Herald View: Elections are here again but will they be less ugly and a 'model' for the future?
Will elections this year be as ugly or uglier than before is the question and it seems the time has come to modify the Model Code of Conduct and make defiance of some parts punishable
With the election schedule in the poll-bound states expected to be notified in the next few days, there is a flurry of activities by governments and political leaders to ‘beat the deadline’ before the model code of conduct kicks in. Once the schedule is notified, restrictions will be enforced for the next two months or so on the conduct of public servants and governments. Lines will be drawn between ‘public interest’ and political interest; distinctions will be made between official, government functions and political events. Such distinctions have blurred in recent years and lines between the ruling party and the government are no longer as clear. However, public vehicles will be given up in favour of private vehicles and state governments will not be able to transfer bureaucrats and officials at whim without the consent of the Election Commission. Nor will they be able to dip into the public exchequer for advertising political messages. The model code of conduct will expect communal rhetoric to be muted and even political advertisements will need to be submitted to officials and committees for screening. No announcement of new projects, at least technically, will be made though there is no bar on governments presenting the annual budget. The ‘moral’ code of conduct also prescribes parties and candidates will not ‘bribe’ voters with cash, liquor or freebies. In reality, however, political parties, especially the ones in power, have been one step ahead of the Election Commission in devising ways to circumvent the code. This has been made easier after the law was amended and restrictions lifted on foreign funding of political parties. Electoral Bonds were similarly introduced surreptitiously, without consent of or consultations with the EC, to make funding of parties opaque. With such funding invariably coming with strings attached, the electoral bonds have put a question mark on the rest of the code of conduct.
Judging by the past several elections, especially in Bengal barely eight months ago, there is little hope that elections this year will be any better on the ground. If anything, these elections promise to be uglier, marked by intemperate language, wanton use of money power, insane communal rhetoric and uncivil campaigns. Bribes, defections, hate speech are unlikely to be fewer and there is no reason to believe that political parties will suddenly start behaving responsibly and the Election Commission will wake up and crack the whip. The Commission’s failure to ensure a level playing field has been glaring in recent years; its failure in curbing communal dog whistles and misuse of social media platforms and WhatsApp is also not a secret. For the Election Commission it is ‘business as usual’. After the 2019 general election, the then CEC had spoken of having constituted a working group to recommend revisions in the model code of conduct. Two and a half years later, nobody quite knows what has been recommended. What is on record, however, is the same CEC’s insistence that it was the job of the police to book people and politicians for criminal offences like hate speech. Police, he had said, did not need the Commission’s permission to take action. The fact is that although the code of conduct has been there in some form or the other since the 1960s, and last modified as recently as in 2014, it still requires modifications. Its violation needs to be treated as offences under the Representation of Peoples Act and tried in special courts. Moral force in an amoral age is just not enough.
(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)