India’s electoral reform: the Model Code of Conduct

This case study is based on research by Princeton University Innovations for Successful Societies This analysis is based in part on research conducted by Rushda Majeed and first published in June 2011 by Innovations for Successful Societies. The scoring assigned and the text below represents the Centre’s own work, however, and do not reflect the views of the case study authors, Innovations for Successful Societies, or Princeton University. Quotes included in the text come from interviews carried out in India in June 2011.

Indian elections of the 1970s and 1980s were increasingly factional and violent. In 1990 the government realised that action had to be taken. It chose to revive the Model Code of Conduct, a voluntary electoral code that had been largely ignored since its adoption in 1962. The mood had changed, though, and the desire for reform intensified after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. The Election Commission of India spent the next decade persuading politicians to observe the code’s guidelines and conduct peaceful and orderly election campaigns.

The challenge

Indian elections in the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in the election campaign of 1989, were characterised by increasing levels of negative campaigning, incendiary and often divisive speeches, and rioting and other forms violence. The electorate’s splits along lines of caste, religion (in particular between Hindus and Muslims), language and locality were emphasised and used by politicians to spread discord and seek to win votes.

In 1990 there was agreement that reform was required in order to have more peaceful and orderly elections in future and that there had to be a formal basis for the parties’ conduct during elections. However, there was much debate about whether the solution was a voluntary electoral code of conduct or whether such a code should be made mandatory by being enacted, in whole or in part, as legislation.

The initiative

The first stage of the reform was for the then prime minister to invite the Committee on Electoral Reforms under the minister of law and justice, Dinesh Goswami, to report and make recommendations on how to proceed. “Among other recommendations, the report endorsed 1) the disqualification of candidates who campaigned on caste or religious lines, or instigated communal animosities during elections, and 2) the investigation, special trial or prosecution of candidates who intimidated or coerced voters. In addition, the report recommended that the election commission should void results and arrange fresh elections in cases where misconduct reported by electoral officers turned out to be true.” [1]

The Committee was of the opinion that “statutory backing should be given to some of the more important provisions of the Model Code” [2], such as the use of government funds for party political advertising. This aspect of the recommendations was ignored, and it was implemented as a voluntary code.

In December 1990, President Venkataraman appointed T.N. Seshan as chief of the Election Commission of India (ECI). Subsequently, M.S. Gill took over as in 1996, after Seshan had completed his term of office. Both men recognised that in order to use the Model Code of Conduct as an effective policy tool, the ECI would need to build broad support for the code and its goals, and to induce politicians and parties to abide by the code’s recommended campaign practices.

They took the following steps for implementing the code of conduct during their periods of leadership:

  • Building support and relationships – Seshan was working on the image of the ECI and gathering public support, and Gill later on used several similar tactics to win the cooperation of political leaders. “‘In my view ... the recognised political parties and the Election Commission are linked by an umbilical cord,’ Gill said. ‘Neither can exist without the other.’” [3]
  • Recruiting and managing personnel – large number of election workers from central and state governments to monitor candidates and perform other election duties under the protection of the Representation of the People Acts.
  • Compliance by deploying observers – Seshan appointed special electoral officers to monitor compliance, which were further sent to each constituency by Gill.

The public impact

The Model Code of Conduct was uncontroversial in its principles, the first of which was that “no party or candidate shall [indulge] in any activity which may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic." [4] Although it initially succeeded in mitigating some of the political misbehaviour, the more divisive and inventive candidates found ways around the code’s requirements.

However, by 2010 the code had “become an effective tool for shaping electoral tactics and the behaviour of political parties in India”. [5]

What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.

Legitimacy

Public Confidence Fair

“In 1989, when the newly elected government, seeking to consolidate alliances with caste-based political parties, tried to enforce the affirmative action recommendations, violence erupted as students and political groups protested.” [7]

However, by 1995 a Times of India poll indicated that a majority of the respondents were in favour of Seshan’s interpretation of the Model Code of Conduct, and backed his orders to disqualify candidates who engaged in disruptive practices.

Stakeholder Engagement Good

The main stakeholders were the chiefs of the ECI in the 1990s, Seshan and Gill, along with the government, particularly the Ministry of Law and Justice, other politicians, election observers and voters. Their focus was on getting the Model Code of Conduct accepted through various means:

  • Seshan chose to seek the support of the Indian electorate, and use their support to persuade politicians to observe the code. “Seshan’s contribution to the process was significant. His adroit use of his civil service background and his forceful manner helped push the code into the public and political consciousness.” [6]
  • Gill shifted the emphasis to a cooperative approach with politicians, designed to create and sustain a working relationship between the parties and the ECI.
  • The ECI’s monitors (who were appointed by Seshan and Gill) collected evidence for them about electoral malpractice that prosecutors could use to prove such criminal charges in court.

Political Commitment Strong

The government took a number of initiatives to control the violence that had erupted in elections before 1990. It recruited specialised and energetic civil servants to lead the ECI, and set up the Goswami Committee to make recommendations about reform. Even though there were several changes of government and of chiefs of the ECI, there was gradual progress towards the acceptance and observance of the code.

Policy

Clear Objectives Good

The objectives of Seshan, during the formative period following his appointment as chief of the ECI, were that “the code of conduct could be developed into an effective tool for dealing with fierce electoral competition in multicultural and multi-religious India”. [8] These objectives were maintained by his successor, Gill, during his five-year tenure from 1996-2001. Their success would be measurable by a reduction in violence and malpractice during election campaigns, although the code was only one factor among many.

Evidence Good

The content of the Model Code of Conduct was based on the electoral code of conduct that was passed in Kerala in 1960 for the Guidance of Political Parties and Candidates, to set rules for candidates during a close electoral race.

“In 1960, an official in the state of Kerala drafted a Model Code of Conduct for the Guidance of Political Parties and Candidates, to set rules for candidates during a close electoral race. Among other aims, the code, in its final form, restricted the use of inflammatory language that could divide India’s diverse electorate on the basis of caste, religion or region ... the ECI in 1962 adopted the Kerala document for national use, made a few changes, and circulated it during every election from that year onward.” [9]

The code was largely ignored from 1962 to 1990, principally because it lacked legal force. It was only when the level of violence became untenable that the government sought to enforce it.

Action

Management Strong

The chiefs of the ECI, in their different ways, gave the organisation a strong sense of direction and helped give force to the Model Code of Conduct:

The ECI recruited significant numbers of personnel from the state and central governments during elections.

Seshan appointed special election observers to check for incendiary campaign speeches, voter intimidation, vote-stealing and other tactics often associated with electoral violence. Early in his tenure at the ECI, Seshan started recruiting larger numbers of election workers from central and state governments under the Representation of the People acts to monitor candidates and perform other election duties.

“Seshan had not anticipated that a tragic political event would further his reform efforts during this time. While campaigning during the 1991 elections, Rajiv Gandhi, leader of the Congress party and a former prime minister, was assassinated.” [10] Gandhi's death shocked Indians and intensified their worries about political violence. It did, however, enable Seshan to implement many of his requests for additional personnel to monitor the electoral process.

Measurement Good

A large number of electoral officers were recruited under the supervision of Seshan to monitor electoral malpractice. They did so by inspecting publicity materials and candidates’ speeches and reporting on other campaign- and election-related problems. They were therefore observing the main indicator of success: reductions in the levels of violence and corruption during electoral campaigns.

Alignment Good

There was good alignment of interest between all the actors to create the impact, starting from the role of government in appointing the Goswami Committee to appointing Seshan and then Gill to head the ECI. They realised that reviving the Model Code of Conduct and making politicians observe it was a difficult task. They took care, therefore, to align their interests in with the Indian citizens and with the politicians themselves. They followed their individual roles in building relations by recruiting the necessary personnel and deploying observers to enforce the code.