The Election Commission has sought “comments” from Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan on allegations that he spent money on “paid news” in his favour in local newspapers and he did not account for this expenditure in his election accounts.
Mr. Chavan, who was elected from Bhokar in Nanded district, has been asked to reply by February 1.
The Commission has sent to him copies of complaints received from various sources, including the BJP and a number of articles that appeared in several newspapers including The Hindu on the subject of ‘paid news.’ Some compact discs have also been forwarded to the Chief Minister, a top EC official said adding this was the first time the Commission acted on such issue.
The EC’s action follows a series of reports in The Hindu exposing the malaise of ‘paid news’ during both Lok Sabha and Maharashtra State Assembly polls. These included a front page report on Nov. 30, 2009 pointing to the glaring mismatch between Mr. Chavan’s claim of having spent a mere Rs. 5,379 on newspaper advertisements and the 47 full pages of ‘news’ (mostly in colour) on the Chief Minister appearing during the State poll campaign. Subsequently, the count of such pages went up to 89.
The EC has pointed out that three Marathi newspapers carried identical news reports praising Mr. Chavan. Only the headlines were different. “Prima facie, we felt it was an advertisement masquerading as news.”
The EC has asked the Press Council of India to provide it a broad guideline to identify an advertisement, a news article and “paid news” masquerading as advertisement.
Under the rules, a candidate has to submit a true copy of his election expenditure accounts within 30 days of the declaration of results. The EC has powers to disqualify a candidate for three years if it is satisfied that he has violated the rules, the official said.
According to Chapter III and Section 10A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, which deal “Disqualification for failure to lodge account of election expenses,” if the EC is satisfied that a person has failed to lodge an account of election expenses within the time and in the manner required by or under this Act, and has no good reason or justification for the failure, the EC shall, by an order published in the Official Gazette, declare him disqualified. Any such person shall be disqualified for three years from the date of the order.
BJP seeks action
On January 6, a BJP delegation met the full Election Commission seeking strong and punitive action against Mr. Chavan, who “abetted in” the “errant action of the press.” The party submitted clippings to the EC and said Mr. Chavan had “grossly undervalued his election expenditure.”