New Delhi: The Election Commission (EC) says it is yet to find a way to check violation of its model code of conduct by political parties or candidates using the relatively new medium of the Internet, particularly to work around rules that ban campaigning 48 hours before the close of the poll.
This becomes significant given that political parties are ramping up their presence on the Internet to target the estimated 50 million users, located largely in urban pockets in the country.
To be sure, the code—which seeks to keep a check on the activities of political parties and candidates during the time between the notification of polling and its conclusion—is merely a guideline and not legally binding. It tries to ensure, among other things, that no party or candidate is allowed to indulge in activities that might create hatred, communal tension or incite violence.
“We are keeping an eye on the Internet...but we feel that, as of now, it is technically not feasible to control this medium. We do not have any solution to regulate this medium just yet,” said S.Y. Quraishi, election commissioner, according to whom, given these limitations, the Internet can be used for campaigning even during the 48 hours before the close of the poll.
In fact, the Internet has become a crucial campaign medium with several politicians, including the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial aspirant L.K. Advani blogging actively and most political parties posting their views and agenda on their websites.
While parties such as the Congress and the BJP are using official websites for canvassing, including audio-visual components, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, recently launched an exclusive campaign website. Social networking websites such as Orkut and Facebook have also become popular tools for political propaganda.
The EC will, however, keep a tab on bulk messaging through mobile phones. “For other forms of technology and communication devices, we are trying to keep some check. For instance, we ensure that bulk messaging through mobile phones is shown as part of election expenditure by political parties or leaders. If bulk messages do go out, we trace the expenditure involved through cellular operators,” Quraishi said.
But there’s no ban yet on sending text messages from mobile phones on polling day.
Ironically, apart from the Internet and mobile phones, even prohibition of publicity in print media is left out in the Representation of People’s Act, the country’s electoral law. “While there is a specific law prohibiting publicity through the electronic media in 48 hours before the closing of polls, there is no such law for print media and hence, even on poll day, we end up getting political advertisements in newspapers,” Quarishi said.
“Even billboards with political advertisements remain intact on polling day, and even after polling... Advertisements on the Internet are similar to this. And the voter has a choice to block it out and not visit the particular website. We need to go by the spirit and not by the letter and I don’t think cyber campaigning goes against the spirit of the code,” said Jagdeep Chhokar, founder member of Association of Democratic Reforms, a non-governmental organization that works in the area of improving and strengthening democracy and governance in the country.
According to senior Congress leader and Lok Sabha member V. Kishore Chandra Deo, the restrictions are primarily to avoid violence and encourage free and fair voting. “Even now there is no ban on a candidate personally approaching a voter or visiting his house (during those 48 hours). Of course, technology has made these contacts easier through cyber space, at least in some constituencies. But I do not think it has made the code redundant.”
However, former chief election commissioner T.S. Krishnamurthy does believe that technology has in fact changed things. “I agree that technology has added a new dimension to the issue of the model code of conduct. Perhaps, we need to have an all-party meet to device a code that can take this into account... However, even now, if there is any specific complaint about a blog or website, the EC does take action. The Internet does pose to be a problem but it is not an insurmountable one. Perhaps the EC can have specific observers to keep an eye on the net.”
Television channels owned by political parties prove to be another grey area. Even though they, too, are bound by the model code of conduct, questions are often raised about the fairness of some parties having the advantage of constantly airing their views while not giving any airtime to their opponents.
Two TV channels backed by political parties that Mint spoke to maintain that they don’t violate the code since they refrain from airing political ads 48 hours before closure of polls. They, however, admit that they are under pressure from party bosses not to use the advertisements of political opponents, besides highlighting news favourable to them.
CPM promoted Kairali TV channel, which had aired the advertisements of the BJP and the Congress in the 2004 general election, has revisited its stance.
“The CPM does not use TV ads for its election campaign,” John Brittas, the managing editor of Kairali TV said. “This time, we decided not to air any ads of any political party.” Asked whether he was under pressure from the party to do so, he said: “The decision was taken by the board of the company (Malayalam Communications Ltd) that runs the channel, not the party.”
But he admitted that there was sharp criticism from the party over the channel’s decision to use the ads of the BJP and the Congress in the last elections.
Another top executive of a TV channel owned by a national party, who didn’t want to be identified, said: “We don’t violate the EC’s code on the 48-hour ban. There is, of course, pressure from the party not to air the ads of its opponents even though such ads bring us revenues. Also, there is pressure to inject views into news stories and that is a practice as old as politics.”
“Of course, the money and media power of certain political parties gives them an advantage and that is unfair. I remember instances of a channel owned by a political party airing a drama or serial everyday with several episodes till elections, based on incidents in politics but with changed names. These programmes, even while not taking names, made subtle references to various political leaders and incidents,” said Krishnamurthy.
Liz Mathew and Ullekh N.P. contributed to this story.