When it is not seen as toothless, the Election Commission of India is seen as overzealous and authoritarian. To be both tough and fair, then, is the true challenge for the EC. While chiding Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi for making speeches that were “not in consonance” with the letter and spirit of the Model Code of Conduct, and serving notice to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi for his barbs about the election symbol of the Congress, the hand, the EC seems to have been overly conscious of this need to not only crack the whip against politicians, but also seem even-handed between the ruling coalition and the main opposition party in its monitoring of the elections and electioneering. The MCC not only prohibits speeches or statements that tend to aggravate differences between religious communities, but also bars criticism of other political parties on the basis of unverified allegations. While Mr. Gandhi fell foul of the MCC on both counts, Mr. Modi faces mainly the charge of criticising a political party beyond its policies and programmes and past record and work. Although it does not have statutory force, in the hands of a vigilant Election Commission the MCC is a safeguard against political parties lowering the discourse to levels of pettiness and crassness. Thus, in reprimanding Mr. Gandhi and serving notice on Mr. Modi, the EC went strictly by the code, presenting itself early in the campaign as an alert arbiter determined to keep the debate within reasonable bounds.
But while political parties must be made to realise the importance of a campaign that is reasoned and illuminative, and not abusive and noisy, the truth is that electioneering is impossible to monitor with any level of efficacy. Certainly, the EC does not have the manpower or the resources to keep tabs on the heat and dust during the daily campaign at the level of constituencies. The EC’s interventions, even now, are on the basis of complaints from rival parties, and not direct monitoring of the campaign. However, the question to ask is whether the MCC, if implemented in letter and in spirit to the last detail, would dampen India’s lively and colourful electioneering and the robustness of democratic debate. The EC’s disciplinarian approach is essential to make elections free and fair, but the activism should not go to the extent of robbing the election of all character. Surely, the EC can find a way of being firm without being overbearing, and of showing understanding without being lax. The EC and its model code would only gain greater moral authority in this process. The code is in no need of any change, but sometimes a light touch would do.