Forced to resort to its extraordinary powers under the Constitution to restrict political advertisements in newspapers ahead of the recent assembly polls, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has sought an amendment to the Representation of the People Act for permanent legal authority in this regard.
The poll panel, under Article 324 of the Constitution, had imposed an unprecedented restriction on political advertisements in print, a day ahead of Bihar elections last year after it deemed BJP’s “cow ads” as communal and divisive. The ad, which appeared in four Hindi newspapers on November 4, 2015, had alleged that Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s allies had “repeatedly insulted every Indian’s venerable cow” and yet he had remained “silent”.
The Commission, in a meeting held with Law Secretary G Narayana Raju on May 27, requested that print media should also be included in Section 126 of the RP Act. The provision currently prohibits publication of ads by political parties in electronic media — TV, radio and, more recently, social media — 48 hours before voting ends.
This proposal was first mooted by the EC on April 13, 2012, and it has been endorsed by the Law Commission, but the government hasn’t acted on it. Election Commissioners Nasim Zaidi, A K Joti and O P Rawat made a fresh push for it on May 27, based on their experience in conducting the recent elections in Bihar, Assam and West Bengal.
The Commission had also taken strong objection to the “quota conspiracy” advertisements put out by the BJP during the Bihar election season in 2015. These ads accused RJD chief Lalu Prasad and JD(U) chief Nitish Kumar of “conspiring” to take away a part of the quota for Dalits, Mahadalits, OBCs and EBCs to give it to “another community”.
Ignoring the Commission’s warning, the party then published another ad in four local newspapers showing a woman hugging a cow, along with the allegations against the Nitish-Lalu alliance.
The EC then, in an unprecedented step, prohibited all political parties, candidates, organisations and even individuals from publishing political ads in newspapers unless approved by the state election machinery. It also directed newspapers not to carry uncertified advertisements. As a pre-emptive step, this conditional ban on ads was also imposed before polling in Assam and West Bengal.
The meeting in May, which was the second between ECI and the Law Ministry since Zaidi took over as the Chief Election Commissioner in April 2015, was called to discuss pending electoral reforms. The first was held in January during which the poll panel pitched for providing equal constitutional protection to all three election commissioners, introduction of totaliser machines for counting of votes and multiple cut-off dates for voter registration.
According to the minutes of the second meeting, the ECI also pushed for disqualification of a candidate from contesting elections if a court has framed charges against him, making bribery during election season a cognizable offence and making paid news an electoral offence punishable by two years of imprisonment.The Law Secretary has assured action on all these proposals.