Maharashtra Chief Electoral Officer Baldev Singh has said that the state’s Directorate General of Information and Public Relations selected the firm, with alleged links to Bharatiya Janata Party’s Information Technology cell, for election-related online ads in 2019, PTI reported on Saturday.

Activist Saket Gokhale made the accusations in a series of tweets on Thursday that an advertising and social media company, owned by a BJP leader, was hired by Singh for election-related online work during the Assembly polls in the state last year.

The Election Commission of India had asked Singh to submit a report in the matter.

In a statement, the chief electoral officer said it was “misleading and incorrect” to suggest that he had engaged any agency on political considerations. “As per the standard practice, electoral awareness campaign is launched through an agency engaged by the Directorate General of Information and Public Relations of the Maharashtra government,” he added. “They [DG-IPR], in turn follow rules in force and a laid-down procedure for selecting an appropriate agency for public awareness and it is not [done] by the CEO office.”

Singh said an interim reply of facts has been sent to the Election Commission of India in the case.

Allegations made by Gokhale

Gokhale alleged that the firm belonged to Devang Dave, who is the BJP youth wing’s national convener of IT and social media. “It is beyond shocking that the Election Commission chose a BJP IT cell guy and his agency to handle their social media for Maharashtra elections,” he tweeted. “The ECI [Election Commission of India] is supposed to be monitoring social media of parties during election. Here, they literally worked with the ruling party.”

The activist added that the address on the social media advertisements put out by the Maharashtra Election Commission belonged to Signpost India, a government-empanelled agency under Devendra Fadnavis’ government.

Election Commission of India Spokesperson Sheyphali Sharan said the poll body had taken note of Gokhale’s accusations and immediately asked for a detailed report from Maharashtra’s chief election officer.

Congress Spokesperson Sachin Sawant asked why the Election Commission did not verify the firm’s credentials before hiring it. “The poll body should work independently,” he said in a video posted on Twitter. “A firm belonging to BJP’s national office bearer was hired. This matter should be thoroughly investigated.”

Separately, Gokhale, a Right to Information activist, had also accused BJP workers of harassing him and threatening to kill him after he publicly opposed the ground-breaking ceremony for the construction of the Ram temple in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya city on August 5 amid the coronavirus crisis.

Gokhale had moved the Allahabad High Court on Friday, seeking a restraining order on the bhoomi poojan or ground-breaking ceremony for the Ram temple. He had argued that around 300 people would gather at a single location and violate the crucial physical distancing guidelines to contain the spread of the coronavirus. His petition was dismissed.

Hours after the verdict, Gokhale tweeted a video that showed a group of four to five men walking around his residential complex and shouting “Bolo Jai Shri Ram”. The activist said the alleged members of the RSS, which is the ideological wing of the BJP also threatened his mother. Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh took note of Gokhale’s tweets and assured him protection.

Also read: Activist who filed plea against Ram temple event alleges death threats, Maharashtra orders inquiry