Live Mint
Ruhi Tewari and Utpal Bhaskar
New Delhi

New Delhi: The Election Commission of India (EC) may initiate an inquiry into Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan’s so-called “paid news content” strategy as well as the alleged understatement of expenses during the assembly elections.

Any move by EC to go ahead with such a probe will fuel the ongoing public debate seeking greater scrutiny and transparency over election expenses.

EC’s actions may include the issuing of a notice to the chief electoral officer of Maharashtra to produce the relevant documents, said a senior official of the poll panel. Another senior EC official confirmed this, adding that a second option could be to seek a reply from Chavan directly. The decision will be finalized once EC concludes its internal debate on the subject. Both officials wanted to remain anonymous given the sensitivity of the matter.

“This route (asking the chief electoral officer for documents) is definitely being considered, though it has not yet been decided by the commission. We have to tread very cautiously on the matter,” said the second EC official.

“But initiating an inquiry by first calling for certain documents seems like the more probable option at this point,” he said. “However, if we do initiate investigations, we have to take it to its logical end and hence, have to be sure about it.”

Discussions that have been taking place over the last few days within EC on the matter remain inconclusive.

Chavan’s campaign expenses became a raging controversy after a report inThe Hindu on 30 November, which said that while he spent a little over Rs11,000 on paid advertising in print, he received coverage worth much more in newspapers such as the Maharashtra Times and Lokmat that gave him ample editorial space, with ads masquerading as stories.

EC places an expenditure ceiling of Rs25 lakh per candidate for Lok Sabha elections and Rs10 lakh for state assembly elections. Candidates are required to submit election expense reports thrice during the entire election period.

While the commission believes any action it initiates has to have a sound legal ground and hence it would need to take a “comprehensive view”, experts believe an appropriate course of action within the legal purview of EC would be to ask Chavan for an explanation.

“The EC will, and should, certainly ask for his (Chavan) comment. If he gives a convincing reply, then the commission can accept it. However, if not, then there are two options: he can be censured or both he and the party can be censured. There are, in fact, several ways of dealing with him, but it would all depend on his response,” said former chief election commissioner T.S. Krishnamurthy. It would be within the commission’s legal purview to ask for a response, he said.

“Whether or not there have been other such cases, this has to be dealt with. A violation is a violation,” he added.

The commission, meanwhile, continues to maintain that the specific issue of “paid content” in newspapers before elections has to be first dealt with by the Press Council of India (PCI), which is set to take up the issue at its next meeting on 15 and 16 December to which EC officials have also been invited.

“We will ask the PCI to devise definite guidelines for differentiating between paid content and actual news. We will probably take a decision on the matter only after the meeting,” the second official said.

According to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), a New Delhi-based organization, 315 of the 543 members of Parliament elected in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections declared assets of at least Rs1 crore, more than 100% increase from the previous Lok Sabha. In the recent assembly elections in Maharashtra, over 64% of the members of the legislative assembly elected declared assets of at least Rs1 crore.

“The EC should call for an independent probe into the expense statements of Ashok Chavan. However, we must remember that the commission’s powers are not unbridled. It functions under the Constitution and is bound by the laws laid down by the court of law,” said Jagdeep Chhokar, founder member of ADR. “Given these limitations, the EC will do what it can. However, they need to proceed in a manner that they have sustainable proof in a court of law that the alleged expenditure was actually authorized by Chavan.”

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