Model Code of Conduct
The Model Code of Conduct is a set of guidelines issued by the Election Commission of India to regulate the conduct of political parties and their candidates in the run up to elections and is aimed at ensuring free and fair elections. Though the Code doesn’t have any statutory basis, it has an indisputable legitimacy and parties across the political spectrum have generally adhered to its letter and spirit.
The Code was issued for the first time in 1971 before the 5th Lok Sabha elections. Since then, it has been issued before every central and state election and revised from time to time. The broad objectives of the code of conduct are to ensure a level playing field for all political parties, prevent conflicts between parties, and ensure law and order in the heat of election season. Still, its primary purpose is to ensure that the ruling party does not misuse or use to its advantage the government machinery for its election campaign purpose. This function of the code is the primary reason for its indisputable legitimacy across all parties. Each party follows the code in the hope that other parties, especially the ruling party, will also follow it and hence no party will gain unfair advantage in the elections. Another reason for the success of the code lies in its restrained nature that the parties find tolerable to follow.
The Code of Conduct comes into force immediately after the elections are announced by the EC. It applies to political parties, their candidates and polling agents, the government in power and all government employees. It prevents the ruling party from using official machinery for electioneering work. Public places for holding election rallies and helipads for flights in connection with elections are to be made available to all parties on the same terms and conditions on which they are used by the party in power. Ministers and other government authorities should not announce any financial grants to the people; they should not lay foundation stones for or inaugurate any projects; they should not promise public facilities like roads; and they should not make any ad hoc government appointments.
Regarding the restricting guidelines on campaigning, political parties are allowed to criticize opponents for their failure to do work or fulfil promises made to the electorate, but are not allowed to criticize on the basis of any aspect of private life not connected with the public activities. Until recently, political parties were also allowed to issue election manifesto without any restrictions on its content, but the EC has now issued guidelines for election manifestos which include, among other things, mentioning the rationale of a specific promise and details of funds for implementation of the promises. Besides, the Model Code of Conduct strictly prohibits parties and candidates from making any appeals to caste or communal feelings for securing votes.
Even though the Code of Conduct does not have any statutory basis, the EC has the power to disqualify a candidate if he/she violates the code. The immaculate independence of the EC and its uncompromising attitude towards enforcing the code, combined with the perception among parties that following the code far outweighs the costs accrued if violated by other parties, especially the ruling one, have led to the success of the Model Code of Conduct since its inception.