The Election Commission of India will on Friday hear a petition which makes serious allegations of electoral malpractices against Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan. The issue has multiple ramifications for Indian democracy, polity and media. The issue has rattled Chavan who, if convicted, can face disqualification from the legislature for three years. It is also the litmus test for Chief Election Commissioner S Y Qureshi who will deliver the judgment in the high-profile case. Bharatiya Janata Party leader Kirit Somaiya, one of the complainants against Chavan, explains his case.
The issue of paid news has been debated since 2004. During election time, there have been allegations of bribes being paid by politicians to members of the media to get publicity, which is not just unethical but also illegal and anti-democracy.
During the 2009 assembly elections in Maharashtra, Ashok Chavan ran a parallel campaign and gave publicity to himself by publishing full page articles and features. He portrayed himself as the best party campaigner and best Congress chief minister.
These full-page features appeared in 13 newspapers of Maharashtra. It was shocking. We made inquiries from the CEC and the Congress party on whether this was part of the official campaign by the party. If it was the Congress party's campaign for their CM, the expenses should have been included in the returns that all parties submit before the CEC. We found that the Congress had a few quarter page advertisements carrying pictures of (Congress president) Sonia Gandhi and (Congress leader) Rahul Gandhi only. We brought this issue to the notice of the EC.
The rules of EC demand that each candidate has to submit his/her account of expenses three times during the election. Firstly, after filing his/her nomination, every candidate has to submit the election expenditure account within a week. Secondly, the candidate has to file an account of expenses after the day of polling and thirdly, the final return has to be submitted within 30 days of polling.
After their submission, any citizen can raise observations and objections to the candidate's submission of accounts of expenses to the returning officers. At the same time, every returning officer has to submit his observations along with the candidate's returns to the EC office.
Within one year, the EC has to go through these returns and take its decision. The EC, always, issues a press note stating what they have found. If you are found guilty for corrupt election practises for crossing the fixed limit for expenses or for filing incorrect returns, the penalty is disqualification for three years.
Under Section 78 of the People's Representative Act, 1951, we moved the Election Commission within one month of polling. Last year, we filed the complaint and in January this year, we submitted all the documents and evidence against Chavan.
We also submitted 84 pages of commercial features of Chavan, which was worth Rs 4.5 crore. A candidate in the assembly elections is allowed to spend only Rs 15 lakh as election expenses. Our demand is that the EC should include Rs 4.5 crore of expenses in CM Chavan's personal election expense account and take the necessary action.
Chavan has strongly objected to our petitions. Along with me, Madhav Kinalkar, a rebel Congress candidate who lost to Chavan, has also filed the complaint.
The EC has accepted our petitions and the first hearing of the case took place in June 2010 when the bench was headed by then CEC Navin Chawla. The fresh hearing is starting under the current CEC S Y Qureshi today afternoon. The EC bench has powers at par with a high court bench.
Lawyer Ram Jethamalani will appear on my behalf and (Congress spokesperson and lawyer) Abhishek Manu Singhvi will represent Chavan.
The law is clear that the cost of anything that is complimentary or in an indirect manner helps a candidate has to be added to the candidate's expense account. So, we don't even have to give the evidence. Here, a series of article has appeared about only one leader with the same content in different languages. We have submitted proof that one newspaper had mentioned in its supplement that articles on Chavan are sponsored.
The judicial proceedings have been started due to our campaign, due to journalist P Sainath's articles and due to the support of the Press Council of India, the Editor's Guild of India and many NGOs.
Even the Parliament took up the issue. The government has asked a group of ministers to look into the issue. BJP leader Arun Jaitley led the debate in Rajya Sabha on the issue. In the Bihar polls, 90 per cent of our suggestions have been accepted and new guidelines have been evolved due to this case. In Bihar, every district has one senior officer to keep a watch on 'paid news' and one income tax officer to keep tabs (on the expenditure). Now, the EC is regularly monitoring the paid news content, if any.
We have got enough evidence to nail CM Chavan. The EC wrote to all the newspapers which published Chavan's advertisements, asking for evidence. If our arguments are accepted, then CM Chavan can't remain a people's representative under the law for the next three years. We have evidence to suggest that the CM sponsored the features. Any candidate who bypasses the ceiling of Rs15 lakh has to be accountable to the EC which can act against the candidate as a judicial body.
This case's ramifications are serious. It will be a landmark case for Indian democracy. The cancer of paid news has spread from topmost dailies to district newspapers. We must win this case to stop this menace. Here is a case where 84 commercial articles in seven newspapers were printed in a span of 14 days just before polling.
We expect that after a couple of hearings, we will get the judgment.
As told to Sheela Bhatt