In a verdict that will have serious implications on curbing paid news, the Supreme Court on Monday ruled that the Election Commission was authorised to disqualify a person on account on lodging false accounts of election expenditure.
A bench of Justices A K Patnaik and FMI Kalifulla held that the EC was well within its jurisdiction to hold inquiry into correctness of accounts and order disqualification if a candidate is found indulging in the menace of paid news.
The judgement came on a batch of appeals by former Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan, former Jharkhand chief minister Madhu Koda, and Uttar Pradesh MLA Umlesh Yadav.
The bench has asked the EC to conclude inquiries against Chavan and Koda within 45 days and take appropriate action.
The Ashok Chavan case, known as the Paid News scandal, pertained to the alleged incorrect filing of election expenses by the former Maharashtra CM. Chavan was under inquiry by the EC after his 2009 victory from the Bhokar assembly seat in Nanded district for allegedly having misstated his real expenditure in the election campaign of 2009, and indulging in paid news. Chavan had come to the SC against an order of the Delhi High Ccourt.
The high court had rejected Chavan’s argument that the EC cannot go into the details of a statement of expenditure filed by a candidate to verify its truthfulness. Chavan had argued that this jurisdiction is given only to the high courts.
Koda was probed by the EC in a similar case whereas sitting Uttar Pradesh MLA Umlesh Yadav ultimately got disqualified on exactly the same grounds in October 2011. The EC, in its disqualification order, had said: the ECI observed that “by suppressing expenditure on ‘paid news’ and filing an incorrect or false account, the candidate involved is guilty of not merely circumventing the law relating to election expenses but also of resorting to false propaganda by projecting a wrong picture and defrauding the electorate.”
During the hearing, the central government took a stand that the EC has no power to disqualify a candidate on grounds of “correctness or otherwise” of his or her election accounts.
A counter-affidavit by the Union Law Ministry in the Ashok Chavan case had stated that “the power of the Election Commission to disqualify a person arises only in the event of failure to lodge an account of expenses and not for any other reason, including the correctness or otherwise of such accounts.”
The pandemic nature of this malpractice can be assessed from the fact that EC has identified more than 1400 instances of Paid News in 17 assembly elections over the last 4 years. Aimed at checking this menace, the EC has set up an Election Expenses Monitoring Committee to keep a watch on paid news for the 2014 general elections.
The UPA-II government had also drafted an amendment to the Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867.
The draft Press and Registration of Books Bill mandated that publications found indulging in paid news could face suspension of publication for an indefinite period of time or cancellation of their registration. However, the Bill is yet to become a law.