Maneka Gandhi and Azam Khan. Photograph:( ANI )
It is ironical that various politicians flout a code of conduct which they themselves contributed to framing
Every election season witnesses politicians making objectionable remarks against their rivals, and every poll season has the Election Commission of India warning the offenders and reminding them of the code of conduct. On a few occasion the poll panel ‘acts’ by banning the accused from conducting or attending poll meetings for a few days. After that, it’s back to normal. So, why do politicians make comments that are violative of the Code of Conduct? Not only that, why do they use offensive words that are also against basic norms of civility?
The first reason is to do with the toothlessness of the Election Commission of India. If it finds some remark adversarial to the Model Code of Conduct, it can take two steps: Warn the accused, or bar him from campaigning. The second usually follows after the first. On paper, it can even debar a candidate from contesting, but that’s rare. Bal Thackeray had been disqualified from contesting elections for six years after he was found guilty of appealing to religious sentiments on behalf of a Shiv Sena leader in the 1987 Maharashtra Assembly elections. But that was after the court stepped in and Section 123 (3) of the Representation of the People Act was invoked. The Election Commission of India has often pointed out that its orders are usually non-binding in nature and that the Code of Conduct must be made legally binding to check objectionable content during poll campaigning.
The poll panel’s helplessness has only emboldened the political class. Already, in the course of the ongoing poll campaign, various offensive remarks have been made by leaders ranging from one end of the political spectrum to another. The Election Commission of India sought details of these statements but seemed to be taking its own time, leading the Supreme Court to step in and said, “Mr Election Commission, you have to act very promptly. You cannot drag matters like this. Get into action immediately.”
Thus prompted, the poll panel swung into action and placed restrictions on a bunch of leaders — Mayawati, Yogi Adityanath, Azam Khan, Maneka Gandhi. They were barred from addressing rallies for periods ranging from 48 hours to 72 hours. Expectedly, the affected leaders cried foul, claiming they had done no wrong.
But even within the restrictions, it is fettered with, the poll panel can be at least a bit more effective. As Chief Election Commissioner, TN Seshan had managed to curb offensive speeches in the 1990s through a mix of dire threats against such offence and action on the ground. He expressed his resolve to cancel or postpone elections in case the candidates failed to adhere to the code.
His warnings had the desired impact, though it did not fully stamp out the practice, especially when it came to appealing to religious sentiments.
It is ironical that various politicians flout a code of conduct which they themselves contributed to framing. The set of norms which comprise the Model Conduct of Conduct had been created through a consensus among political parties which agreed to abide by it. There are eight parts to the code, each dealing with different aspects of the norms to be followed by parties and candidates during poll campaigning. They are: Guidelines on poll manifestos; steps that the party in power should take; observers that the poll panel appoints; entry into polling booths; rules to be followed on polling day; organisation of processions; conduct of meetings; and, general conduct. The last one covers a range of dos and don’t, such as refraining from appealing to caste or religion to attract votes or using corrupt means, avoiding personal or private criticism of rivals and instead limiting criticism to policies or programmes, and not resorting to any activity which “may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic”. The code comes into effect from the day poll dates are announced.
The code of conduct is in keeping with Article 324 of the Constitution of India, which gives the Election Commission of India the power to supervise elections to Parliament and state legislatures. The code was first introduced back in 1960 in the Kerala Assembly elections, and then in the 1962 general elections. Over the years, it has evolved with experience and feedback from political parties. In 1979, a provision to regulate the party in power was introduced; in 2013, on directions of the Apex Court, the poll panel added a section on guidelines concerning election manifestos to ensure that the documents did not offer objectionable material.
Given that the fact that the Model Code of Conduct is not enforceable by law, aggrieved parties have to fall back on various others legal provisions in the Indian Penal Code, Code of Criminal procedure and the Representation of the People Act, to get justice. But the process is time-consuming, and a verdict is more likely than not, to come after polling is done and even results are out. In a report on electoral reforms, the Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice had recommended the inclusion of the model code of conduct into the Representation of the People Act, for effective redressal. The time has come to give the Election Commission more teeth.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)