A day before 57 seats in Mithila, Kosi and Seemanchal — which have a sizeable Muslim population — go to polls tomorrow bringing the curtains down on the bitterly contested Bihar elections, the BJP earned the Election Commission’s ire over an election ad it released today which its rivals called “low-level communal politics.”
The ad, in four local newspapers, showing a woman hugging a cow, alleged that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s allies had “repeatedly insulted every Indian’s venerable cow” and yet he had remained “silent.”
As the JD(U)-RJD-Congress alliance complained that the ad was meant to “polarise,” the EC today imposed an unprecedented restriction on political ads in newspapers. Resorting to its powers under Article 324 for the second time during this election, the commission prohibited all political parties, candidates, organisations and even individuals from publishing political ads in newspapers on November 5 unless approved by the state election machinery. And directed newspapers not to carry uncertified advertisements.
EC’s pre-certification of ads, since 2004, has been limited to audio-visual spots which cover TV, radio and, more recently, social media. The latest direction has extended this vetting to print media, although just for a day, to ensure “no untoward incident takes place because of any inflammatory or hate advertisements” on the last day of polling.
An EC official said that the cow ad was received “late,” around 10 pm on Tuesday, and that’s why “it escaped our notice.” Pre-certification has been made “mandatory for the last day so that parties cannot circumvent the system,” said an EC official.
Today’s ad appeared after the state BJP president had been warned by the Bihar Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) on October 31 against carrying communal and divisive content in the party’s ads. The cow ad was published as part of a series that the BJP has been running called “Jawab Nahin, Vote Nahin (If you have no answer, you get no vote).” These have been asking the Bihar Chief Minister and RJD supremo a series of questions with the tagline “Lalu-Nitish jawab do, 25 saalo ka hisab do (Lalu-Nitish, give answers, provide an account of what you did in 25 years).”
State EC officials have filed FIRs against the editors and printers of four Hindi newspapers, which carried the above advertisement, under Section 125 of the Representation of the People Act and Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code that deal with promoting enmity between classes. It also served state BJP president Mangal Pandey a showcause notice for the same.
The poll watchdog’s first warning to BJP had come after it published an advertisement last week, which was also part of the “Jawab Nahin, Vote Nahin” series, accusing Lalu and Nitish of conspiring to take away a part of the quota for Dalits, Mahadalits, OBCs and EBCs to give it to minorities.
Observing that such content could promote differences among voters and create ill-will and disharmony, the EC had prohibited the media from carrying such content and directed its state CEO to warn the party’s state president against repeating such actions. As a pre-emptive step, it had also asked all political parties to submit copies of their advertisements, simultaneously, with its release for publication in newspapers.
The cow ad quoted Lalu Prasad Yadav’s “Hindus-also-eat-beef” remark and Singh’s comment that “it is written in Vedas and Puranas that saints used to eat beef in ancient times.” It also quoted Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah’s comment that “if I want to eat beef nobody can stop me.” The ad in Hindi, with the word “beef” highlighted in red, urged Nitish to end “vote-bank politics” and asked him if he agreed with the statements.
A delegation of JD(U) general secretary K C Tyagi and Congress spokespersons R P N Singh and Ajoy Kumar today met the EC and alleged the advertisement amounted to “seeking votes in the name of religion”.
Said JD(U) Rajya Sabha MP Ali Anwar: “The BJP has been resorting to old gimmicks to polarise polls. It knows it’s very weak in Seemanchal and Kosi and is trying to divide voters on communal lines. But voters have become mature and cannot fall for such a trap.” Said RJD national spokesperson Manoj Jha: “It is not just about the Bihar election but about what message the BJP wants to give to a democratic country. The BJP has scant respect for institutions. It senses a rout in the Bihar polls which is why it has stooped so low.”
Despite winning 31 of 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the NDA had failed to win any of the six seats in Seemanchal and Kosi regions.