New Delhi: In what could be viewed as a setback to a bid by the Election Commission of India (EC) to crack down on so-called paid news, the Supreme Court on Thursday stayed EC proceedings against former Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan regarding his expenditure during the 2009 state assembly elections.
EC was to proceed on a complaint made by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against Chavan that he had undervalued his poll expenses by disguising paid news items as regular news.
Paid news is advertising for a party or candidate (or any person or company) masquerading as news. That allows candidates to avoid declaring any expense on this front as electoral expenditure, which is limited by EC.
Chavan’s case was to come up before the commission on Friday.
“It is a setback in that sense...but what is more important is taking the issue to the larger public and sensitizing the nation about the paid news menace. And that has successfully happened through this case,” said N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman of New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies (CMS).
While staying the EC probe, the apex court bench also issued notices to the poll panel, the Maharashtra unit of the BJP, and other complainants. They include BJP leaders Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Kirit Somaiya on whose plea the probe had been launched. The bench has sought replies to its notices within two weeks and will take up the matter for hearing on 2 December.
EC did not view the decision as a setback.
“It is a part of routine legal process. The court has only stayed the proceedings till it hears the case next and not given any order. Once an SLP (special leave petition) is admitted, this is the normal course of action,” said a senior EC official who did not want to be identified.
Chavan was appealing a decision of the Delhi high court, which said on 30 September that the poll panel was within its rights to conduct the inquiry against him.
The commission recently disqualified an elected member of the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly from contesting for three years for furnishing wrong information on poll expenditure.
Umlesh Yadav of the Rashtriya Parivartan Dal was barred from completing the remaining four months of her tenure for not declaring the amount she spent on advertisements in two Hindi dailies under the guise of news items.
Under sections of the Representation of the People Act, a candidate is required to maintain an account of election expenses and ensure these do not exceed the prescribed limit. Candidates have to file expenses with EC within 30 days from the date of declaration of election results. If the expenditure is mis-stated, candidates can be served a notice and disqualified for three years. If already elected by the time the scrutiny is completed, they may lose the seat.
EC began proceedings against Chavan on 2 April on a complaint that he had shown poll expenditure of merely Rs 11,000 despite paying money to various newspapers for favourable coverage of his election campaign.
PTI contributed to this story.