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Law Sets Rs 10 Cap, But 3 Pro-BJP Facebook Pages Spent Crores

Any spending over Rs 10 will require the written authorisation of candidate PM Modi.

Updated
Elections
4 min read
Since February, three pro-BJP pages have zealously held on to the top three spots on Facebook’s list of political advertisers for Lok Sabha Elections 2019.  
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Since February, three pro-BJP pages have zealously held onto the top three spots on Facebook’s list of political advertisers for Lok Sabha Elections 2019.

The three pages – Bharat Ke Mann Ki Baat, My First Vote for Modi and Nation With NaMo – have collectively spent Rs 4.5 crore campaigning for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This accounts for one-third of all the money spent on Facebook.

The Election Commission of India (EC) sets a limit of Rs 70 lakh on campaign expenditure by a candidate for Lok Sabha elections. Is there a cap on how much a non-candidate or a supporter can spend on a candidate’s election campaign?

Turns out there is.

Tucked away within the voluminous pages of the Indian Penal Code, section 171H says that a person cannot incur a cost of more than Rs 10 on a candidate without written approval from the candidate.

Question is, has Prime Minister Modi authorised these ‘supporter’ pages to spend crores campaigning on Facebook on his behalf? If he hasn’t, then are these pages in violation of the Indian Penal Code?
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IPC’s Rs 10 Limit for Unauthorised Ads

What does the section, added to the IPC in 1920, say?

It says that any person, without the written authorisation of a candidate, cannot spend in excess of Rs 10 on advertisements, public meetings or publications.

What is the punishment for violating this law ? Don’t hold your breath. It’s Rs 500.

While the cap on expenses as well as the punishment appear grotesquely outdated in an election where expenses run into thousands of crores, the spirit of this section is to check “Illegal payments in connection with an election”.

According to former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi, the rationale behind this section is that the money spent by a third party on a candidate has to be accounted for within the Rs 70 lakh expenditure limit of the candidate themselves.

“If I say ‘I did not spend Rs 70 lakh, I did not spend even 70 paise because my friends were spending’ - that is forbidden by law. Anyone who spends more than Rs 10 has to account for it with the candidate’s written permission so that the expenditure is accounted for in the candidate’s election expenditure.”
SY Quraishi, former Chief Election Commissioner

Here’s how the section reads:

Whoever without the general or special authority in writing of a candi­date incurs or authorises expenses on account of the holding of any public meeting,

or upon any advertisement, circular or publi­cation,

or in any other way whatsoever for the purpose of promot­ing or procuring the election of such candidate,

shall be pun­ished with fine which may extend to five hundred rupees:

Provided that if any person having incurred any such expenses not exceeding the amount of ten rupees without authority obtains within ten days from the date on which such expenses were in­curred the approval in writing of the candidate, he shall be deemed to have incurred such expenses with the authority of the candidate.”

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What’s Happening on Facebook ?

Facebook’s ad library has maintained an ads report that is updated weekly. While there is a fluctuation in the weekly top spenders, the highest spenders overall have remained largely unchanged.

So, how much have the three pages spent individually? While Bharat Ke Mann Ki Baat has emerged as the single highest spender with a cost of Rs 2.23 crore incurred on paid promotions, it is followed by Nation with NaMo with Rs 1.20 crore and My First Vote for Modi at Rs 1.05 crore.

Law Sets Rs 10 Cap, But 3 Pro-BJP Facebook Pages Spent Crores
(Source: Facebook Ads Library) 

Despite Facebook’s ad transparency report publishing the names of all the accounts that have spent on political promotions, there is little known about the three pro-BJP pages.

  • All three pages show the BJP Headquarters as their addresses.
  • All three have nearly identical phone numbers - none are reachable, though.
  • There is no individual associated with any of the pages who can be held accountable.

“So, they are actually violating section 171H of IPC. Unfortunately the only problem with that is it is a 100-year-old section,” Quraishi told The Quint.

“The only punishment is a fine of Rs 500. Woh toh muskaraate huye dete huye chale jayenge (they will happily pay the fine and get away),” he added.

The Election Commission has not taken cognisance of this provision or its application to political spending by supporters on social media as yet.

The paid by ‘My First Vote For Modi’ page says “to win attractive gifts take oath (to vote for PM Modi) today”
The paid by ‘My First Vote For Modi’ page says “to win attractive gifts take oath (to vote for PM Modi) today”
(Photo courtesy: My First Vote For Modi/ Facebook)

BJP’s Dilemma: Who Runs These Pages?

The application of this law presents a curious dilemma for the BJP. A recent investigation by Huffington Post India revealed that the three pages, which position themselves as organic, supporter-run pro-BJP pages, are in fact run indirectly by the BJP itself through a secretive in-house consultancy called Association of Billion Minds (ABM).

According to the story, the BJP and its IT Cell functionaries have maintained they are not aware of ABM.

So, what is the dilemma here for the BJP?

If the BJP admits the three pages are indeed linked to the party, then this would be an unprecedented admission leading to many more questions, including about ads that bribed voters with free merchandise – however, if the BJP maintains that these pages are run by supporters independently, then their spending in crores would be liable to be penalised under the IPC.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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