Full page campaign ads on election day: Poll code violation?

The general rule in the rule book, everyone is aware about is the “silence period” of 48 hours before an election. The intention of the legislature behind providing for this ‘silent period’ is clear. It is for the benefit of clarity among voters, so that, after days of being exposed to political campaigning, the voter is able to make his decision with a clear mind; after examining alternatives before him and to give him a space of tranquil in order to make an informed decision. Are political parties circumventing the law to ensure that they are able to influence voter’s minds even on the day of voting?

Many major newspaper dailies today, on the day of voting for Assembly elections in the state of Maharashtra, carried on their front page, full page advertisement for the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), stating, among other things, “Vote for Development, Vote for BJP”, which also included a QR code to download their manifesto. The ad also said, “I am sure you all would come out and vote for BJP Mahayuti in large numbers today!” The revenue for the newspapers from the country’s richest parties would have been substantial; will the Election Commission see this as a violation, however?

The day of voting is the most crucial for any democracy. In our democracy, we choose our representatives every 5 years, at the State level as well as at the Centre. Each of the election has as much importance as the other in a Federal structure like ours. The Election Commission of India that undertakes the herculean task of conducting and managing elections in the country, is also responsible of making sure that free and fair elections take place at all times. Hence, comes into picture the Model Code of Conduct and certain sections of the Representation of People Act, 1951, which are to be followed by political parties and candidates before any election.

Free and fair elections are the essence of any democracy which enables a freely and fairly elected government, which truly reflects the voice of the populace. Of course, opinions about a party, their ideology, and choices thereof, are personal to each voter and political parties do everything in their power to influence the minds of voters. This is a permissive practice in a democracy. While putting forth their agenda and manifestoduring their campaigns it is expected out of these political parties and candidates follow the Model Code of Conduct and other laws in place both “in letter and in spirit”.

The “Silence period” of 48 hours is articulated under section 126 of The Representation of the People Act, 1951 as follows:
126. Prohibition of public meetings during period of forty-eight hours ending with hour fixed for conclusion of poll—
(1) No person shall—
(a) convene, hold, attend, join or address any public meeting or procession in connection with an election; or
(b) display to the public any election matter by means of cinematograph, television or other similar apparatus; or
(c) propagate any election matter to the public by holding, or by arranging the holding of, any musical concert or any theatrical performance or any other entertainment or amusement with a view to attracting the members of the public thereto, in any polling area during the period of forty-eight hours ending with the hour fixed for the conclusion of the poll for any election in that polling area.

The section also defines “election matter” as any matter intended or calculated to influence or affect the result of an election.

With the advent of new media, such as the social media, which has proven to become the most powerful media for political campaigning and for spreading propaganda, the Election Commission was prompted to review the aforementioned section 126 of the Representation of the People Act to ensure compliance. A committee was set up and it submitted its report, in consultation with several stakeholders,to the Election Commission in January 2019. The scope of its work, inter alia, was to examine the provisions especially of section 126 to identify gaps to regulate violation particularly during 48 hours of prohibitory period; also to examine the impact of new media platforms and social media during that time before the close of poll and its implication in view of the provisions of section 126.

Subsequently, a circular dated March 15, 2019 was issued to all political parties in March 2019 to strictly adhere to provisions of section 126 in “letter and in spirit”.It also stated that “the Commission calls upon all political parties to instruct and brief their leaders and campaigners to ensure that they observe the silence period on all forms of media as envisaged under Section 126 of the RP Act, 1951, and their leader and cadres do not commit any act that may violate the spirit of section 126.”

The circular can be accessed here (March 15, 2019).

Sabrangindia contacted the offices of the Maharashtra Election Commission to get clarification on this issue. A District Officer of the Maharashtra Election Commission, Mumbai Suburban, Ajit Sakhare who said that if a print ad is certified by the Committee (MCMC), then it is allowed. When asked if campaigning in print media is allowed on day of voting by way of such ads, he said, “If the ad is approved, it is allowed.” We tried further, to contact the Chief Election Officer, Maharashtra to confirm whether the ad was, in fact, pre-certified, but were unable to get a comment as he was pre-occupied with election related work.

Although the language of the section as well as the notice issued, leaves room for circumvention, one wonders why an important news media like the print media has been left out of the “silence period” rule by the legislators. Even the above circular leaves loopholes sparing room for political parties to violate the prohibitory period, without actually violating any rules or any law.

The Election Commissionissued another ‘Communication’ dated October 15, 2019, this time addressed to Chief Electoral Officers of Haryana and Maharashtra. The subject of the Communication was very clearly worded, “Pre-certification of Political Advertisements in Print Media on the day of poll & one day prior to poll in Haryana & Maharashtra-regarding”.

The Communication can be read here (October 15, 2019).

The communication made mention of inflammatory, misleading and hate advertisements and directed that no political party shall publish any Advertisement in the print media on poll day and one day prior to poll day, unless the contents thereof are pre-certified by the MCMC (Media Certification and Monitoring Committee) of that State or District.

Assuming the biggest political party in India is in compliance, then it has gotten these print ads pre-certified from the MCMC and the same has given its approval for publishing the same. The only rationale behind certifying such advertisement for publishing is that it followed the “inflammatory, misleading and hate” filter before giving its approval. One can easily conclude that neither the political parties nor the MCMC have acted in congruence with section 126 so much so that it is brought into effect “in letter and in spirit”.

The voter’s mind has always been played at the hands of the politicians but we expect the Election Commission to uphold the spirit of democracy. Such ads in print media on the day of the election is a clear violation of the voter’s right to have a space of tranquil to make an informed decision, the most important decision as a citizen of a democracy and the buck has to stop here.The time has come to say, “Enough is Enough”.



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