There is a legal lacuna in dealing with the growing menace of 'paid news' in the Indian elections and there is a need to make it an offence under the electoral law, says Chief Election Commissioner VS Sampath.
He is relieved at the fact the Election Commission has been able to "successfully complete" the 16th Lok Sabha elections in which tough measures like banning leaders from giving hate speeches were taken for the first time to ensure as clean a poll as possible.
Sampath also expressed satisfaction that voting has been an unprecedented high in the just-concluded poll because of new steps like last-minute enrolment of names in the voters list and a voter awareness programme that helped in removal of urban apathy.
"There is need to make paid news an electoral offence under the Representation of the People Act. The Commission's proposals are before the Law Ministry in this regard," he told PTI in an interview in which he analyses various significant features of the general elections and the steps it took to complete the mammoth exercise in a free and fair manner.
'Paid news' is a practice by which a candidate in an election gets a news media carry favourable write ups in a newspaper or features on television channels for payment of a fee. The same material also appears in several newspapers on a given day. Some times money is also paid to blank out write ups on the rival candidates.
Sampath said compared to last Lok Sabha polls, the Commission adopted a structured response to the menace this elections. "We had committees at the district level and state level to keep vigilance for detection of paid news. Notices were served in over 3,000 cases of paid news of which 7,000 have been confirmed. But because of the lacuna in the legal framework we are able to deal with paid news only from expenditure angle as of now," he said.
In an unprecedented action, a woman MLA from Badaun in UP was disqualified by the Election Commission a few years ago on the basis of a Press Council finding into a case of paid news complaint against her after it was detected that she had not disclosed the expenditure on paid news in her statement of expenses in the elections.
She challenged the EC decision in Allahabad High Court, which dismissed it. The Supreme Court also gave her no relief. In a case relating to former Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan, the Supreme Court had earlier this month ruled that the Commission has the jurisdiction and can enquire into a complaint on paid news against a political leader if the expenditure incurred on it is not disclosed.
A bench headed by Justice A K Patnaik had dismissed the plea of Chavan challenging the Commission's jurisdiction to enquire into such issues and directed the Commission to enquire into the complaint within 45 days.
Speaking about the just-ended Lok Sabha elections, the Chief Election Commissioner said it was quite an amazing and mammoth task involving collection of machines from over 900,000 polling stations by employing about 7 million polling staff and a huge number of security forces both central and state personnel.
"Democracies around the world are eagerly watching the great experiment with great envy one more time. As a nation we are proud that we are capable of delivering a smooth, peaceful and transparent elections. The seamless manner in which counting of votes took place in all the constituencies on a single day and most of the results were coming out by afternoon bears testimony to the maturity and capability of the systems in India in election management. I do feel relieved that we have been able to successfully complete this exercise," he said.
Asked about the challenges faced by the Commission in the general elections, Sampath said each election is unique. "In every election there are additions in complexity and an ever-increasing number of electorate," he said.
Compared to last time, Sampath said, over 120 million voters had exercised their franchise, taking the overall numbers to the highest-ever participation in elections since Independence.
The participation of women has also been noteworthy and praiseworthy. Their participation is relatively higher in proportion when compared to men. It reached an all-time high in proportion, he said.
The CEC said there has been some kind of an urban apathy in participation particularly in mega cities and capital cities. But this time Delhi recorded an increase of 13%, Mumbai 12 to 14% and other cities it increased ranging upto 20% over the last parliamentary polls.
There has been significant increases in participation in the Left Wing Extremism affected states like Chattisgarh and Jharkhand. On complaints of booth capturing in West Bengal, Sampath conceded that there have been complaints of political parties about malpractices on the polling day in the state in the later phases of the 5-phased polls in some areas.
"There is a tendency to compare security arrangements of central forces in isolated state elections with national elections. For example, in a state assembly election in West Bengal, we can provide 100% central forces for coverage in all polling stations, while it is not possible to provide that kind of deployment of central para-military forces where West Bengal elections are part of national elections.
"Still we have adopted some innovative measures of deploying CPF in consultation with political parties and candidates by taking their priorities into account in sensitive constituencies. In addition to the CPF, non-force mechanisms like micro-observers, video cameras, web cameras were used to check malpractices in polling stations," he said.
The EC observers, assisted by task forces, were moving relentlessly on the polling where ever complaints of malpractices were received to ensure peaceful polling. Where ever malpractices leading to vitiation of poll in a polling was received, the Commission had repoll. In all, there were repolls ordered in 100 booths in the whole of the country which has 900,000 polling stations.
About the general perception that the 16th Lok Sabha elections were the longest in duration, Sampath said it was a misnomer to term them as nine-phased elections.
"In fact, the length of the poll should be judged by the number of days of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC). That is from the date of the announcement of the polls to the date of counting of votes.It is actually nine polling days in which there were polling days between April 7 and 12. You can't have phases in 5 days.Therefore, it is, in effect, a 6-phased elections."
In the last general elections in 2009, the number of days of MCC was longer by three days from the date of announcement (Mar 2) to counting of votes on May 16. This election it was between March 5 and May 16.
Safety and security of the votes and sanctity of the polling process has to be the top priority of the Commission and a multi-phased polling enables greater utilisation of the limited resources, he said justifying the long schedule.
The CEC said it was for the first time that tough measures like ban on hate speeches by political leaders were taken. He was apparently referring to the ban imposed on BJP leader Amit Shah and SP leader Azam Khan for their alleged hate speeches during the campaign.
"Generally there is criticism that MCC only expresses displeasure or censure and then the offence is ignored by campaigners tendering apology. For the first time, apart from censure, we also banned campaign by some star campaigners which had a salutary effect, particularly in the context of inflammatory effect in violation of the MCC," he said.