Karnataka state polls witnessed an unprecedented decline in decorum-based electoral competition castigating the Elections Commission for its inability to enforce the decades old Model Code of Conduct (MCC) as it primarily functions as a moral code. The poll campaigns surpassed a low-level benchmark of mutual disrespect and witness a surge of fake news on social media, making voter education imperative and raising concerns among election managers for the 2024 national elections.

Great Indian Poll Story Need Not be Hate or Fake One

The Karnataka polls, irrespective of the outcome, and despite a good turnout, have not left any pleasant taste in the mouth of those believing in decency and decorum-based electoral competition, and in democratic ethos. It has rather managed to create an even lower benchmark in mutual disrespect between political contenders and rings an alarm bell for the next round of assembly elections scheduled towards the end of the year and of course for the great battle of 2024.

Ugly discourse

It is unrealistic to expect the election regulator to step in at every bend and measure decibels in each call made by solicitors of votes, applying the decades old Model Code of Conduct (MCC), which primarily functions as a moral code. A week ahead of the poll day, ECI frowned upon the “plummeting level of campaign discourse” and called political parties out on their “inappropriate vocabulary and language” in the campaign trail, particularly by designated star campaigners. Politics is said to be for the thick skinned, and it is to be seen if the commission can pull more rabbits from under its hat in future to ensure what it wanted politicians in Karnataka to do: “to exercise caution and restraint in their utterances” and “not to vitiate the campaign and the election atmosphere”.

Provisions of MCC are quite clear. Among what it prohibits are attacks on personal life of any person or criticism of private life or any activity “which may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic”. Various sections of IPC also provide deterrence to misbehaviour during election process. Cases are filed, cases keep piling up, but during the sharp shoot campaign period, self-restraint from veteran players of the world’s largest electoral democracy will remain an expectation while election managers can always mull over applying a heavier hand.

Fakes on social media

Deviance in campaign behaviour extended to social media that saw a surge in fake news, many relating to political personalities, several with communal overtones, manufacturing hate, drawing upon non-existent poll surveys and opinion polls. Pushers of lies remain untraced and disputed with adversaries blaming each other, but with assured damage to the gullible elector who may not have the wherewithal to separate facts from fakes.

Stakes for 2024

This brings up a legitimate concern that backed by the capacity of artificial intelligence (AI), fake news and deep fakes could emerge as the ultimate vitiator of upcoming polls, especially of the 2024 national elections. Poll hijackers and profiteers combined with those who have evil designs against India’s electoral democracy may get active in this game during what can easily be billed as the world’s largest event.

Election managers had to fight muscle power, natural calamities, extremist violence, and more recently covid pandemic to deliver elections each time on time, yielding them admiration both at home and abroad. Fake news is yet another pathological condition of these times that confronts them. There have been decent results in the fight against paid news through the district and state level Media Certification and Monitoring Committees (MCMC) constituted in 2010 and some amount of sanity achieved through the code of voluntary ethics agreed by social media intermediaries. But it is time to up the ante as the fake and deep fakes are another creature altogether.

Problem noted

Recently at an international conference, ECI underlined the disturbing trend of deep fake narratives in elections worldwide, with these malevolently designed matter repeatedly presented as facts. Intermediaries could use their algorithm power and AI to identify and prevent deep fakes proactively in the context of known election schedules. The amendments to Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 makes it obligatory for the intermediaries not to “publish, share or host fake, false or misleading information”, which will be identified by the notified fact check unit of the government. There is already a discussion on the ramifications for media freedom following the amendments, though the requirements of ECI for conduct of free and fair polls have always received higher empathy and compliance from media. In the wake of the all-around sense of urgency, there are reports that major social media platforms may constitute a collective of fact checkers for their own contents, the type of self-regulation followed by the body of broadcasters. These developments will need to be watched.

Down to behaviour and culture

Regulation of money power in elections through raids and seizures and keeping crime and musclemen in check could be easier as the administration can unleash its iron fist to prevent and stop illegal moves and movers. Within available laws, ECI has been seeking full remedy to these ailments. Hopefully, with engagement of technology, there will be efficient and decentralised alert systems to quickly identify and remedy fake news in elections, especially in the core areas of operations and management. Election campaigns however are social junctions, where conversations are set up and narratives are offered. Not undermining the MCC and the IPC, whose application also remain vulnerable to allegations of bias, a resurgence of self-restraint and a culture of reasonable behaviour among political actors, as in good old times, alone can help. This should constitute the inter-party and intra party pledge. The great Indian poll story that commenced in 1951 and serves as a beckon to democratic aspiration of multitudes around the world certainly deserves this.

( Originally published on May 12, 2023 )

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of

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