Over the last few weeks, Delhi has witnessed the most high-decibel assembly election campaign in recent times. At stake: on one hand, the reputation of Brand Modi-Shah that can’t afford to lose an election in their backyard; and on the other, Arvind Kejriwal, fighting political annihilation. The campaigning was intense, often dirty, sometimes mildly violent – but nothing that would make you question the whole electoral process.

On Friday morning, however, Delhi residents woke up to find Narendra Modi and Kiran Bedi on the front page of every prominent newspaper, assuring them that no one cares for progress like the Bharatiya Janata Party does. The total cost of the ads has been estimated at Rs 5 crores.

Since campaigning had officially come to an end the previous evening, many were taken by surprise with this wallpaper publicity blitz. The Aam Aadmi Party said it would raise this issue with the Election Commission. However there is little that can be done at this stage. And as with the Lok Sabha elections, expect a front page ad from the BJP in every Delhi newspaper on Saturday morning, just as voters are getting ready to go out and cast their ballots.

Nothing illegal

These full front page ads seem to fly in the face of the Election Commission’s mandatory “cooling off” period before citizens actually cast their vote – but this is not technically illegal. It’s a lacuna that can be exploited by the BJP (or any other political party) to bypass the commission’s otherwise-strict enforcement of the cooling off period before elections.

The problem is with Section 126 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, which states:
Prohibition of public meetings during period of forty- eight hours ending with hour fixed for conclusion of poll –

(1)No person shall – display to the public any election matter by means of cinematograph, television or other similar apparatus; in any polling area during the period of forty-eight hours ending with the hour fixed for the conclusion of the poll for any election in the polling area.

(2) Any person who contravenes the provisions of sub-section (1) shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.

(3) In this Section, the expression “election matter” means any matter intended or calculated to influence or affect the result of an election.

Print not included

Due to some inexplicable reason, the print medium was left out from sub-section (1) and even former chief election commissioner SY Qureshi doesn’t know why this is so. But what it does is to create a serious lacuna in the system where a single-page advertisement in all newspapers could significantly swing votes – especially those of the critical fence sitters. So while sub-section (3) of the People’s Representation Act could be interpreted to include such brazen advertising, it still avoids legal action.

The Election commsssion takes serious view of money and liquor being distributed before elections. Coercion of any kind invites swift action. Lately there has been a check on paid news too. But such front page advertising (at an astronomical cost) continues unabated, unchecked and unaccounted for.

Only an immediate revision of the law can stop this practice of attempting to influence voters in the last hours before polling.

Akash Banerjee is a broadcast professional and author of Tales from Shining and Sinking India.