While the Election Commission should not allow the perception of its being an eroded authority that would make enforcing discipline among contesting parties difficult, it should also not lay itself open to ridicule by raising objections to clever wordplay by campaigners

The curtains have finally come down on the keenly fought Assembly elections in five States, hyped as a semi-final before the 2014 general elections. Whether these are, politically speaking, a precursor to the general election to the Lok Sabha is debatable, but they certainly seem to be an indicator of a vociferous and, at times, vicious and vituperative campaigning to come.

It can prove to be a testing time for the Election Commission of India, especially in implementing the Model Code of Conduct (MCC). The MCC is a unique document that owes itself to the initiative of the political parties themselves. It all started way back in 1960, with the Kerala State administration taking the lead to evolve a Code of Conduct covering important aspects of electioneering.

The EC circulated the document to all States for implementation during the 1962 general election with the consent of the political parties. Prior to the 1967 general election, initiatives were taken by the Chief Ministers in Kerala and West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. Uniquely, Tamil Nadu even had a standing committee of seven persons drawn from different political parties for overseeing the implementation of the code.

Based on this experience, the EC prepared a document in the interests of free and fair elections, titled ‘An Appeal to Political parties for observance of a Minimum Code of Conduct during the Election Propaganda’, that came to be called the Model Code of Conduct. Prior to the 1979 general election, a comprehensive MCC was put together by the EC, having, at the behest of political parties, an emphasis on curbs to be placed on ruling parties at the Centre and the States as serious concerns were voiced about ruling parties appropriating common facilities or misusing government machinery or funds.

The EC revised and amplified the code in 1991 and thus was born the MCC in its present form. It should be said to the credit of the political parties that during the last five decades, they have largely abided by it. Blatant violations — deliberate and calculated — are now rare.

That parties respect the code is clear from the fact that a notice from the EC on any alleged violation elicits a prompt and well-deliberated reply. This is not to say that there have been no violations, subtle or otherwise. The parts of the MCC dealing with processions, meetings and poll-day conduct are now observed well by all contestants, though the admonition not to serve liquor seems to be more honoured in the breach than in the observance, especially on the night before the poll. In some places, the supply is spiced with cash offerings too.

Restrictions on the use of public places for meetings, issue of advertisements extolling themselves at the cost of the public exchequer, announcing new schemes, making grants from discretionary funds, making appointments in government departments or in public sector companies, and misusing public servants for party propaganda have been imposed on ruling party politicians, and these are generally adhered to.

I was recently in two neighbouring countries for election observation and the contrast with our country could not have been more stark. In one country, army personnel were found campaigning for candidates of the party of a Minister in office.

In another, the government headed by a contestant himself allegedly gave promotions to hundreds of army personnel on the eve of the poll. Such blatant acts that put a question mark on the fairness of an election are thankfully absent in India.

In the few instances of violations by those at the highest level, the EC has not hesitated to come down with a heavy hand. A few years ago, when a Chief Minister of a northern State came in the State’s aircraft to Delhi along with Cabinet colleagues, seeking a change of election schedule after dates were announced, the EC directed him to deposit the cost of the travel in the State exchequer since the MCC was already in force and prohibited the use of government transport including official aircraft to further the interests of the party in power.

Another Chief Minister who used to travel in government aircraft to one district — ostensibly on official business — and from there go by private vehicles to the adjoining district to campaign, met with the same fate. In another State, the EC ordered replacing of a school textbook that had a picture that was the exact replica of the ruling party’s symbol. Such instances of tangible violations can be dealt with easily.

There are clear guidelines on campaign speeches where making references to the private life of a rival or mounting personal attacks are a strict no-no. However, the difficulty arises when campaigners indulge in some clever wordplay.

When a turn of phrase, a metaphor, an idiom, a repartee or some rhetoric is called into question, the adjudication requires an understanding of the remark in its totality with an eye on the subtlety and nuance of the language and the expression. The very essence of a public speech, where the speakers wield the language with finesse, drawing upon our rich repository of the epics, the puranas, mythology, folklore and fables, to thrust and parry, will be lost if objections raised — based on a literal meaning or, worse still, a transliteration into English or any other language — are heeded. It will not only do grave injustice to the speaker but such an approach will be open to ridicule and, for some, the festival of democracy would then lose its ‘colour’.

The reference to the humble origins of an opponent can seem to be hitting below the belt but a consummate wordsmith can turn that into a compliment. By the same token, a reference to a person’s rich heritage can, by the clever use of a word that is not disrespectful, clearly convey the slight to the audience. A ‘pappu’ remark met with a ‘feku’ counter brings mirth to the fore. Speakers with a gift of the gab may pepper their speeches with such turns of phrase but if the MCC is invoked in such matters, it would be a case of wielding a sledgehammer to swat a fly. With sanitised speeches, the audiences would be poorer and the political discourse would not have gained either. The EC has to discriminate, or, in the words of The Hindu, has to resort to a ‘light touch’.

It cannot be denied that the ordinary citizen feels a sense of déjà vu when after finding fault with the violators, in case after case, the EC lets them off with an advice or admonition leading to the perception that EC is ‘ineffective’ or ‘soft’. Many wonder at the very purpose of such an exercise. Suffice to say that if the violation is such as to attract any penal provisions of the Indian Penal Code or the Election Law, the EC does not resort to action under the MCC as a substitute to the action the violator is liable for under the relevant laws. It is exclusive of it.

The MCC is mostly about the ‘perceived’ advantage and disadvantage disturbing a level playing field. It will serve no purpose to give it a statutory backing as swift action won’t be possible and conclusive proof would be difficult to present. It cannot however be gainsaid that instead of merely taking “serious note” or conveying “displeasure”, if the EC sets an example by serving a harsh counter-move in deserving cases, it will send the right signals. Otherwise, the perception of its being an eroded authority would, in the long run, make it difficult for the EC to enforce discipline among the contesting parties.

At the IAS academy, in my time, the probationers who feared horse-riding would be taunted by a redoubtable ex-army riding instructor, “If you cannot control a horse, how will you control a district?” Politicians, like thoroughbred horses, can easily get the measure of the rider and a weak rider cannot remain on the saddle for long. The EC has to be both hard as ‘steel’ and soft as a ‘petal’, heeding the pithy Sanskrit exhortation, “Vajradapi Katorani, Mriduni Kusumadapi”. The EC has its task cut out in keeping the campaign discourse sane and lively given its role in enforcing the MCC.

(The writer is a former Chief Election Commissioner of India)

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