By Krishna N. Das and Aftab Ahmed
NEWDELHI (Reuters) – Did Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi break election rules by addressing the nation on an anti-satellite test recently? Is it right to have a channel dedicated to the leader? Can the country’s armed forces be called “Modi’s soldiers”?
Ahead of a general election that starts next week, the Election Commission of India (ECI) says it is swamped with hundreds of thousands of such questions and complaints of alleged violation of election rules, known as the model code of conduct. Many are coming via ever expanding social media.
Opposition parties have accused the ECI of being biased towards the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which they say is giving Modi an unfair advantage in the election. There is even a threat to jail commission officials if Modi is ousted.
The BJP denies getting any special treatment from the ECI.
The ECI – an autonomous constitutional body tasked with the smooth conduct of the world’s biggest democratic exercise with as many as 900 million eligible voters – said it was impartial and taking action against the guilty irrespective of party affiliation.
But Tarun Kumar, a secretary for the main opposition Congress party, said the model code of conduct had became a joke because the recently launched NaMO TV that carries Modi’s rallies live and runs other promotional material for the ruling party was still on air despite several complaints against it.
“Everyday I think that the Election Commission has sunk to its lowest, only to be proved wrong next day!” said Yogendra Yadav, a political activist and former pollster.
Among the top complaints the ECI has ruled on or is examining are a speech by the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state, Yogi Adityanath of the BJP, in which he associated the armed forces with Modi by calling them “Modi’s soldiers”, according to the ECI’s website.
Adityanath has been warned against making such statements in future.
The Commission is also examining a representation against the planned release of a biopic titled “PM Narendra Modi” this month.
The ECI late last month said Modi did not violate the code of conduct when he addressed the nation to announce that an Indian anti-satellite missile had shot down an Indian satellite in space in a major breakthrough. Opposition parties had accused Modi of trying to gain political benefits through the televised address.
To be sure, there are complaints against Congress President Rahul Gandhi too, mainly over his allegations of corruption over a warplane deal signed by the Modi government.
“In the world of social media and mobile phones, people get to know things immediately, which we take time to get to know and react on,” Sandeep Saxena, a deputy election commissioner, told Reuters.
“The Commission will only move when there is sufficient material. We normally ask our own field functionaries. It takes 12 hours or so to establish, only then we go for action on it.”
Saxena said since the code of conduct came into place on March 10, the ECI has received more than 40,000 references and complaints on its mobile app, 99 percent of which have been dealt with. He said 68 percent of the cases were found to be correct and action initiated.
Another commission official, requesting anonymity, said that in the past three weeks they would have received more than 1 million complaints from regional parties, national parties, through social media and on the app.
“The volume of work is huge. The world has drastically changed because of social media and things like that, the policies sometimes are lagging behind and procedures, which have to be followed, make us slow,” said the official at the ECI, which has 300 people in its headquarters and others in states.
“People have the right to criticise. We are doing the best we can to conduct a fair election in the country. Some of our officers are working 16 to 17 hours a day.”
(Reporting by Krishna N. Das and Aftab Ahmed; Editing by Martin Howell and Michael Perry)