Poll code freezing governance

Poll code freezing governance

he Model Code of Conduct is known to have brought administration to a standstill

Poll code freezing governance

“Laws control the lesser man, right conduct controls the greater one” 

Mark Twain on Model Code of Conduct for political parties and candidates

The celebrated American author may be right when his famous quote is taken in the US context, but the Indian situation can be vastly different. For, there are shortcomings in the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) – issued by the Election Commission of India after hammering out a consensus with political parties – which have been drowned amid laudatory epithets for the poll panel. 

The MCC, willy-nilly, has led to confusion and no amount of clarification has failed to stop the administration at the Centre or in states from coming to a near-standstill taking a toll on developmental work. So much so, senior Union ministers such as Sharad Pawar, P Chidambaram, Salman Khurshid or the likes of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee or her Tamil Nadu counterpart J Jayalalitha have lashed out at the EC for its ‘restrictive’ poll code.

 Chidambaram minced no words in taking on the EC: "A number of programmes which require spending have, in fact, slowed down. I don't think this kind of clampdown on all activities is justified…normal activity of the government should continue.” He indicated that the MCC brought to a halt the entire process of governance for months, affecting the implementation of many policies and programmes. His colleague Khurshid was equally harsh. While Pawar said EC was going overboard, Mamata was even more forthright calling the MCC “bizarre.” Observing that elections at different levels in the state had affected the administration, she quipped: “…I go to office, but there is no work.

 I feel guilty.”Why these leaders are saying what they are saying? Confusion surrounding the MCC during the election time – being implemented from the day the election schedule is announced until the election process is complete (meaning announcement of results by the EC) – has hit the administration. The lax officials have only taken advantage of the situation, notwithstanding a clarification issued by the EC in the midst of elections that MCC does not bring to a stop developmental work or those of urgent nature. According to the EC, all the existing works/projects can continue unhindered but no new announcements should be made. However, the bureaucracy takes advantage of the situation and for months, the country goes without governance. 

If one goes through the six-page MCC, it becomes clear that no ongoing beneficiary scheme can be continued; no work can start in or that there will be no fresh release of funds under MPs/ MLAs/ MLCs Local Area Development Fund of any scheme, etc. It has added not just to the confusion but also led to halt of developmental work. The worse was the EC just not being bothered about – what should be its biggest shortcoming – of not allowing normal governmental functioning in states where polling had been completed.

 The MCC is silent on several issues, like floating of tenders for developmental works or transfers of officials, once the polling is over.It made no sense that the MCC continued to be in force in many states weeks after polling – first phase of polling was held on April 9 and the MCC was relaxed to allow normal governmental functioning only on April 21! The MCC is continuing in Andhra Pradesh which is under a spell of President’s rule. Imagine the fate of those states – Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal – where polling will complete only on May 12!

These and many others are without proper administration since March 5. Not just this. Take the case of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi where assembly elections were announced on October 4 with counting on December 8. These states lost two full months and again lost two months or more (for LS polls) after a gap of over two months! There is a need for the EC to pump wisdom into the bureaucracy to ensure that while there is ban only on new policy initiatives/announcements, implementation of extant policies should not suffer at any cost.

At present, an over-enthusiastic EC seems to be oblivious of it. Lengthy election schedules – in the case of LS polls a prolonged 72 days – have added to the bureaucratic apathy during these periods. The current polls are being conducted over nine phases, the longest ever. While the EC points out that movement of troops for security is the main reason for multi-phase polls, the panel has drawn flak from different quarters for the long-winding election period. When election-related violence has come down and when police of one state can be used in other states, why can’t the period be reduced to just one month and polling over in say, three phases so that all states have single day polling?

Among the criticisms that the MCC has faced is the excessive restrictions on electioneering. While the number of days meant for campaigning has come down from 21 days to 14, the restraints have been telling. One such is the election spend. Although marginally increased, the ceiling limit for LS and assembly polls needs to be drastically hiked – it is a big joke if one takes the massive gap between the kind of money most candidates actually spend and the statement of expenditure they file before the EC. 

One of the ways of reducing MCC period is implementing the Code from the date of notification rather than from the date of announcement of schedule. This was also the recommendation by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Justice in 2013. In other democracies, there is hardly any MCC and certainly no restrictions on normal administrative functions, including in Pakistan. In the US, The US Federal Election Commission, which is an independent regulatory agency, has among others, duties like regulating spending in campaigns for federal office.

The UK and Australia have Electoral Commissions where campaigning and donations are defined. The Election Commission of Pakistan does not talk of suspending government work during polls but is strict over personal attacks of rival candidates and that criticism of other parties and candidates be confined to their policies and programmes.Overall, there is a need for the EC and political parties to revisit the MCC and make it more people and administration-friendly.

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