The Election Commission courted avoidable controversy during the Gujarat polls for its failure to implement Model Code of Conduct effectively inviting charges (from the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party) of it being biased towards the BJP. Between April and December, key states like Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan will vote and it will be in the interest of constitutional democracy that the Commission lives up to its reputation of an internationally acclaimed independent election body and avoid Gujarat type slip-ups. A big challenge before the Commission today is the phenomenal growth of social media and its inability to monitor contents so as to ensure level playing field to all. Social media has become so powerful that it can emasculate model code and subvert fair poll. There is no denying the fact that the Commission lacks teeth to effectively foil attempts by ruling parties to manipulate the poll process or to regulate social media during the pendency of model code.
There are also allegations that the Commission has not been asserting the authority it has effectively. Though the MCC, a set of guidelines to ensure free and fair poll, does not have any statutory basis, the EC has the power to disqualify a candidate who breaches the model code. The MCC, inter alia, bars a candidate from displaying to the public any election matter by means of television or other similar apparatus 48 hours before the voting.
The MCC has been a source of constant friction between the EC and political parties. The social media and the 24×7 television news channels have made the EC job even tougher. Last year, the Commission had taken initiative to draft a social media policy to enable it to monitor content that violates the code and to check the misuse of the platform for surrogate publicity. Apparently, it made no headway. Recently, it set up a 14-member committee to suggest changes to Section 126 of the RP Act which prohibits campaign in the last 48 hours leading to voting.
The Commission was caught on the wrong foot during the Gujarat polls as it failed to crack the whip against politicians and electronic media that transgressed the code. Congress president-elect Rahul Gandhi gave interviews to two local television channels on the eve of the second phase of polling, before the end of the stipulated 48 hours prohibitory period. The BJP promptly complained to the EC which show-caused Gandhi and filed FIRs against the channels for airing his interview. The Congress retaliated and lodged a complaint against Prime Minister Narendra Modi for holding a road-show in Ranip, Ahmedabad, after casting his ballot violating the code. The Congress kicked up a row terming the Commission a “captive puppet” of the BJP for not acting against the PM. The EC, which was caught in a cleft stick, wriggled out of the situation by winking at the MCC breach by both. Railway minister Piyush Goyal and BJP president Amit Shah also reportedly violated the code by their interaction with electronic media before the election. They also went scot free.
The EC subsequently withdrew its notice to Rahul. It means the Commission erred in serving the Gandhi scion with a show-cause notice. An uncharitable view is that notice to Gandhi was withdrawn to save the PM from embarrassment. During Punjab-Goa elections, an FIR was filed against AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal for his appeal to voters – “take money from them (BJP) but vote for your future”. Soon, the AAP filed a counter complaint against senior BJP leader Manohar Parikkar for making comments that allegedly violated the code. The result: both were let off.
While withdrawing the notice to Rahul, the EC announced that the Commission is of the considered view that “due to multi-fold expansion of digital and electronic media, the extant Model Code of Conduct, Section 126 of the RP Act, 1951, and other related provisions require revisiting to cater to the requirement and challenges of the present and emerging situations.” The committee set up on January 8 is expected to revisit the issue. The panel will study the impact of social media during the “election silence” and its implication on the model code. Servers of some dubious news portals are located abroad (North Korea for instance) and taking action against violators take time.
According to last year’s IT industry projection, 242-odd million people in India use Facebook, 43 million use Instagram and over 30 million plus are on twitter. As of now, India has 463-odd million internet users of which roughly 444 million are mobile internet users. Attempts to regulate this constituency, enormous and growing by the day, may not be easy as questions of freedom of speech will inevitably be raised. The US do not practice “election silence” and in some other countries like Russia, Pakistan, Singapore, the prohibitory period is only 24 hours while in UK, Spain, Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, Philippines the ban starts from midnight on the day proceeding election day. Until recently “election blackout” was in vogue in Canada but it was since lifted following an outcry against abridgement of civil liberties.
In India, the impact of social media is greater in urban areas than rural hinterland and that explains why BJP has been doing well in cities and towns. In the recent Gujarat elections, the saffron party secured more votes in urban areas compared to rural constituencies that voted for change. The 48 hours silence period is mandated for giving the electorate time to reflect on events and pick the right candidate. With the mainstreaming of parallel media, there is hardly any silence, rather shrill, aggressive campaigns by private individuals, political parties, PR agents, proxies and bots bombard the senses of the electorate till the last vote is cast. It is time the EC put on its thinking cap and draw up effective strategies to regulate new age election campaign without curtailing free speech.
The author is an independent journalist.