that the Code of Conduct would come into force the moment the Commission issues the press release, which precedes the notification by a good two weeks. This ruling lay at rest the controversy related to the dates of enforcement of MCC. Thus the MCC remains in force from the date of announcement of elections till the completion of elections.
MCC a hindrance in developmental activities?
One often gets to hear the complaint that the MCC is coming in the way of developmental activities. However, even during the short period when MCC is in operation, the ongoing development activities are not stopped and are allowed to proceed unhindered, and only the new projects, etc. which have not taken off on the ground that have to be deferred till the completion of elections.
If there is any work that cannot wait for any reason (relief work on account of any calamity, etc), the matter can be referred to the Commission for clearance.
Legal status of conduct. In what way can the MCC be made more effective?
The Model Code of Conduct does not a have a statutory backing and it is more a consensus driven code arrived at after consultation with all political parties to ensure free and fair elections and to see that the ruling party does not misuse its dominant position.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Justice recommended in its 2013 report that statutory status be accorded to the MCC.
The committee held that most of the stipulations of the MCC are already contained in various laws and are therefore enforceable like the violation of secrecy of voting, causing enmity among communities, the prohibition of public meetings 48 hours prior to the conclusion of polls, besides other offences, are covered by the Representation of People Act, 1951.
Besides, impersonation at voting, offering inducements to voters, or accepting gratification to do something they never intended, amount to bribery under the Indian Penal Code.
On the basis of the above, the Standing Committee contends that the MCC as a whole could not be construed merely as voluntary in its application. Furthermore, since most of its provisions are enforceable, the remaining stipulations in the MCC should also be accorded statutory backing.
Another reason for the above recommendation by the Standing Committee is the absence of an immediate appeal mechanism against the decision of the returning officer to cancel the nomination of a candidate. In this case, the decision can only be challenged in the High Court after the announcements of election results.
The logic against Legal status to MCC
- The decision making power will go to the Judiciary and thus the swiftness, expedition and promptness in dealing with the cases of violation of MCC will be gone.
- If the model code of conduct is converted into a law, this would mean that a complaint would lie to the police/Magistrate. The procedures involved in judicial proceedings being what they are, a decision on such complaints would most likely come only long after the election is completed.
- The legal codification of these norms would be a potential nightmare, exposing the entire electoral process to needless litigation. The broad objectives of MCC are best achieved by oversight of an impartial election watchdog.