What is a Violation of the Model Code of Conduct? Jean Dreze’s Right to Food Meeting or Political Biopics?

Politics

What is a Violation of the Model Code of Conduct? Jean Dreze’s Right to Food Meeting or Political Biopics?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

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couple of weeks ago, at a rally in Punjab’s Dehra Sahib ministers of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) handed out cheap liquor to the public. Days later, the party received a show-cause notice where the Election Commission declared their actions a “gross violation” of the Model Code of Conduct. You wouldn’t need a charter of rules to decide whether handing out liquor as a means to an end is a violation of the MCC.

Sadly, the rules are not so clear anymore. And the Election Commission has the unenviable job of monitoring a special class of India’s citizenry that is constantly on the lookout for challenging the rules – its politicians. That said, even the interpretation of this set of rules, in severe need of a modern update, has become the modus operandi for some.

On March 28, the economist Jean Dreze was detained by the police in Jharkhand, for organising a public hearing about pensions and Right To Food, in association with an NGO. Dreze was brought in for questioning by the police and later released. This decision was later justified by the authorities as a violation of the MCC.

Dreze, a venerated economist and activist, has long worked on hunger; the Right to Food is a human right as per the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Even before we get to the part where we try and dissect if he violated the MCC, we need to understand why his presence in Jharkhand would irk some. A disturbing despatch from Jharkhand’s Singhbhum district in Mint on March 26, offered a scathing view of the crisis-ridden area, declaring it the worst-performing constituency in India: 67 per cent of the children in Singhbhum, the report says, suffer from malnutrition while the state itself, alongside Madhya Pradesh, accounts for the most starvation deaths in the country.

Dreze was holding a meeting in the Garhwa district where 50 per cent of the children under the age of five are either stunted or underweight. He is neither a politician nor was he campaigning for a political party, but was withheld from talking about a problem, that, in an ideal world would be a driving factor of our political discourse. Not surgical strikes, not the Balakot air strike, not #MissionShakti – but hunger. Shouldn’t a developed nation aspire to ace basic human indices like life expectancy, nutrition, health, and education?

The guidelines of the MCC come across as vulnerable, as inconsequential, and as wishful as the opinion of a bystander in a street brawl.

On the other hand what should be actual violations of the MCC, like biopics on political leaders continue to be made and publicised under the nose of the EC. A biopic on PM Narendra Modi is set to be released in the first week of April, just before the elections. Makers of the film have ludicrously justified the release date by saying “it has nothing to do with the BJP”. The Congress’ Rahul Gandhi has one of his own biopic, as does West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee.

Of course, the MCC is not applicable by law, which means it is more of an appeal to the morality of the contesting politicians to ensure fairness, than it is a directive to assure it is. Though some of the guidelines of this document can and have been extended in the past to charge ministers and parties with judicial inquiry, there are more than three crore cases of violation pending in courts across India. The chances of any of these amounting to convictions, and subsequently jail time, is so minimal that most political parties have been in favour of making the MCC legally binding: Probably so they can then do as they wish, and drag the cases until they die. Apparently, the tag of a violator can do more to discredit a politician than the countless cases of fraud and forgery they can deny and fight. Until we have a set of stricter rules in the near future, the EC simply cannot control the unruly.

Naturally, the MCC is as vague as it is feeble. In the 2016 elections in Bengal alone there were an eye-watering nine lakh violations of the code that lead to about 7.5 lakh notices being issued by the EC and 230 FIRs being filed. In the same cycle the number of FIRs in Tamil Nadu were a staggering 6612.

Nothing is perhaps as meaningless in this country as appealing to the “morality” of a political party. We’re better off appealing to their interests, which is why a lot of work gets done in the run-up to a vote. The guidelines of the MCC come across as vulnerable, as inconsequential, and as wishful as the opinion of a bystander in a street brawl. The pursuit of power cannot even be questioned these days, let alone be moralised.

To add to that, the MCC is also in severe need of updating, considering it was developed before the emergence of social media as a tool to influence opinion. During the Telangana elections in 2018, the EC hired vendors to keep check of social media content. This year, the EC has requested parties to get their content certified beforehand. But on platforms where opinion and reaction explode and escalate within minutes, the EC is unlikely to arrest the vagaries of what is the first full-fledged social media election of India. How can the EC keep up with a world of fake profiles, trolls, paid propaganda, and untraceable WhatsApp and Facebook groups that trade in hate and misinformation? The role of social media in tilting the 2016 Presidential Election of the United States is under scrutiny, but here in India we still seem to be clutching at straws, hoping the social media giants will do the policing themselves.

There is then the vagueness of the MCC. According to it the ruling party cannot lay foundation stones or declare new projects like roads. But shouldn’t roads being built, where there have been potholes for the last five years, also constitute a well-timed, not to mention criminally belated exhibit to woo voters by using state machinery?

The MCC guidelines are dubious, ineffective and as evidenced by Dreze’s arrest, defenceless on their own. They require re-definition and a sturdier hand than the EC’s reluctant attempts at keeping the battle civil and its dirty contestants to play fair.

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