Weathervane of democracy

Rashmi Sharma  

For the first time since the general election of 1996, the reputation of the Election Commission of India (ECI) has taken a beating. Subsequent to the 1996 election, which marked a turning point in the reduction of electoral malpractices, surveys showed that trust in the ECI was the highest among the major public institutions in India. However, there are now perceptions that the ECI has responded inadequately, or not at all, to violations of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC), which is in effect from March 10 to May 23. Some examples in this election include the Prime Minister’s announcement on national television of India’s first anti-satellite weapon test, the Rajasthan Governor making statements in favour of the ruling party, leaders of the ruling party invoking the Indian Army in their election campaign, and, in a spate of dubious media initiatives, a continuous line of statements along communal lines.

The MCC, like the ECI itself, is a unique Indian innovation and encapsulates an important story about democracy in India — the conduct of free and fair elections. Though just a brief set of guidelines, not law, the MCC is a powerful instrument. It comes into force when the ECI announces election dates and comprises directions to government functionaries, political parties and candidates aimed at an impartial election process. Important provisions include barring governments from making policy announcements to sway voters and restraining political actors from inciting hatred against any group, or bribing or intimidating voters.

Down the years

The origins of the MCC lie in the Assembly elections of Kerala in 1960, when the State administration prepared a ‘Code of Conduct’ for political actors. The leading political parties of the State voluntarily approved the code, which proved useful during the elections. Subsequently, in the Lok Sabha elections in 1962, the ECI circulated the code to all recognised political parties and State governments; reports were that it was generally followed. The emergence of the code and its voluntary acceptance by political parties showed the commitment of the political elite to the holding of free and fair elections.

However, from 1967 till 1991, as political competition intensified, political actors began to resort to corrupt electoral practices. Governments made populist announcements on the eve of elections, had pliant officials in key positions while intimidation of voters and booth capturing increased. The ECI’s appeals to observe the code of conduct were largely ignored. The ECI now resorted to a familiar, but ineffective, strategy in Indian public life. It refined the code, making it more stringent by including a section about the misuse of powers by ruling parties and renamed it the MCC. Though it demanded that the MCC be incorporated in the law, no such law could be passed.

A turning point

After 1991, the ECI used new means to enforce the MCC. The then-Chief Election Commissioner, T.N. Seshan rebuked prominent political actors publicly and even postponed elections, thereby re-interpreting the ECI’s power to fix election dates. The burgeoning electronic media of the time reported these initiatives with enthusiasm, while candidates were happy to capitalise on the mistakes made by their rivals. Consequently, political actors began to take the MCC seriously, fearing it even if they did not respect it. The MCC now countered the lack of commitment of the political class to free and fair elections, the ECI began to command a new respect and electoral malpractices declined dramatically.

New flashpoints

Today, the MCC is at a crossroads, as is the ECI. Two distinct trends are visible. One, electoral malpractice has appeared in new forms. Voter bribery and manipulation through the media have become the techniques of unethically influencing voters in place of voter intimidation and booth capturing. These malpractices are harder to stem. Booth-capturing is an identifiable event, taking place at a particular time and place. Voter bribery is spread over time and space. Voters resent being intimidated and are likely to cooperate with authorities in preventing it, but may be willing to be bribed. The misuse of the media is difficult to trace to specific political parties and candidates.

The ECI’s response to the new challenges has been inadequate. It has appointed expenditure observers, evolved a code for social media, and, very recently, after a spate of criticism, stopped the release of biographical pictures that could influence voters. But there is little evidence that it has got to the core of the problem as it did after 1991. As in the pre-1991 phase, its efforts have hardly borne fruit. At the same time, the misuse of money and media power has intensified since the last two elections.

The second trend is that the ECI’s capacity to respond to the older types of violations of the MCC has weakened. Its response to inappropriate statements by powerful political actors has been weak, or delayed. Consequently, political actors are regaining the confidence to flout the MCC without facing the consequences. As the ECI’s capacity to secure a level playing field has dipped, attacks on it have increased. They now encompass its processes such as the use of electronic voting machines, which had become acceptable when the ECI was stronger. A vicious cycle has been set in motion.

The MCC is, in many ways, the weathervane of our democracy. The initial idea of free and fair elections was embraced by the political elite voluntarily, and the MCC emerged. Over time, the commitment of the political class to free and fair elections declined, and it flouted the MCC. During the early to mid-1990s, the ECI enforced the MCC on reluctant political actors, and MCC began to feared, if not voluntarily followed. Today, the ECI’s own commitment to the MCC seems to have weakened, a bad omen for our democracy.

Rashmi Sharma is a former IAS officer