LS Polls 2019: Model Code of Conduct Comes Into Force, Central and State Govts Can’t Announce policies

New Delhi: As the Election Commission of India announced the 2019 Lok Sabha poll schedule, the Model Code of Conduct came into force on Sunday evening. Opposition parties have questioned the delay in announcing the poll dates, with senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel asking the EC whether it was waiting for the Prime Minister’s “official” travel programme “to conclude”.
But now with the announcement of the dates, the model code of conduct comes into play. But what is it all about?
What is the Model Code of Conduct?
The Election Commission releases a set of guidelines which ensures that polls are free and fair.
According to Article 324 of the Constitution, the EC has the power to monitor the Centre, all the state governments, all the candidates and their respective political parties.
What are the various components of a Model Code of Conduct?
As per PRS Legislative Research, the MCC deals with eight provisions – general conduct, meetings, processions, polling day, polling booths, observers, party in power, and election manifestos.
Under General conduct, while political parties can criticise the other candidates based on policies and programmes and their work record, they are not allowed to use caste and communal sentiments to lure voters. They cannot bribe or intimidate voters and most importantly, they cannot criticise them based on unverified reports.
For meetings, it is mandatory for the political parties to inform the local police about their rallies and public meetings and provide them time to make adequate security arrangements.
Carrying or burning effigies of the opponents is not allowed. It needs to be ensured that in case two rival parties plan a road show in the same area, then their routes must not clash.
During the polling day, all those workers who are working for their parties in the polling booth must wear a badge with party name and symbol.
In the polling booths, apart from voters, only those individuals with a permit from the EC will be allowed to enter polling booths. The political party must not campaign for votes within a distance of 100 metres of the polling booth on the day of voting.
Are there any restriction in place for the ruling party?
The restrictions for the ruling party was put in place in 1979 and the restrictions were same for both state and Centre.
The restrictions are:
The ruling party must not advertise at the cost of the public exchequer or use official mass media for publicity on achievements.
No Member of Parliament or minister should combine their official visit with campaigning or party work.
Ministers and other authorities must not announce any financial grants, or promise any construction of roads, provision of drinking water, and so on.
Other parties must be allowed to use public spaces, and it must not be monopolised by those in power.
Have candidates violated the MCC in the past?
In 2013, the EC issued a notice to Union Minister Balram Naik for announcing a Rs 20 crore scheme for the construction of hostels specifically for OBC students in Madhya Pradesh, where polls had already begun.
Naik was asked to reply explaining why punitive action should not be taken against him for violating the EC model code of conduct.
That same year, the EC also brought up then-Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Jayalalithaa for a similar violation.
Even the former CM of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalithaa had announced development schemes for areas where elections were being held. She was also asked to send a written response to the notice.
“The Commission has decided to afford you an opportunity to explain your stand [as to] why action should not be taken against you for the aforesaid violation of MCC,” said the EC.
In Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leads in the number of EC code violations with 97 FIRs registered. The BJP follows with 79 and Congress with 67 FIRs. In 2016, Mamata Banerjee earned the EC’s censure for announcing Asansol as a district, at a public rally, when the MCC was in force. An FIR was filed against Modi after Gujarat Assembly polls in 2017 where the Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeated his 2014 signature move and flashed his inked finger and waved to thousands gathered outside the polling booth. For the opposition this was a violation of MCC.
In the same election, the EC pulled up the then Congress president-elect Rahul Gandhi over his interviews to television networks one day prior to the final phase of voting in Gujarat. The EC had then directed Gujarat’s Chief Election Officer BB Swain to file an FIR against channels in the state that telecast Gandhi’s interview.
Does MCC have a statutory backing? Can violations of it be punished by courts?
The MCC was introduced by the EC to ensure transparent and free, fair elections.
This means that if a party violates the MCC, they cannot be charged for violating a section of the code as it has no statutory backing. But in extreme conditions, the EC can file a case under relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) or the Income Tax Act.
For example, if a candidate is seen instigating communal hatred, a complaint can be filed under the IPC and CrPC. However, the EC has a practice of sending notices to politicians or political parties for violation of the MCC, but it does not translate into any action. The candidate or the party must reply in writing.
If they plead guilty, they attract a written censure from the EC which is nothing but a subtle warning.
In the past, the Congress has suggested making the EC code an enforceable legislation piece. However, it rejected the committee’s decision to implement a stay on manifesto release. When there questions on how binding the EC code of conduct was, the Supreme Court settled the matter by stating that the election body had the power to enforce the code.