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BJP and Cong Ads on Voting Day, Time to Reconsider EC Guidelines?

The law prohibits campaigning for 48 hrs before polling ends. Why are pre-certified print ads an exception to this?

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On the morning of 12 May, the day Karnataka’s voters were to exercise their democratic franchise, they were greeted with full front-page advertisements in most newspapers, asking them to vote for the BJP. The Congress and the JD(S) too published ads in select Kannada dailies.

However, contrary to rumblings and speculation on social media, the advertisements that were published were NOT in violation of Election Commission guidelines. The ads were pre-certified by the EC, following the instructions of an EC order dated 4 May 2018.

This is what the EC said:

The law prohibits campaigning for 48 hrs before polling ends. Why are pre-certified print ads an exception to this?
The substantive portion of the EC order dated 4 May 2018.
(Photo: Screenshot/Election Commission)
But here’s the funny thing. The law prohibits all parties from campaigning, holding public meetings and telecasting television ads in the last 48 hours before polling ends. Then how is it that ads in print publications miraculously find themselves to be outside the purview of this regulation? And why continue with this absurd discrepancy?
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The law prohibits campaigning for 48 hrs before polling ends. Why are pre-certified print ads an exception to this?
Congress, BJP and JD(S) ads in newspapers on 12 May, the day Karnataka went to vote.
(Photo: The Quint)

What Does the Law Say?

Section 126 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, prohibits all election-related public meetings and processions for a period of forty-eight hours ending with the hour fixed for conclusion of polling.

No person shall:

  • Convene any public meeting or procession in connection with an election
  • Display to the public any election matter by means of cinematograph, television or other similar apparatus
  • Propagate any election matter to the public by holding any musical concert or any theatrical performance or any other entertainment or amusement, in any polling area during the period of forty-eight hours ending with the hour fixed for the conclusion of the poll for any election in that polling area.

Section 126 of the Act also states that the expression “election matter” means any matter intended or calculated to influence or affect the result of an election.

Note that this section of the law does not specify ads published in print publications. Odd, right? Why are TV ads banned when pre-certified print ads are not?

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What’s the Aim?

If the principle behind these rules is that the voter should get around one and a half days before voting to make up their mind on their choice of candidate without being bombarded by political ads and campaign speeches, then why are pre-certified print ads an exception to the rule?

Even though the publishing of these ads on polling day is not a violation of the EC order, and the EC has in fact allowed these ads, are these not contrary to the intention of the guidelines in the Representation of the People Act?

Is it time to take a relook at these inherent contradictions in the Election Commission guidelines?

And in the age of social media, is it time to scrap this 48-hour rule in the first place? More on that debate in a bit.

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Polling in Phase One, Speech in Phase Two

Now consider this situation when polling occurs in multiple phases.

It’s polling day in Phase 1 and voting is underway, but Leader X is making a campaign speech in an area under Phase 2 on the same day, which is being televised live across the state, including in the areas under Phase 1.

Leader X can therefore make a campaign plea to voters in Phase 1 even on the very day that they are going to go out and vote.

Is the leader then not effectively rendering the EC restriction futile by doing so? So, should the EC call for a ban on all election speeches whenever a phase of polling is underway? Or should the EC ask news channels to not televise such speeches on the days of polling?
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The Counter-Arguments

The counter-arguments against such a move are quite compelling too.
  1. The voters have a very clear option of not switching on the television if they do not wish to hear a last-minute campaign pitch for their votes. That choice lies with them.
  2. In the age of the internet and social media, it is next to impossible to insulate the voter entirely from what the law calls “election matter”. For example, their Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds will still be showing photos, videos and messages from political parties seeking their votes.
  3. Election campaigns are expensive affairs and to put a hard stop on campaigning every time one phase of polling is underway could seem to be an unnecessary move, especially when the scale of the benefits accrued may seem marginal.
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The Security Angle

If the 48-hour rule did not exist, political parties would campaign till the very last day before polling. But election rallies and campaign events require support from the state’s security apparatus, like the presence of significant numbers of police personnel.

Since polling day itself requires massive deployment of security forces, the one day of no campaigning is a blessing for the security prep for polling day. It gives the forces time to regroup and organise themselves before voting gets underway.

But could the security forces do without that one day of no campaigning if the 48-hour rule were to be abolished? Is the security preparedness argument enough to hold back such a change if our lawmakers were ever to deliberate on it?

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The Age of Social Media

On 12 May, even as voters in Karnataka went to cast their ballot, BJP Karnataka’s official Facebook page was busy posting pictures of those who had got inked, trying to convince those staying at home to come out and vote. The posts clearly canvassed for votes for BJP, with the hashtag #Vote4ChangeVote4BJP.

Similarly on 11 May, a day before polling, INC Karnataka’s Facebook page posted a video message from party president Rahul Gandhi, imploring Congress workers for a final push to “help the party win this battle of ideologies.”

Both the BJP’s and the Congress’ posts came in the 48-hour period in which the law stipulates that “no person shall display to the public any election matter by means of cinematograph, television or other similar apparatus.”

So do these posts by the political parties not fall within the ambit mentioned in the law? Even if the EC decides to allow these social media posts, like they allowed the print ads on polling day, do these exceptions make logical sense when read in tandem with the Representation of the People Act?

And what is the basis on which a differentiation is made for TV, print and social media ads anyway? Is the internet not a “similar apparatus” as the television as far as its functionality in spreading political messages is concerned?

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Time for a Policy Relook?

When Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act, neither the internet nor social media networks were around. In fact, in 1951, India was years away from even witnessing its first television broadcast. Yet, over the years, the Act has been subjected to several amendments.

Maybe it’s just time for another one — to iron out these contradictions, and clarify where the law stands.

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