On Digital Election Campaign & Election Funding
Below we publish the letter addressed to Sunil Arora, chief election commissioner, Election Commission of India by CPI(M) general secretary, Sitaram Yechury, on August 17, on the proposal of digital election campaign and the election funding.
AT the outset, we would like to acknowledge the fact that the ECI has put aside its earlier decision to the exercise of franchise through postal ballots to all voters above the age of 64 to abeyance in course of the Bihar assembly election. However, we are of the firm opinion that this needs to be permanently abandoned to ensure the principle of physical verifiability of voters over all other considerations permanently.
Though denied of the right of consultation before the initiation of a reform by the Commission, as has been the practice so far, we believe that reasoned arguments will evoke a positive response. Therefore, we are drawing your attention to the proposal of a digital election campaign; more importantly, the underlying substantial question of poll funding.
In fact, the Bihar CEO’s proposal that the entire election should be held on a virtual platform because of the raging pandemic was opposed by most political parties, not only because of the issue of a huge access deficit, but massive financial resources that would have to be deployed to connect with the voters.
Consider the following developments. On the eve of the 2019 general election, the then BJP President, Amit Shah had publicly stated that the Party can, with its network of 32 lakh WhatsApp groups, can make any message, true or false, viral within hours. Add to this, the finding of International fact check websites that overwhelming majority of fake news is generated in India. And now on the eve of the Bihar elections, the Party has kicked off a virtual election campaign by putting up 72,000 LED TV monitors for Shah’s speech. After holding 60 virtual rallies, the BJP has claimed that its election campaign efforts would involve 9500 IT Cell heads who will coordinate 72,000 WhatsApp groups, one for each polling booth, of which 50,000 have been formed in the last two months.
The amount of expenditure that would be involved to put together such manpower for a technology driven system is simply mind boggling. Even with figures for corporate contribution available in the public domain before the anonymous funding through electoral bonds came into vogue, it was clear that the gap between BJP and all other parties added together in securing corporate poll funding has widened manifold. Obviously, with the anonymous corporate funds without any upper ceiling, will certainly be the death knell for electoral democracy.
Earlier the EC had told the SC that electoral bonds will signal “serious repercussions on the transparency aspect of political funding of political parties”, pointing out that since the donations made through electoral bonds have been taken out of the compulsory reporting norms thorough changes made in the Finance Act of 2017 and subsequent changes made in the Income Tax Act as well as the Representation of People Act.
“In a situation where contributions received through electoral bonds are not reported, on perusal of contribution report of political parties, it cannot be ascertained whether the political party has taken any donation in violation of section 29 B of the Representation of People Act, 1951, which prohibits the political parties from taking donations from government companies and foreign sources,” the ECI’s affidavit had asserted.
The ECI had further informed that all these reservations expressed in the affidavit had already been conveyed to the law ministry through a letter written in May 2017. Expressing further disapproval in the affidavit, it had stated that the amendments virtually derailed ECI guidelines of August 29, 2014, requiring political parties to file reports on contributions received, their audited annual accounts and election expenditure statements.
The Finance Act of 2017 has amended various laws, including the Representation of the People (RP) Act of 1951, the Income Tax Act and the Companies Act. Commenting further, on changes made in the Finance Act of 2016, the EC affidavit made out that it ushers in changes in the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act of 2010 which would allow donations to be received from foreign companies that have majority stake in Indian companies; “This is a change from the existing law which barred donations from all foreign sources as defined under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. This would allow unchecked foreign funding of political parties in India which could lead to Indian policies being influenced by foreign companies”.
Several experts are of the view that if the electoral bonds scheme had been introduced to bring about greater transparency, the government must not restrain from allowing details of such donations to be made public.
Therefore, even if we go by the contention of the Commission on the electoral bond regime in its affidavit before the Supreme Court, it becomes obvious there can be no free and fair poll, not to speak of a level playing field.
Meanwhile, there are two other issues which have come to light and pose major questions. First, the mysterious NaMo TV channel which was launched during the Lok Sabha 2019 elections in contravention of the existing law (Annexure 1) & then disappeared mysteriously after the polls. In Apr. 2019, the Spokesperson ECI had acknowledged that the channel run by DTH platforms was paid for by the BJP. However, now it has been revealed, that the BJP in its returns to the ECI on its expenditure account has not shown this. This is an outright electoral offense. The immediate question that arises, has the ECI initiated any penal action against the BJP on this account? If not, why not? I dare say, the absence of absolute unambiguous firm action seriously questions the ECI’s responsibility for ensuring a level playing field, not to speak of weeding out electoral malpractices with a heavy hand.
The second issue pertains to the social media campaign of the ECI. It has now come to light, that an advertising and social media company owned by a BJP office bearer was hired by CEO of Maharashtra, to issue election-related online ads during the 2019 assembly polls. Subsequently, it has been further revealed that the Election Commission of India itself authorised government bodies to appoint the same social media agency for the Lok Sabha 2019 elections. There is now enough material available in the public domain on this subject. With its independent Constitutional status, the authority of Article 324 is a recognition of the ECI’s responsibility for ensuring fair play. Therefore, it becomes all the more necessary that ECI is not only fair, but also explicitly appears to be so.