The Congress on Thursday accused the Election Commission of being biased towards the Bharatiya Janata Party after it suspended an official who purportedly checked Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s helicopter in Odisha. The Opposition party said the poll panel rules do not exempt the prime minister’s vehicle from being checked.

“An official was suspended by the Election Commission of India for doing his job of inspecting vehicles,” the Congress tweeted. “The rule cited governs the use of official vehicles for campaigning. It does not exempt the PM’s vehicle from being searched. What is Modi carrying in the helicopter that he does not want India to see?”

The poll panel on Tuesday suspended Mohammed Mohsin, general observer of the Sambalpur parliamentary constituency, after a flying squad team in the region inspected Modi’s helicopter. Modi was in Sambalpur district for a rally. The commission’s order found Mohsin guilty of dereliction of duty as he did not act in conformity with instructions about dignitaries under Special Protection Group protection. The suspension came into force immediately.

The commission was acting against its officials instead of checking the vehicles of political leaders, the Congress said. “After the case of the mysterious box being moved from Modi’s chopper, we would have expected the Election Commission of India to investigate every flight,” the Congress tweeted. “But suspending an official who did this reeks of bias.”

The Rahul Gandhi-led party was referring to reports about a “suspicious box” that was spotted being carried out of Modi’s helicopter during his campaign in Karnataka. The BJP had claimed that it contained electronic equipment and party logos to be used on the dais for the prime minister’s speech in Chitradurga.

Congress leader Ahmed Patel claimed that the Election Commission had checked the convoys of Congress President Rahul Gandhi and former party president Sonia Gandhi. “SPG protectees cannot be frisked personally,” Patel tweeted. “Why suspend an officer for checking the prime minister’s chopper? What message is being sent? Law is special for some?”

The Aam Aadmi Party attacked Modi, and wondered if there was more to the poll panel’s decision than met the eye. “Suspension of the officer who checked PM’s helicopter. The chowkidar [watchman] lives in his own protected shell,” it tweeted. “Is the chowkidar trying to hide something?”

The suspension order

A BJP representative confirmed that the search did take place. It is not clear what role Mohsin played in this search.

The Election Commission of India appoints general observers in all parliamentary constituencies to ensure the conduct of a free and fair election. These are always officers from outside the state to ensure transparency and distance from the local administration.

In its suspension order, the Election Commission referred to a set of rules it had formulated in April 2014 for “SPGs” and another from March 2019. Its handbook for observers has a list of “dos and don’ts” for these officials. While it charges observers with monitoring the enforcement of the model code of conduct, it also says, “The over-arching spirit guiding the observers is cooperation and collaboration and not inquisition and enquiry.”

As election observers are appointed by the Election Commission of India, chief electoral officers in states do not have the authority to remove them.

Mohsin, an IAS officer from Karnataka, did not respond to repeated phone calls or messages.

Sambalpur votes in the third phase on April 23.

Also on Tuesday, a video of BJP MP and Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan assaulting a flying squad team that inspected his helicopter in Sambalpur went viral. Pradhan had reached Sambalpur a day beforeModi’s rally.