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Does the Model Code of Conduct need legal teeth?

Why in the news?

On May 22, the Election Commission of India (ECI) asked the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress to desist from raising divisive issues in the campaign. In recent years, and particularly during the campaign to the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, critics of the ECI have accused the body of being late or ineffective or partial in responding to alleged violations of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC).

About Model Code of Conduct

  • The Model Code of Conduct (MCC) has originated and evolved with the consensus of political parties. It does not have any statutory backing and hence is not enforceable by any law.
  • The Model Code of Conduct (MCC) is a set of guidelines issued by the Election Commission of India to regulate the conduct of political parties and their candidates in the run-up to elections.
  • These guidelines range from issues related to speeches, polling day, polling booths, portfolios, the content of election manifestos, processions, and the general conduct of the political candidates.
  • The primary objective of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) is to ensure that campaigns, polling, and counting proceed in an orderly, transparent, and peaceful manner.
  • The Model Code of Conduct (MCC) helps the Election Commission of India in fulfilling its mandate, given by Article 324 of the Constitution, of supervising and conducting free and fair elections.

MCC not toothless

  • Despite being a voluntary pact among political parties, endorsed by the Supreme Court and enforced by the EC, the MCC is not tpothless.
  • Article 324 of the Constitution empowers the commission, allowing it to act in the absence of specific laws. In cases of severe MCC violations, such as the 2012 Rajya Sabha elections in Jharkhand, where cash was seized for potential vote-buying, the EC used its Article 324 authority to countermand the election, a move upheld by the Jharkhand High Court.
  • Paragraph 16A of the Election Symbols Order, It says if there is a violation of the MCC, the ECI can even derecognise or temporarily suspend the recognition given to a party.

Legal Provisions Aiding Implementation of MCC

  • Almost all the provisions of the MCC are also covered under substantive laws
  • Section 8: Addresses disqualification on conviction for specific offenses.
  • Part VII: Covers corrupt practices and electoral offenses, aligning with certain MCC provisions.
  • Indian Penal Code (IPC) 1860: Contains provisions that overlap with the MCC, enabling enforcement through criminal law.
  • Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) 1973: Provides the procedural framework for addressing violations that may arise under the MCC.

Need legal teeth?

  • However, with the current rate of social media consumption across different age groups and an exponential increase in propaganda and disinformation trends over the years, regulating political information online has become even more important, in light of the objectives of the Model Code of Conduct.
  • In 2013, the Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice proposed making the MCC legally binding, but this effort didn’t materialize.
  • Most of the provisions of the MCC are already contained in various laws and are therefore enforceable.
  • Currently, there is an absence of an immediate appeal mechanism against the decisions of the Returning Officers. The decision can be challenged only after the announcement of election results.
  • The Election Commission has opposed making MCC legally binding due to practical concerns such as:
    • It argues that elections get completed within a short time frame, typically around 45 Legal proceedings usually take longer, making it impractical to enforce MCC through the legislative process.
    • The decision-making power will go to the judiciary and thus the swiftness in dealing with the cases of violation of MCC will be gone.
    • The legal codification of these norms would be a potential nightmare, exposing the entire electoral process to needless litigation.
    • The broad objectives of the MCC are best achieved by the oversight of an impartial election watchdog that can conduct free and fair elections.
    • Justice Krishna Iyer had said in one of his judgments that it (the ECI) is a reservoir of powers. That means the ECI has a lot of powers to act to ensure that elections are free and fair. So, it is not necessary to give legal teeth to the MCC. –D.T. Achary.

Some measures for effective implementation MCC

  • EC introduced a ‘Voluntary Code of Ethics’ for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections to regulate social media use. (Umesh Sinha Committee)
  • To empower citizens in reporting political misconduct related to MCC violations, the EC introduced the C-vigil application on July 3, 2018.
  • Law Commission Recommendation (2015) – The Law Commission recommended imposing a ban on government-sponsored advertisements highlighting achievements of the ruling party for up to six months before the expiry of the House/Assembly.
  • Leveraging technology, such as AI-based systems, can help monitor and prevent violations of the MCC, particularly on social media platforms where misinformation and propaganda may be disseminated.
  • PYQ Discuss the role of the Election Commission of India in the light of the evolution of the Model Code of Conduct.

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