THE INVISIBLE CODE

The much touted model code of conduct, seems to have lost most of its sting, with political parties, notably the incumbent government brazenly flouting the directives without being reprimanded.

Anil Anand

Whose baby is the Model Code of Conduct? This becomes a vital question when the very sanctity of the concept is under a cloud. The situation becomes graver when those responsible of protecting its sanctity find themselves under a needle of suspicion.

On one hand we hear the Election Commission of India (ECI) having “strongly advised” the Union Finance Ministry to ensure that all enforcement agencies working under it must be “absolutely neutral” in their conduct & discharge of duties; while on the other it (ECI) convened a meeting of the chairman of the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) and the Revenue Secretary, the very next instance. Such parleys were preceded by at least three non-BJP ruled major states having withdrawn the general consent given to the CBI to probe certain cases in the state after series of raids by CBI, ED and Income Tax Departments in states of Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh.

This is one side of the coin. The other side of the picture is reflected by 66 former civil servants writing to President Ram Nath Kovind expressing serious concern on the functioning of the ECI. In their memorandum they listed alleged violations of the Model Code of Conduct that the Nirvachan Sadan failed to deal with effectively. The obvious reference was to such violations by the ruling combine at the Centre (read BJP).

And what did they say: “The weak-kneed conduct of the ECI has reduced the credibility of this constitutional body to an all-time low. Any erosion in the people’s confidence in the fairness of the ECI has very grave consequences for the future of our democracy.”

In the letter of former bureaucrats titled ‘weak-kneed response of the ECI to violations of the Model Code of Conduct’ they further pinpointed, “The ECI’s independence, fairness, impartiality and efficiency are perceived to be compromised today, thereby endangering the integrity of the electoral process which is the very foundation of Indian democracy. We are distressed to note the misuse, abuse and blatant disregard of the Model Code of Conduct by the ruling party at the Centre.”These allegations are not only damning but also convey gravity of the situation in which ECI is finding itself. The situation is certainly not of ECI’s making but if these allegations hold any water then the poll panel has its fair share of blame in allowing it to come to this pass.

Quoting instances of violations of Model Code of Conduct primarily by the BJP’s central and state leaders, they said the A-SAT announcement by PM Modi amounts to unfair publicity. The reference here was to Modi’s public announcement on March 27 about the successful launch of India’s first anti-satellite weapon (ASAT).”Parading the achievements of a government in this manner after the announcement of elections is tantamount to a serious breach of propriety and amounts to giving unfair publicity to the party presently in government and that the ECI’s decision does not stand up to the standards of impartiality expected of it,” the letter said.

Furthermore a reference was also made to biopic made on PM Modi which is due to release in the midst of elections. It was termed as a “backdoor effort to garner publicity.”Among the instances quoted was UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s “Modijikisena….” comment on Balakote air strike in the aftermath of Pulwama fidayeen attack.

MODIJI KI SENA: NIP SUCH CAVALIER STATEMENTS IN THE BUD

The petitioners that included Former Delhi LG Najeeb Jung, Retired IPS officer VappalaBalachandran, former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, former foreign secretary and national security adviser (NSA) ShivshankarMenon, former Planning Commission secretary N C Saxena and super cop Julio Ribeiro, have asked President Kovind to intervene to ensure free and fair elections.

Before discussing as to what does these developments reflect, it seems the ECI action in holding a meeting with CBDT chief and Revenue Secretary, though belated and many think it was insufficient, has been triggered by IT raids on close aides of Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath though such an action was somehow overlooked after similar action in other states earlier. It is better late than never as the dictum goes. But the developments raise serious questions and are fraught with dangerous consequences for the federal-democratic system to function if allowed to proceed unchecked and unhindered.

The vital question arising is whether the federal character of India, which was already under constraints and pressure brought by political expediencies of the coalition politics, read regional forces, facing a threat from the centralized theme of the current national politics. The answer is yes. Many would argue on the constitutional and legal validity of raids by central enforcement agencies. No, these are certainly not either unconstitutional or illegal. But raises doubts and heckles of the civil society is on account of selective action and studied silence in other similar cases. The selectivity with which such actions are being planned and executed is an area of concern. Targeting only one variety of states, ruled by non-BJP parties, and that too where the opposition such as Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and Congress in Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are well entrenched and Narendra Modi-led BJP trying to discover new ground, only strengthens the doubt. Surprisingly, the expression of counter-doubt has come from the ECI which itself is under suspicion for alleged selective use of measures to check violation of the Model Code of Conduct.

The elections in a democracy are all about a level playing field in all respects. A powerful national party and even a small regional or state level outfit are supposed to be on even keel when it comes to electoral process. But the current developments have serious doubts about the intention behind such raids and actions.Does this mean that only the opposition parties are flushed with money or black money to be spent in the current Lok Sabha election? Does this also mean that everything is perfectly in order with the BJP and its NDA allies so far as election spending is concerned?

The answer is obvious and not difficult to fathom even by a layperson. The events and developments of the past point out that none of the political parties, barring to some extent Left parties, are above board in this matter. The fact also remains that ruling parties, no matter of which colour or creed, have all along been misusing their exalted position.Nothing much seems to have changed from the past except that the misuse of position has become more glaring and selective. Or else how would anyone describe or attribute the raids on West Bengal chief minister Mamta Banerjee’s, Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandra Babu Naidu’s and Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath’s close aides. Everything else including cases of alleged corruption against BJP’s own former chief ministers and some sitting ministers in the states are at a standstill.

Nobody should be above board if found involved in corrupt practices be it the election time or otherwise. The law of the land does not discriminate between a ruling or an opposition party or leaders when it comes to corruption or electoral malpractices. By discriminating on these lines any ruling dispensation would create a doubt in public mind that the entire crusade was designed to strengthen the anti-corruption crusade of the government of the day.

Coming back to ED/CBI/IT raids on chief ministers and their close aides, those privy to such developments are of the view that lot of planning goes into it and the level at which decisions are taken goes up with profile of the target. Short of stating that these become political rather than administrative decisions when the action involves chief ministers, their close aides or senior political leaders.

Former sleuths who have overseen such operations particularly in ED and CBI said that the decision making for such high-profile raids goes up to the level of Union Finance Minister. Wishing to remain anonymous they stated that such raids have taken place in the past as well but not of current level and extent.

A serious pointer towards threat to the federal character of the country are the instances of confrontation between various state police forces and the Central Police forces on the issue of conducting raids or arresting the high civil/police officials of a particular state government.  Of late it happened in Bhopal when Madhya Pradesh police personnel confronted CRPF men as the latter tried to facilitate IT raids at the residence of one of the close aides of the chief minister.

It was seen earlier both in Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal.

What does such Centre versus states confrontations entail or tell?

Firstly, there is nothing wrong legally in a central enforcement agency at any time and place seeking cover of a central police force as against the police of the state where the raid is intended to be conducted. “In fact to conduct raids at high profile/political targets in states we prefer to go with the central police force,” a former official connected with such operations said. However, when it comes to timing, intent and selective targets, the doubts are bound to arise in public mind. The question of morality does come in particularly when it happens to be election time, he added.

Under the circumstances what is under threat are the powers enjoyed by state governments. There is a growing feeling that the state governments are losing their rightsas granted by the Constitution. Almost every non- BJP chief minister had raised concerns over the Centre encroaching on the powers of the state governments which is also resulting in parochial and sometimes separatists thoughts gaining ground. For instance in Tamil Nadu, the most talked about episode was Governor BanwarilalPurohit’s visits across the State, collecting petitions from people and his direct meetings with state government officials.

Lately, Governor of Rajasthan, Kalyan Singh, who was once a senior BJP leader, openly canvassed for his erstwhile party and Prime Minister Modi asking people to ensure his victory. So did the Madhya Pradesh Governor and once a close political aide of Modi, Anandiben Patel. These happenings warranted a quick and serious action by the ECI but that was not to be. 

Not only that even vice chairman of NITI Ayog openly criticized the Congress manifesto in blatant political terms. But it seems he has also gone scot free. A letter of censure or a mild warning is not the answer to such violations of various laws if sanctity of democratic and federal structure is to be safeguarded.

There are innumerable other examples of violation of Model Code of Conduct that relate to using intemperate and communal language during election campaign and seeking votes in the name of armed forces or martyrs by the leaders and workers of ruling party. This is happening with impunity and a glaring example was when Prime Minister Modi in his inimitable style raised a question in one of the election rallies while point to first time voters, “Will you dedicate your vote to brave hearts of Balakote  airstrike. Will you dedicate your vote Pulwama martyrs or not….” The intent was obvious.

This is not the first time either Modi or his party men have dragged the armed forces into election campaign and it seems would not be the last during the campaign to seven-phased Lok Sabha elections. The reason being the ECI is found wanting and repeated argument of the poll panel having limited powers would not suffice or justify inaction. After all former chief election commissioner, T N Seshan restored authority of the ECI under similar circumstances and with same powers.It is well known that ECI is the master of ceremonies when the elections

might not be a penal action but the ways and means to act are very much there.