The ECI needs to understand that norms are only half the battle won.
The model code of conduct just announced by the Election Commission of India (ECI), and the government’s decision earlier to make it compulsory for candidates in polls to submit details of I-T returns for the past five years and disclose details of wealth held overseas, are a resounding vote for transparency and accountability. While the tax details mean that disproportionate gains in wealth by incumbent lawmakers will get exposed and this will help trace any quid pro quo relationship/transaction, the ECI requiring candidates with criminal charges against them to declare the particulars of the charges thrice in newspapers and news channels should give voters an idea about the antecedents of the person hoping to represent the public interest in Parliament. Political parties that induct such members can’t also evade responsibility as they will have to declare the criminal antecedents, if any, of the candidates they have fielded on their websites. The Association for Democratic Reforms’ (ADR) analyses of election-related disclosure by candidates show how vital the new norms are—ADR gives instances where incumbent lawmakers have seen their assents grow by as much as 300%; similarly, the ruling party at the Centre has the highest number of lawmakers facing charges relating to crimes against women. To be sure, the charges against some could be politically motivated, but given the influence money and muscle continue to have over Indian elections, it is likely that for many, the charges against them could stick. The ECI has also forbade any use of the photos of those martyred in the recent conflict with Pakistan or any defence personnel by political parties. All political ads on social media must be vetted and certified before being posted. The ECI, along with social media platforms, will also be keeping a close watch on hate speech.
The ECI, however, needs to understand that norms are only half the battle won. Given how candidates can choose nondescript publications and channels, broadcasting time-slots with the minimum viewer-draw and the smallest ad-space available, the initiative will be defeated if the ECI doesn’t make it mandatory for the candidates to publish/air the details in well-read news dailies and channels that have a high viewership. The poll regulator should also make sure of a prominent display for the print declarations and prime-time slots for the broadcast disclosures. At the same time, the ECI must devise a way to keep close watch on social media and instant-messaging services since most of the action on posting hateful content and politicising the forces/martyrs will immediately shift to a dispersed circulation network of anonymous social media accounts and WhatsApp forwards.
The ECI will now require all EVMs to carry pictures of the candidate along with the party symbol. This will help the voter be sure that her electoral choice is not tampered with. The new norms draw up an environment in which the voter is able to make an informed choice. But the clincher will still be thorough implementation. Else, just as the poll expenditure cap has become a joke because of loopholes an lax monitoring, the new norms, too, will end up as mere lip service.