Modi campaign toys with Code of Conduct, EC a Toothless Watchdog?

Over the course of India’s tortuous seven stage election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign has allegedly violated the Election Model Code of Conduct (MCC) on several occasions. Yet, the BJP has been dismissed with little more than a slap on the wrist by the Election Commission, a statutory body whose conduct is measured by its impartiality.

Namo TV

The Election Commission announced polling dates on March 10, 2019 following which the MCC came into effect. But the Modi campaign defied several provisions of the MCC and the EC’s response has left much to be desired. Here are a few of the most blatant instances:

EC’s initial lack of objection to Modi biopic
When it was first announced that the biopic on PM Modi would release in early April coinciding with commencement of the first phase of elections, there was furore everywhere except the election commission. While the opposition parties demanded that the release of the film, a clear propaganda tool, be delayed, the EC while replying to a petition filed in the Bombay High Court against the release of the film said that it had no objection to the release of the film!

The BJP had for its part claimed that while it had nothing to do with the movie, it would support the release. The EC also sought comments from the film’s producers who claimed the movie had no links to the BJP… an absurd claim given how it tells the life story of key party leader who is now the Prime Minister of the country and seeking a second term.

However, the EC did issue a notice to the makers when they took out full page ads for the movie in major national newspapers. Facing severe flak the EC finally relented on April 10 and ordered that the release be deferred till after the elections. The EC order may be read here.

But the producers challenged the ban in the Supreme Court which directed the EC to watch the movie and submit its report. On Wednesday, April 24, the EC submitted a 20 page report to the Supreme Court after the movie and reiterated its stand on deferring the release until after the elections.

According to the Times of India the EC report says, “More than biography, it is hagiography. There are several scenes depicting a major Opposition party as corrupt and showing them in poor light. Their leaders have been depicted in such a manner that their identification is clear and obvious to the viewers.” The report adds, “The construct of this 135-minute movie is unabashedly uni-dimensional, which puts an individual on a higher pedestal through use of specific symbols, slogans and scenes. It ends up eulogising an individual, giving him a saintly status.” 

On April 26, the Supreme Court refused to interfere with the EC’s stay on the release of the film, thus ensuring that it cannot be released before elections are completed across the country.

The curious case of NaMo TV
NaMo TV is a television channel that broadcasts speeches and rallies of PM Modi all day every day. It’s very logo is a picture of Narendra Modi. In that sense, it is a blatant propaganda tool that needs to be carefully monitored, especially during election season. NaMo TV is available on Tata Sky, Siti, Dish TV, Videocon d2h and Airtel.

Interestingly, on the day of the launch, PM Modi tweeted about NaMo TV from his personal twitter handle!

After it was launched on March 31 there were several questions about its ownership that remained secret till BJP IT Cell head Amit Malviya revealed that NaMo TV is a feature of NaMo app that is owned and operated by the party. Malviya told Indian Express, “NaMo TV is a feature of NaMo app which is run by BJP IT cell. (The) Party has taken slots on DTH for which provisions are there to show it.”

The Aam Admi Party wrote to the EC questioning how a political party could be permitted to run its own TV channel and who monitors its content. In a letter to the Chief Election Commissioner, AAP’s legal cell member Mohammed Irshad wrote, “Can permission be granted to a party to have their own TV channel even after model code of conduct (MCC) is enforced? If no permission was sought by ECI then what action has been taken?” He also asked, “Who will monitor the contents of the telecast? Did BJP approach the Media Certification committee established to certify the contents of the telecast and cost of the telecast? If not why show cause not issued for the violation of MCC?”

There were also several questions about NaMo TV’s license and it was alleged that the channel was operating without a proper licence. All channels viz; news, music, general entertainment etc. that use satellites to uplink and downlink content require a licence. But according to the Information and Broadcasting ministry there is an exception in case of channels termed “special service”. According to the I&B Ministry these “special service channels do not need to jump through these bureaucratic hurdles.

Most special service channels are just used by DTH platform owners to push their own content such as cooking shows or advertising. Advertising slots are otherwise quite expensive and charged by the second. Following questions about its licence, NaMo TV that was first termed a Hindi news channel by Tata Sky was hastily recategorised as “special service”. Which makes it rather curious that multiple DTH platforms would concede that opportunity to NaMo TV instead of billing advertisers by the second for running ads. Unless BJP was paying for it.

According to Media Ant a video ad on Zee TV would cost upwards of Rs 4,000 (Rupees Four Thousand only) per second. A ten second ad would therefore be worth more than Rs 40,000 (Rupees Forty Thousand only). A sixty second ad would cost north of Rs 2,40,000 (Rupees Two Lakh Forty Thousand only). This works out to an amount of Rs 1,44,00,000 (Rupees One Crore Forty-four Lakhs only) for an hour. For 24 hours that works out to at least Rs 34,56,00,000 (Rupees Thirty-four Crore, Fifty-six Lakhs only).

This makes one wonder if that is the amount the BJP is shelling out to each DTH platform each day? The EC has set a cap of Rs 70 lakh per constituency. This means the BJP cannot spend more than Rs 3,80, 10, 00, 000 (Rupees Three Hundred and Eighty Crores, Ten Lakhs only). This also makes one wonder if the BJP has exceeded the cap on spending? If they are getting concessional rates from the platforms, why would a business intentionally make a deal at a lower price when it can command a higher price. Is the concession a bribe or a donation? What do the platforms hope to achieve by offering a concessional rate?

Meanwhile, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to the EC that NaMo TV was an advertising platform launched by DTH service providers which does not require government approval. NaMo TV was launched on March 31, and on April 11 the Chief Election Officer of Delhi observed that the speeches telecast on NaMo TV were already in the public domain and these could not be considered advertisements and therefore were not required to be pre-certified.

However, the EC overruled this and wrote to the Chief Electoral Officer of NCT Delhi saying, that “all political advertisements and all recorded programs with political content are mandatorily required to be pre-certified by the MCMC (Media Certification and Monitoring Committee) before telecasting/displaying.” The EC directed that pre-certification of the content be seriously complied with. The entire order may be read here.

Sabrangindia carried an exclusive report on how on April 22, despite the Election Commission’s (EC) belated censure, NaMo TV has been broadcasting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speeches and election campaigns on DTH platforms like Tata Sky and Airtel. Strikingly, the leading business enterprise of Varanasi (PM’s constituency), the Jalan Group, has put a big screen in front of its grand showroom, located on Chowk Godowlia road, airing NaMo TV as if to prove its affection and loyalty towards the party.

In this piece, The Wire’s Sidhharth Varadrajan argues how the content NaMo TV shows appears to violate Section 126 (1) (b) the Representation of Peoples Act, 1951 that deals with “prohibition of public meetings during period of 48 hours ending with hour fixed for conclusion of poll” where “No person shall display to the public any election matter by means of cinematograph, television or other similar apparatus.” However, the EC is yet to take action against the BJP for violating these provisions.

Web series on Modi
Another gray area that has emerged with developments in technology, is the streaming of web series on apps. Eros Now had put up big hoardings of a web series on PM Modi that was streaming exclusively on their app. The ten part series titled Modi: Journey of a Common Man is directed by Umesh Shukla (of Oh My God fame) and traces his journey from the age of 12 to joining the RSS and BJP to becoming Gujarat CM and finally the Indian PM. Given the timing of the release, this was seen as yet another propaganda tool.

The series started streaming in early April and in mid-April, the Delhi CEO wrote to the EC saying that the web-series was running without proper certification from the MCMC. Just a few days later the EC directed Eros Now to take down the series and all related content including promotional material for the show. The series and promos have now disappeared from Youtube. But the EC order came only after the first five parts of the show had already been aired!   

Modi’s  Speech Violates the Law
On March 19, the EC issued an advisory asking parties and their candidates against using pictures of defence force personnel in their campaign material. This action came after former senior armed and navy forces personnel had applied to the EC for such a restriction. “Parties/candidates are advised that their campaigners/candidates should desist, as part of their election campaigning, from indulging in any political propaganda involving activities of defence forces,” the Commission had said.

Less than a month after, however, Modi had violated this advisory. Invoking the Balakot airstrikes inside Pakistan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked first-time voters for the upcoming Lok Sabha polls to dedicate their vote to those who carried out the daring operation to target a terror camp.  Modi also urged the voters to dedicate their first vote to the slain CRPF personnel in the Pulwama terror attack.  

Worse has been the use of ‘hate speech’ by the prime minister. Narendra Modi, who is currently occupying the highest office in the country, assured implementation of Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and to ensure that no infiltrator’s name is present in the National Register of Citizens, while also talking of partition and protecting Hindus in his speech.

Why is the EC pussyfooting on all things Modi?
All these acts, which were blatant violations in each instance were widely publicised across various media. Yet no action was taken by the EC until the eleventh hour, sometimes even after that. There was enough time for the EC, a purportedly independent body, to take cognisance of the alleged violations and take necessary action against them much earlier. However, the movie on Modi was prevented from being released only one day before the planned release date, the web series was halted only after half the content had been aired and NaMo TV basically got away with little more than a slap on the wrist.

This is not taking into account some of Modi’s rally speeches, the announcement about ASAT and a few other instances that could be considered a violation of MCC but are either yet to be dealt with or haven’t been dealt with sternly enough by the EC. Not to mention his conduct outside his polling booth in Gujarat on April 23, when he addressed the media atop his vehicle after he stepped out of the polling booth.

The Modi regime has been accused of hollowing out all institutions of democracy in the past five years. Now with the EC clearly appearing to bow to the pressure from an aggressive ruling regime, its conduct and actions are being seriously weighed. Increasingly the EC appears to have become a toothless watchdog.



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