From Mahabharata and Beyond: A Message on the Model Code of Conduct for Leaders
May 24, 2024


  • The profound declaration Satyameva Jayate or Truth alone triumphs, originating from the Mundaka Upanishad was inscribed (26th Jan 1950) on the base of the national emblem, the Ashokan pillar, signifies the importance of truth in the nation's ethos.
  • Coincidentally, the day before, the Election Commission of India (ECI) was established with the primary objective of ensuring free and fair elections, upholding the democratic principle of allowing citizens to choose their government.
  • The ECI's role includes enforcing a level playing field where candidates and political parties do not manipulate voters through excessive money, muscle power, or deceit but the challenge lies in defining and upholding "truth" amidst political machinations.

The Philosophical Complexity of Truth

  • The philosophical inquiry into truth is complex as Francis Bacon’s Essay of Truth opens with a reference to Pilate’s rhetorical question, "What is truth?"a query often left unanswered due to its intricate nature.
  • This complexity is mirrored in the Ashokan pillar's depiction of three visible lions, symbolising the three dimensions of truth: my perspective, your perspective, and a third-person perspective.
  • The fourth, unseen dimension represents the absolute truth, often perceived as known only to a higher power.
  • The ECI, however, operates within the realm of human imperfection, aiming to enforce a Model Code of Conduct (MCC) that seeks to curb dishonest practices during elections.
  • Yet, expecting individuals to adhere to this model for a brief period during elections, if they have not lived by such principles otherwise, is arguably naive.

The Model Code of Conduct (MCC)

  • The MCC was introduced with the hope that it would instil a sense of self-restraint among political stakeholders.
  • In the 2019 Manual on the Model Code of Conduct, it was emphasised that those aspiring to public office should exemplify conduct worthy of emulation.
  • The ECI considers the MCC a crucial contribution by political parties to democracy, expecting them to exhibit model behaviour in their actions and rhetoric.
  • However, the reality often deviates, with political discourse sometimes degenerating into coarse and ignoble exchanges.
  • This has led to debates on whether the MCC should be termed a moral rather than a model code.

The Intersection of Morality and Law in Electoral Process

  • Philosophical Foundations of MCC
    • At the heart of the MCC lies a fundamental tension between legal requirements and moral expectations.
    • Morality pertains to the principles governing individual behaviour based on notions of right and wrong, often derived from cultural, religious, or personal beliefs.
    • Law, on the other hand, comprises rules established by a governing body to regulate behaviour, ensuring order and justice within society.
    • Immanuel Kant’s philosophy offers a vital perspective on the distinction between morality and law. According to Kant, moral actions are those performed out of a sense of duty, whereas legal actions are governed by societal rules.
    • Utilitarianism, as advocated by philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, evaluates actions based on their consequences.
      • From this viewpoint, the morality of an action is judged by its contribution to the overall happiness or well-being of society.
      • In the context of the MCC, this perspective suggests that political behaviour should be assessed not only by legal standards but also by the broader impact on societal harmony and democratic health.
  • Legal Framework and Enforcement
    • The legal framework underpinning the MCC includes specific provisions in the Indian Penal Code and the Representation of the People Act, 1951.
    • These laws delineate actions that constitute corrupt practices and electoral offenses, providing a legal basis for enforcing the MCC.
    • However, the intersection of morality and law within this framework presents unique challenges.
    • In legal terms, mens rea refers to the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing and establishing mens rea is crucial for proving guilt in many legal cases.
      • The MCC implicitly addresses mens rea by prohibiting actions intended to manipulate or deceive voters, such as false promises or appeals to communal sentiments.
    • Sections 123(3) and 123(3A) of the Representation of the People Act classify appeals to caste or communal feelings as corrupt practices, punishable under the law.
      • Similarly, Section 125 of the Act prohibits promoting enmity between different groups in connection with elections.
      • These legal provisions aim to curb divisive tactics and uphold the ethical conduct envisioned by the MCC.
      • However, enforcement requires clear evidence linking the actions to the intent of influencing electoral outcomes.

The Imperative for Ethical Reflection in the Electoral Process: Lesson from Mahabharata

  • The imperative for ethical reflection in the electoral process stems from the need to uphold democratic integrity and ensure that the conduct of elections aligns with the core values of truth and fairness.
  • The story of Yudhishthira in the Mahabharata, who lost his moral high ground despite technically telling the truth, underscores the importance of ethics over mere adherence to rules.
  • Ethics in elections is about more than just following the law; it involves adhering to higher standards of honesty, integrity, and fairness.
  • Ethical reflection ensures that political actions and decisions are not just legally compliant but also morally sound.
  • This is particularly important in a democracy, where the legitimacy of the government is derived from the consent of the governed, and this consent must be obtained through fair means.
  • When ethical standards are compromised, democratic norms such as transparency, accountability, and fairness are weakened.
  • This erosion can lead to a governance crisis where the authority of elected officials is questioned.


  • Satyameva Jayate is more than a motto; it is a guiding principle that should permeate the conduct of individuals and institutions alike.
  • The ECI’s efforts to enforce the MCC reflect an ongoing struggle to balance legal enforcement with moral persuasion.
  • For a truly democratic society, this balance must be continually sought, ensuring that the pursuit of political power does not erode the foundational value of truth.