Following a controversy over the deployment of civil servants as “Rath Prabharis” during the coming Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra programme across the country –announced on October 17, eight days after polls were announced in five states — the government on Thursday clarified that the use of such a term was not proper and that the officials would instead be addressed as nodal officers. Further, the union government stated “that this effort was not meant for poll-bound states!”
First, former IAS officer, EAS Sarma, followed by the opposition, Congress had raised a formal objection with the ECI, demanding to know how the officials could be told to do such a pre-poll “political propaganda” for the government.
Sarma had written to the Election Commission of India (ECI) in a formal complaint. Through an October 17 letter, all the departments were earlier told that Joint Secretaries, Directors, and Deputy Secretaries would be deployed as “Rath Prabharis” to coordinate for the preparations, planning, execution and monitoring of the programme.
A few hours after the Narendra Modi government climbed down on calling IAS officer as ‘Rath Prabharis’, the Election Commission of India (ECI) on Thursday (October 26) issued a notice saying that these activities should not be undertaken in the constituencies where the Model Code of Conduct is in force till December 5.
“It has been brought to the notice of the Commission that a letter has been circulated to the Ministries for nomination of senior officers as “District Rath Praharis” as special officers for the proposed ‘Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra’ starting from 20th November, 2023,” the EC notice said.
“The Commission has announced the schedule for General Elections to the Legislative Assemblies of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Rajasthan & Telangana, 2023 and Bye–election in 43–Tapi (ST) Assembly Constituency of Nagaland on 9th October, 2023. The provisions of the Model Code of Conduct for the guidance of political parties and candidates have come into force from the date of announcement tentatively till 5th December, 2023,” it said. “In view of the foregoing, (the) Commission has directed that the aforesaid activities should not be taken in the constituencies where Model Code of Conduct is in force till 5th December 2023.” Interestingly, the EC notice came after Information and Broadcasting Secretary Apurva Chandra announced on Thursday that the programme would not be launched in poll-bound states, considering the Model Code of Conduct.
After facing sharp opposition and criticism over the government’s plan, Chandra emphasised that the use of the term “rath prabharis” for senior government officers is improper and that these officials would now be addressed as nodal officers. Will only saying that these public servants won’t be called “rath prabharis” solve the real issue with this October 17, government order?
The answer lies in the Central Civil services (Conduct) Rules and the corresponding conduct rules of the other Central and All Indian Services. Public servants taking part in “any activity” that is likely to influence the voters in an election violates both. Former secretary to the Government of India E.A.S. Sarma had mentioned this point in one of the two letters he had written to the Election Commission of India on the Union government’s plan.
Besides, he had further highlighted that “Under Section 171C of the IPC, “whoever voluntarily interferes or attempts to interfere with the free exercise of any electoral right commits the offence of undue influence at an election”. For any public authority to coerce public servants into such activity is punishable not only under the relevant election laws but also under the relevant provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).”
Polling for the assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram will be held on different dates in November. Results of all five assembly polls will be declared on December 3.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to launch the yatra on November 15, on the occasion of “Birsa Munda Jayanti – Jan-Jaati Gaurav Diwas” by flagging of Information, Education and Communication (IEC) vans at Khunti in Jharkhand. The vans will be visiting the tribal districts initially and the remaining districts from November 22 onwards till January 25, 2024.
On Thursday, October 26, Information and Broadcasting Secretary Apurva Chandra announced that the programme would not be launched in the poll-bound States till the Election Commission’s Model Code of Conduct was in place. This was just some hours before the ECI’s notice to the government became public knowledge
He said the programme’s objective was a nationwide outreach and awareness campaign to ensure that every eligible person was covered under 20 Central schemes. “There is no plan to start the ‘Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra’ in election-bound states where the model code of conduct is in place. In poll-bound states the yatra will start when the model code of conduct is lifted,” I&B secretary Apurva Chandra said.
Around 2.6 lakh gram panchayats (rural) and over 3,700 urban local bodies having around 14,000 locations (urban) would be covered during the campaign, other than the election-bound States. The teams would include field experts for training purposes, including the use of drones in farming. They would also interact with the beneficiaries of government schemes for feedback. Facilities such as on-the-spot registration under various schemes would also be provided.
People would be apprised of the schemes covering benefits such as sanitation facilities, essential financial services, electricity connections, access to LPG cylinders, housing for the poor, food security, proper nutrition, reliable healthcare, clean drinking water and quality education.
“IEC vans would be branded and customised to enable dissemination of information through audio visuals, brochures, pamphlets, booklets and flagship standees in Hindi and regional languages showcasing the major schemes, highlights and their achievements in national and in the respective States/regions,” said Mr. Chandra.
Sharing of experience
In the gram panchayats, the activities would include experience sharing by beneficiaries of the schemes; on-spot quiz competition; virtual question-answer session with the Prime Minister; provision of on-spot service such as health camps, Aadhaar enrolment, “MY BHARAT” volunteer enrolment, etc.; and activities such as drone demonstration, interaction with progressive farmers on Soil Health Card and natural farming.
“The entire campaign would be done in a ‘whole of government’ approach in the spirit of ‘Jan Bhagidari’ and with active participation and involvement of the State governments, district authorities, urban local bodies and gram panchayats,” said Mr. Chandra. A communication in this regard would be sent to the respective States, urban local bodies and gram panchayats.