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Model Code of Conduct:FRESH LOOK COULD BE WORTHWHILE, by T.D. Jagadesan, 28 March 2009 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 28 March 2009

Model Code of Conduct


By T.D. Jagadesan

The Varun Gandhi ‘hate speech’ controversy is over insofar the Election Commission is concerned. It had left it to the BJP whether to or not to accept its advisory i.e. “not to field” Varun as its candidate for violation of the model code of conduct. The Commission, however, came under criticism from some legal quarters “for going beyond its jurisdiction.”

Be that as it may, it would presumably need to tread carefully in regard to cases of violation of the code so that its words carry weight. In fact, post this Lok Sabha elections a fresh look at certain aspects of the code along with deficiencies in the law could be an exercise worth taking. For one, few would have missed the sternness of the Chief Election Commissioner’s declaration that the model code of conduct come into operation immediately after the announcement of the schedule for General Election 2009.   

This means that the code will last for two-and-half months. Even after the results of the election are announced on May 16 there may be a few more days of interim government. June 1 is the date when the term of the Lok Sabha expires and therefore the parties can wait till this date in order to complete the formalities of formulating a common minimum programme and distribution of portfolios among the members of the coalition government.

This would amount to a delay of three months for the regular government to be formed and start working without any of the constraints of the model code. Three months by any reckoning are an unusually long period when the business of governance is conducted without taking decisions on even the most important development projects.

It is true that India’s electorate has increased from 671 million in 2004 to 714 million in 2009 and the number of polling stations has increased from 6,87,402 to 8,28,804 during the same period. There are also pressing problems of law and order which have to be taken care of through deployment of adequate security and polling personnel. However, too large a number of days under the regime of the model code can certainly affect the efficiency of the government.

It is important to remember that elections are held at three levels in the statues --- panchayats, State Assemblies and the Lok Sabha. On all these occasions the model code comes into force and one can imagine the extent of delays and also the substantial increases in administrative expenditure because of certain provisions in the code relating to development projects.

An attempt was made by the government in 2000 to make the model code applicable only from the date of the formal notification of each phase of election. The government tried to get a favourable decision from the Supreme Court and a petition was filed against the ruling of the Commission. But the Government withdrew its petition in the court eventually and the code of conduct now comes into force with the announcement of the election.

The code lays down certain well-intentioned guidelines about the conduct of the people during elections. It prescribes certain dos and don’ts regarding conduct of meetings, processions, caution in speeches etc, as part of the election campaign. However, there are certain instructions in the model code which, in effect prevent any move by the party in power to implement the projects necessary for the welfare of the people. It prevents even laying foundation stones for projects already included in the annual plan and for which provision exists in the Budget. Its “don’ts” result in postponement of projects such as constructions of new roads providing drinking water etc, even though their beneficiaries are the common people.

Those who have followed the manner in which the model code of conduct has been operating would have noticed that the general practice is to put on hold action on all the elections are over. It is time that some of these provisions in the model code are removed and suitable changes are introduced to ensure that elections do not become a cause for delays in the development process.

The Commission may have this in mind, as recently it has allowed the UPA government to go ahead and float tenders for new projects and release fresh funds, even as the code was in place. The reason cited .by the government was that award of projects required continuation to mitigate the impact of the economic slowdown. While the EC has made some relaxations for flagship schemes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, National Rural Health Mission, Bharat Nirman etc, it is important that guidelines are given a fresh look to avoid any controversy viz sops being offered under the code. .

Another important reform that could go down well to ensure that the normal work of governance is not affected by elections is to revert to the old system of simultaneous election to the Lok Sabha and the State legislatures. The administrative cost for conducting polls has been steadily increasing with every election and the government has to be vigilant that its own expenditure on elections does not get out of control while it continues to advise candidates and political parties to observe the prescribed limits on election expenses.

Apart from the heavy cost involved on security personnel, quite a large number of government employees are disturbed from their normal duties by drafting them to election duties. Teachers constitute the largest group of election personnel in our country. It is a well-known fact that primary schools in India, particularly those run by the government, are grossly understaffed.

Simultaneous elections for the State and Central government will reduce the burden on the teachers and other government employees considerably without in any way affecting the efficiency of the work relating to elections. Some opponents of simultaneous elections have expressed apprehensions that the personnel drafted for election duty may find it difficult to manage such elections. But this is only an imaginary apprehension.

It is well-known that most political parties do not maintain in proper accounts and even if some parties maintain accounts they are not audited by those qualified to do so. Thus the whole concept of a ceiling for expenditure is vitiated and no effective action has been taken for submission of wrong accounts by the elected candidates. It would be worthwhile to eliminate such deficiencies. As elections are a continuing process so should be the electoral reforms. ---INFA

 (Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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