Model Code of Conduct comes into force for Assembly polls 2021; guidelines seek to ensure level playing field
With the announcement of the polling dates, the Model of Conduct has come into force in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry
Assembly elections in four states and one Union Territory will begin from 27 March, 2021 and the polling process will end on 2 May.
Nearly 18.68 crore electors are eligible to cast their votes at 2.7 lakh polling stations in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala, Assam and Puducherry during the period, Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora said in a press conference on Friday.
With the announcement of the polling dates, the Model of Conduct has come into force in the four states and one Union Territory. Here is an overview of what it entails.
What is the Model Code of Conduct
Model Code of Conduct is a set of guidelines issued by the Election Commission to regulate political parties and candidates prior to elections, to ensure free and fair polls. This is in keeping with Article 324 of the Constitution, which gives Election Commission the power to supervise elections to the Parliament and state legislatures.
The MCC is operational from the date that the election schedule is announced till the date that results are announced.
The idea behind MCC is that political parties and their candidates should have a respectable competition with their opponents, have constructive criticism against the opponent's policies and not resort to mudslinging and personal attacks. The MCC is intended to help the poll campaign maintain high standards of public morality and provide a level playing field for all parties and candidates.
Evolution of MCC
Model Code of Conduct was first introduced in Kerala ahead of the state Assembly election in 1960. It was a set of instructions to political parties regarding election meetings, speeches, slogans, etc. In the 1962 general elections to the Lok Sabha, the MCC was circulated to recognised parties, and state governments sought feedback from the parties.
However, it was only in 1974, just before the mid-term general elections, that the EC released a formal Model Code of Conduct. This Code was also circulated during parliamentary elections of 1977.
Till 12 September, 1979, the MCC was meant to only guide the conduct of political parties and candidates. After September 1979, the EC was apprised of the misuse of official machinery by parties in power. The EC was told that ruling parties monopolised public spaces, making it difficult for others to hold meetings. There were also examples of the party in power publishing advertisements at the cost of the public exchequer to influence voters, The Indian Express report said.
At the request of several political parties, just before the 1979 Lok Sabha election, the EC released a revised Model Code of Conduct with seven parts, with one part devoted to the party in power and what it could and could not do once elections were announced.
There have been several revisions to the MCC, the latest one being in 2014 when the Commission introduced Part VIII on manifestos, pursuant to the directions of the Supreme Court.
What are the key provisions of Model Code of Conduct
The MCC contains eight provisions dealing with general conduct, meetings, processions, polling day, polling booths, observers, party in power, and election manifestos. According to the PRS Legislative Research, there are total eight provisions under the MCC:
- General Conduct: Criticism of political parties must be limited to their policies and programmes, past record and work. Activities such as; using caste and communal feelings to secure votes; criticising candidates on the basis of unverified reports; bribing or intimidation of voters; and organising demonstrations or picketing outside houses of persons to protest against their opinions, are prohibited.
- Meetings: Parties must inform the local police authorities of the venue and time of any meeting in time to enable the police to make adequate security arrangements.
- Processions: If two or more candidates plan processions along the same route, organisers must establish contact in advance to ensure that the processions do not clash. Carrying and burning effigies representing members of other political parties is not allowed.
- Polling day: All authorised party workers at polling booths should be given identity badges. These should not contain the party name, symbol or name of the candidate.
- Polling booths: Only voters, and those with a valid pass from the Election Commission, will be allowed to enter polling booths.
- Observers: The Election Commission will appoint observers to whom any candidates may report problems regarding the conduct of the election.
- Party in power: The MCC incorporated certain restrictions in 1979, regulating the conduct of the party in power. Ministers must not combine official visits with election work or use official machinery for the same. The party must avoid advertising at the cost of the public exchequer or using official mass media for publicity on achievements to improve chances of victory in the elections. Ministers and other authorities must not announce any financial grants, or promise any construction of roads, provision of drinking water, etc. Other parties must be allowed to use public spaces and rest houses and these must not be monopolised by the party in power.
- Election manifestos: Added in 2013, these guidelines prohibit parties from making promises that exert an undue influence on voters, and suggest that manifestos also indicate the means to achieve promises.
What is permitted under the MCC for the party in power?
It was only in 1979 that the Election Commission revised the MCC and added a section to regulate the 'party in power' and prevent it from gaining an unfair advantage at the time of elections.
The MCC forbids ministers (of state and central governments) from using official machinery for election work and from combining official visits with electioneering. Advertisements extolling the work of the incumbent government using public money are to be avoided. The government cannot announce any financial grants, promise construction of roads or other facilities, and make any ad hoc appointments in government or public undertaking during the time the Code is in force. Ministers cannot enter any polling station or counting centre except in their capacity as a voter or a candidate.
However, the Commission is conscious that the MCC must not lead to governance grinding to a complete halt. It has clarified that the MCC does not stand in the way of ongoing schemes of development work or welfare, relief and rehabilitation measures meant for people suffering from drought, floods, and other natural calamities. However, the EC bars the use of these works for election propaganda.
Does social media come under MCC?
The EC has included content posted by political parties and candidates on the Internet, including on social media sites, under the MCC for the 2019 Lok Sabha election. On 25 October, 2013, the EC laid down guidelines to regulate the use of social media by parties and candidates. Candidates have to provide their email address and details of accounts on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc., and add the expenditure on advertisements posted on social media to their overall expenditure for the election.
CEC Sunil Arora said that all major social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Google, WhatsApp and ShareChat — are committed to accepting only pre-certified political advertisements, sharing expenditure on it with the Election Commission (EC) and adhering to the "silence period" that comes into effect 48 hours before the polls.
"All the provisions of model code of conduct shall also apply to the content being posted on the social media by candidates and political parties," the EC. The poll panel has also decided to bring the bulk SMSes/Voice messages on phone and election campaigning through social media under the purview of precertification of election advertisements, just like electronic and radio advertisements.
Even payments made to internet companies and websites for carrying advertisements and campaign-related operational expenditure on making creative content, salaries and wages paid to the workers employed to maintain their social media account, will have to be accounted for with the EC, The Economic Times reported.
MCC is not legally binding, but carries weight
MCC has been around for at least four decades now, but the clauses are not legally binding, however the observance is left to political parties and their candidates. As argued in this Indian Express article, the MCC has no statutory backing. MCC evolved as part of the ECI's drive to ensure free and fair elections, and was the result of a consensus among major political parties. This means everything is voluntary. Anybody breaching the MCC can't be proceeded against under any clause of the Code.
If a candidate or a party violates MCC, the EC can issue a notice against them. Once a notice is issued, the person or party must reply in writing — either accepting fault and tendering an unconditional apology, or rebutting the allegation. In the latter case, if the person or party is found guilty subsequently, he/it can attract a written censure from the ECI — "something that many see as a mere slap on the wrist." However, certain provisions of the MCC may be enforced through invoking corresponding provisions in other statutes such as the Indian Penal Code, 1860, Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, and Representation of the People Act, 1951.
The Election Commission has argued against making the MCC legally binding stating that elections must be completed within a relatively short time (close to 45 days) and judicial proceedings typically take longer, making it not feasible to make it enforceable by law.
On the other hand, in 2013, the Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice, recommended making the MCC legally binding. In a report on electoral reforms, the Standing Committee observed that most provisions of the MCC are already enforceable through corresponding provisions in other statutes, mentioned above. It recommended that the MCC be made a part of the Representation of the People Act, 1951.
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