With the Lok Sabha 2019 campaign in full swing, the Election Commission of India has been receiving a barrage of complaints about violations of the model code of conduct – the guidelines parties and candidates in the fray must follow in the interests of ensuring that the polls are conducted in a free and fair manner.

Already, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of mentioning the actions of the armed forces and invoking religious identities to garner votes, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has been accused of misusing state-run broadcasters for its campaign and the Rajasthan governor has been found to have made a partisan appeal in support of the prime minister.

These complaints are a test of will for the Election Commission. As it turns out, the model code of conduct is not enforceable by law. Cases can be filed only where specific laws are violated. In such instances, cases are pursued by the law enforcement agencies, such as the police. The Election Commission’s role is mainly to ensure that political parties and politicians do not act in a manner that is inimical to free and fair polls.

Still, the commission’s instructions are especially crucial when it comes to the ruling parties at the Centre and the state, given that there is a danger of them misusing official machinery to gain an electoral advantage.

Over the last two weeks, the Election Commission has received several complaints about the BJP and its leaders for violating the model code. There have also been instances in which the conduct of the politicians indicate that they have violated the code, even though complaints have not been made.

Here are some high-profile instances in which the code has allegedly been violated.

Narendra Modi’s appeal to religion

While addressing a rally in Maharashtra’s Wardha on Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that Congress president Rahul Gandhi was contesting a second seat from Wayanad in Kerala apart from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh because the Congress was afraid of the verdict of voters in a Hindu-majority constituency. Gandhi had chosen Wayanad because his party had insulted Hindus and the Congress leader had sought safety in a constituency in which members of minority communities formed the bulk of the voters, Modi suggested.

The Congress insulted Hindus,” Modi said. “People have decided to punish it in the election. Leaders of that party are now scared of contesting from constituencies dominated by majority [Hindu] population. That is why they are forced to take refuge in places where the majority is in a minority...Congress used the term ‘Hindu terror’...it labelled peace-loving Hindus as terrorists...is there a single incident of Hindu terrorism? The people will never forgive the Congress for this insult.”

No political party appears to have registered a complaint about this. However, this speech is potentially a violation of the code since the Election Commission has made it clear that religion should not be used as a plank during election campaigns.

Only on March 11, Teeka Ram Meena, Kerala’s Chief Electoral Officer, warned political parties against using the Sabarimala controversy in election campaigns. He was referring to the debate around the Supreme Court judgement in September allowing women of menstrual age to pray at the Sabarimala temple, angering some orthodox Hindus.

“Sabarimala can be used politically, but it can’t be used to instigate the religious feelings particularly that of Hindus; that will not be accepted,” Meena said. “It shouldn’t be given a religious dimension, or used to invoke sentiments of a particular religious community or a particular religious group or against another group or political party.”

In Wardha, Modi painted the Congress as an anti-Hindu party by claiming that it had coined the term “Hindu terror” to describe some high-profile bomb attacks. Modi was also implying that the BJP stands for the Hindus and the Congress does not.

While the Election Commission in Kerala was swift to warn leaders against using the Sabarimala controversy for political gain, it has not reacted to Modi’s speech.

Mission Shakti and misuse of position

On March 27, Modi decided to conduct a mid-morning television address to the nation about the successful testing of an anti-satellite missile. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Aam Aadmi Party complained to the Election Commission that this violated the code of conduct.

In his complaint, CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury said that such a mission should have been announced by the relevant scientific authorities such as the Defence Research Development Organisation.

On March 29, the Election Commission committee established to examine the matter decided that Modi’s address had not violated the code of conduct because it did not advance the prospects of the party in power.

The committee also ruled that the decision of the state broadcasters Doordarshan and All India Radio to air Modi’s address did not constitute a misuse of state machinery. Once the model code of conduct is in place, the Election Commission allots time on the national broadcasters to all major parties to make their appeals to the voters. The time is allotted in proportion to the strength of each party. The BJP, by virtue of its size and spread, has already cornered the largest chunk of air time.

But the Election Commission panel said that Doordarshan had “only used the feed provided by [the news agency] ANI”, while All India Radio Network used Doordarshan’s audio input.

However, the commission seems to have neglected the political context of Modi’s address. Essentially, Modi used a scientific test of a missile that destroyed a satelite in low orbit to add to his reputation as a strong leader capable of hitting back at Pakistan and Pakistan-backed terrorist groups.

Namo TV and poll expenses

March 31 saw the launch of NamoTV, a television channel dedicated to broadcasting Modi’s rallies and speeches. The next day, the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party complained to the Election Commission about it. The commission has not made a statement about this complaint. But media reports say that it has sought the response of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry.

Media reports initially suggested that Namo TV is being projected as an advertising platform on direct to home services so it does not actually need a licence. If this logic is accepted, this would prove to be another innovative method that the ruling party – or its sympathisers – seem to be employing to circumvent the model code of conduct. After all, the authorities would not be in a position to award clearances for a news channel right before the elections.

The launch of the channel raised another question: if it is indeed an advertising platform, the Election Commission would probably need to be informed about it, given that it would have to be included in the publicity expenses of the BJP and of the candidates, if they are promoted on the platform.

However, on Thursday morning, the Tata Sky direct-to-home service seemed to disprove this notion when it tweeted to say that NaMo TV was “a Hindi news service which provides the latest breaking news on national politics”. It isn’t clear how the Election Commission or the Information and Broadcasting Ministry will respond to this information.

Main bhi chowkidar broadcast

The Congress also complained about Doordarshan’s decision to do a live broadcast of Modi’s “Main bhi chowkidar” campaign event last Sunday. “Main Bhi Chowkidar”, I Too Am a Watchman, is among the BJP’s campaign slogans. Modi had invited supporters to become watchmen of the nation’s fortunes, and the event in Delhi was planned as a meeting for 5,000 people who had signed up for the initiative.

The Economic Times reported that Doordarshan had defended its decision, telling the Election Commission that the event was of “high news values”.

Misusing reputation of armed forces

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath. Credit: HT Photo

Addressing a rally in Ghaziabad on Monday, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath referred to the Indian Army as “Modiji ki sena” or Modiji’s Army. “Congress-members feed terrorists biryani, Modiji’s army gives them bullets and bombs,” he said.

Uttar Pradesh’s chief electoral officer sought a report about the speech from the district election officer of Ghaziabad. On Wednesday, the media reported that the Election Commission has issued notice to Adityanath seeking an explanation for his remarks.

As early as in December 2013, the Election Commission had written to political parties stating that the armed forces should not be used for political campaigns. “They are apolitical and neutral stakeholders in a modern democracy,” the commission said. “It is therefore necessary that political parties and leaders exercise great caution while making any reference to the Armed Forces in their political campaigns,”

This communication was reiterated last month after BJP posters carrying pictures of members f the armed forces along with its campaign slogans began circulating on social media. Adityanath’s comments are a direct violation of this instruction from the Election Commission. However, it remains to be seen what action the commission takes, given that the statement does not constitute a crime but a mere violation of the code.

Republic TV interview

In an interview to Republic TV on March 29, Modi mentioned Abhinandan Varthaman, the Air Force pilot who was shot down in a dogfight with the Pakistan Air Force and spent 60 hours in captivity.

“You would know, when Abhinandan’s incident happened, all Indian political parties should have united and said that we are proud of Indian forces that an F-16 was shot down,” Modi said. “Instead, they went on saying ‘when will Abhinandan return? When will Abhinandan return?’ within two hours.”

The Aam Aadmi Party complained to the Election Commission, saying that this violated both the code of conduct as well as the commission’s 2013 advisory stating that photographs of defence personnel should not be used for political campaigning.

“Although instructions are specifically for not using photographs of defence personnel, it also mentions that any reference made to the Armed Forces during the political campaign or otherwise would be seen as a violation of the Model Code of Conduct,” the Aam Aadmi Party said in its letter.

While the BJP could defend the comments by claiming that it was a reply to a question during a television interview, the Election Commission while analysing such comments must consider the larger theme of the BJP’s campaign on national security .

Rajasthan Governor’s appeal

On March 23, Rajasthan governor Kalyan Singh sought votes for Modi while addressing a group of BJP members in Aligarh. He said that Modi must be voted back as prime minister “for the sake of the country”. The Election Commission has not commented on this officially but according to reports, has concluded that this statement violated the model code and has written to the President, Ram Nath Kovind.

Constitutional authorities like governors and judges are expected to remain non-partisan. However, this instance is also a reminder that under the model code of conduct, the Election Commission lacks the authority to act against a governor and will have to wait for the president to initiate action based on its reference.

PM Modi biopic

On Thursday, India Today reported that the BJP told the Election Commission that it did not have any connections with the producers of the Vivek Oberoi-starrer PM Narendra Modi, which is slated to hit theatres this week. However, the party declared that it supported the release of the film because a ban would curb the right to freedom of speech and expression.

The Congress had asked the Election Commission to delay the release of the film, claiming it was politically motivated and could influence the outcome of the elections.

The Election Commission is yet to make an official statement on this matter.