If elections in India have become freer and fairer over the past two decades, the credit largely should go to the Election Commission. Much to the discomfiture of political parties and governments, the EC has carried out its watchdog role without succumbing to the pulls and pressures of those in power. True, there have been complaints of over-zealousness and ineffectiveness, but within their limited mandate, successive Commissions have done a lot to detoxify the electoral system of the blatant influence of money and muscle power. In this context, the United Progressive Alliance government's reported move to “look into the aspects where executive instructions of the Election Commission of India [are] required to be given statutory shape” smacks of a devious if ingenious way to curtail the powers of the supervisory body. Although couched in language that suggests the EC's instructions would be given statutory force, the agenda note for the meeting of the Group of Ministers on corruption, as published by the Indian Express on Wednesday, seems to have been drafted with the intent of taking out of the EC's purview any and all violations of the Model Code of Conduct.
The model code is central to the EC's efforts to prevent misuse of official machinery by parties in power, and to check electoral offences, malpractices and corruption during elections. While there can and should be a debate on strengthening the code's enforceability, it is essential that the need for change be shared by the EC and by political parties and that actual changes be the product of consensus between all stakeholders. In effect, statutory shape for the model code would mean violations being tried in court; in turn, the EC's practice of using the code to restrain parties and candidates might be jeopardised. This is why the EC itself, which once favoured making the code statutory, has a more guarded position today. Even now, the EC pursues major violations by having cases filed by the police and tried in court. But the code's true power springs from the EC's active, interventionist role in real time during electioneering and polling, and not from successful prosecution in cases of violation. Taking cases to their logical end is a necessary legal process, but this cannot serve as a deterrent to political parties and candidates intent on winning an election at any cost. Courts take years to decide, and often their rulings come well after the term of the legislature is over. For parties and candidates, there is then no real risk in a long-drawn legal battle. What they do fear, however, is the EC's hawk eye and its ability to deploy moral suasion. The model code may not be perfect but it certainly ain't broke. There is no need for the UPA to try and fix it.