The Model Code of Conduct that the Election Commission relies on to bring some semblance of order to India’s election scene has regularly faced attacks from sundry politicians, especially during polls. The code has served to ensure a level playing field for political parties and keep campaigns fair and healthy. Its main purpose is to ensure that ruling parties, at the Centre and in the States, do not misuse their position of advantage to gain an unfair edge. Considering this fact, a parliamentary panel’s suggestion to review the model code can only be seen as yet another bid to weaken the EC’s hands. In its 58th report, the Parliamentary Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice has specifically sought the removal of the EC’s powers to cancel the registration of political parties that violate the code. As the EC itself pointed out in a submission, “The Commission cannot avoid its responsibility by remaining a silent spectator and merely paying lip service to the cause of electoral reforms and conduct of free and fair elections...” It was the insertion of Paragraph 16A of the Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order that authorised the EC to suspend or withdraw the recognition of parties in case of code violations. The Parliamentary Committee now seeks the deletion of 16A. This plea is of a piece with an earlier bid by the UPA government to take violations of the code out of the Commission’s purview. The model code as it exists is central to the Commission’s creditable efforts to stem the misuse of official machinery and to check electoral malpractices and corruption like overspending and paid news. If anything, this is a code that needs further strengthening — while taking due care to check any thoughtless over-zealousness on the part of some officers.
In the absence of a specific law or statute that could be deployed quickly — the provisions of the Representation of the People Act being ineffectual where time is of the essence — the EC uses powers under Article 324 of the Constitution and issues need-based instructions or directions regulating the conduct of elections in real-time. This is because some 23 years after an All-Party Committee on Electoral Reforms submitted its report, no statute covering issues in respect of these reforms has been framed to empower the Commission. Given that once the code becomes statute its actions would become justiciable — thus slowing down the efficacy of its steps to check violations in the thick of the election process — the EC itself has been guarded on this subject. The question of whether the code should be granted statutory status remains an open question. With six States poll-bound in a few months, and national elections on the horizon, this is the time to highlight the salience of the model code for the conduct of healthy elections, not to discountenance it.