Despite a short ban imposed on Adityanath and Mayawati, the Model Code of Conduct is not working well even though the Election Commission has a formidable reputation for impartially running the world’s biggest and most complex elections. But its record is poor when it comes to handling hate and inflammatory campaign speeches. The EC is being further tested of the vicious propaganda and falsehood circulating on social media.
The first three provisions under general conduct is the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) prohibit candidates from aggravating differences or creating mutual hatred; confine criticism of other political parties only on their policies and to refrain digging up the private life of candidates; and ban appeal to caste and communal feelings.
Notwithstanding the EC’s short ban on election campaigning imposed on Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and BSP supremo Mayawati over religiously charged remarks, the speech provisions of MCC don’t work very well. The primary reason for this is the legally non-binding nature of MCC. Though certain provisions of MCC may be enforced through invoking IPC, CrPC and Representation of the People Act.
The EC has traditionally argued against making the MCC legally binding. It has said since the election must be completed within a few weeks and court proceedings drag on much longer, it was not feasible to make the MCC enforceable by law. Sections 123(3) of the RPA prohibits candidates or their agents from appealing for votes on the ground of religion or religious symbols among other things.
In the celebrated Hindutva cases, for example, Ramesh Prabhoo’s election in 1987 to Maharashtra Assembly was nullified for appealing for votes on the ground of religion. Prabhoo’s agent, Bal Thackeray was also disqualified from contesting elections for six years. However, in most instances, the court verdicts are given long after the elections and in Prabhoo’s case the Supreme Court passed its judgment eight years after its election.
Though the idea of an MCC goes back to 1960s and code and indeed EC get more teeth during T N Seshan’s tenure as election commissioner in 1990s. While Seshan used threat to cancel or postpone elections to enforce the MCC, he was more successful in curbing undue advantage to incumbent government than check hate and communal speech.
Seshan began filming election events to curb inflammatory campaign speeches and publicising violations of the MCC. While in some instances it shamed politicians, this seems to have had little impact on recent times. Part of the problem, as noted, by a famous historian, was that MCC unsuccessfully tried to tame unruliness and ugliness of Indian politics. There is also the thorny issue of suppression free speech.
The ongoing election campaign is testimony to the inefficacy in the EC is tackling violations and MCC. Before Adityanath’s remarks on Ali and Bajrangbali, which provided the 72-hour ban, he had referred to the Indian army as “Modi’s Sena”. Though the EC show-caused Adityanath, it let him off with a warning.
That did not deter the UP CM from continuing to give speeches with communal overtones. Whether the short ban on campaigning is a deterrent for Adityanath or the likes of Samajwadi Party’s Azam Khan, who are both serial offenders, remains to be seen.
Before the MCC taking legal teeth, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself is regularly testing the Model Code and setting a poor example. While alluding to Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad, which has a high Muslim population, Modi said the Hindu community should now be aware that Rahul was contesting from a seat “where the minority is majority”.
At another rally Modi exhorted young voters to dedicate their votes to those who carried Balakot airstrike, despite EC directive to not drag the armed forces into the election campaign. Modi’s decisive campaign style has encouraged the opposition, in turn, to personally target him.
EC did well to ban Adityanath and Mayawati for a few days, but that should not make us overlook the infirmities of MCC in relation to campaign speeches. It is perhaps time to rethink the utility of MCC, at least, with regard to campaign speeches. Just as the spirit of cricket cannot curb sledging, so also the MCC has proved to be ineffective in ensuring decency in election campaigns. (—IPA Service)