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In fresh twist to Maharashtra CEO row, state says BJP man’s firm wasn’t given poll contract

Maharashtra govt is looking into allegations that a voter awareness campaign assigned to Signpost India was actually executed by BJP youth wing member’s company.

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Mumbai: The Maharashtra government Friday said it had assigned the voter awareness campaign for the 2019 assembly polls to an empanelled company called Signpost, adding that it will inquire into allegations that the project was actually executed by another firm owned by the national convener of the BJP youth wing’s media and IT cell.

The inquiry follows journalist Saket Gokhale’s claims Thursday that the Maharashtra chief electoral officer had engaged Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) leader Devang Dave’s firm SocialCentral for its social media voter awareness campaign ahead of the 2019 assembly polls. 

The agency was hired by the Maharashtra chief electoral officer through the state government’s Directorate General of Information and Public Relations (DGIPR).

The allegations created an uproar with their suggestion of a possible conflict of interest — the government at the time was headed by the BJP and the Election Commission is an autonomous institution. The Election Commission sought a report on the matter from the Maharashtra chief electoral officer immediately after Gokhale made the allegations on Twitter.  

On Friday, the Maharashtra DGIPR said the digital advertising contract to spread voter awareness was allotted to and completed by Signpost India, a digital and out-of-home advertising firm. 

“Signpost India is an empanelled company. The contract was awarded to and executed by Signpost India,” DGIPR secretary and director general D.D. Pandharpatte told ThePrint, 

Asked about the allegations that the contract was actually executed by SocialCentral, Pandharpatte said, “We are inquiring into it. It’s too early to comment on it.”

While Dave has defended his involvement in the campaign, Maharashtra CEO Baldev Singh, who has been in the position since June last year, told ThePrint in a statement that the allegations are “misleading”. 

Also Read: follows journalist Saket Gokhale’s claims

Both firms have offices in same building

Both SocialCentral and Signpost have offices in the same building at Mumbai’s Vile Parle, Pressman House, ThePrint has found. 

While SocialCentral, which changed its registered address to Vile Parle from Kandivali in March this year, operates from the sixth floor, Signpost operates from the second floor. Signpost India has four directors — Shripad Ashtekar, Rajesh Batra, Dipankar Chatterjee and Sushil Pandey — none of whom are directly related to Dave or SocialCentral.

Signpost has been on the DGIPR’s list of empanelled advertising companies since 12 October 2017, for the state government’s various departments to publicise their work and schemes through print, broadcast and digital media. The company was retained on the list when the DGIPR conducted a fresh empanelment exercise in March this year. 

Pandey did not respond to ThePrint’s calls and text. A Signpost employee who did not wish to be named said there “is no direct affiliation between SocialCentral and Signpost”. 

However, Dave hinted at a connection in a tweet Friday. “We do not earn our bread and butter by doing any kind of ‘dalali’ but by hard work. The work assigned by Election Commission to Signpost was after following due process. There is no illegality whatsoever. Is it also forbidden for a political activist to make an honest living?” Dave said. 

Dave shared the tweet with ThePrint in response to a request for comment. He, however, did not comment on questions about how SocialCentral is related to Signpost India and the fact that the former is not empanelled to receive government contracts. 

Also Read: 9,500 IT cell heads, 72,000 WhatsApp groups — how BJP is preparing for Bihar poll battle

CEO denies allegations

SocialCentral has worked on other state government projects too besides the one with the Maharashtra CEO, according its website. One of them, which also won the company an Asian Customer Engagement Forum award, was earlier this year for the Maharashtra health department to spread awareness about Covid-19, and highlight the steps being taken by the government. 

According to the company’s official website, the voter awareness campaign for the Maharashtra chief electoral officer was implemented by SocialCentral. 

The website also lists purported comments from former deputy CEO Shirish Mohod among its client testimonies. “I want to appreciate SocialCentral Media Solutions for all your creative inputs and effective implementation of the digital campaign, which has helped us in our endeavour of reaching out to the non-registered voters of the state,” the testimony under Mohod’s name says.

Further, SocialCentral’s campaign for the Maharashtra CEO also won the company an award at the 9th Asian Customer Engagement Forum and Awards in 2020 in the ‘Best Use of Celebrity Endorsement’ category. 

Maharashtra CEO Baldev Singh said in a statement to ThePrint that it is “misleading and incorrect to suggest that the office of chief electoral officer has issued any advertisement through any agency on political considerations”. 

“As per standard practice, electoral awareness campaign is launched through the information and public relations department (DGIPR), Government of Maharashtra. They, in turn, follow a laid-down procedure for selecting an appropriate agency for public awareness and not by CEO Office,” he added.

Referring to Gokhale’s allegations, he said “an interim reply of facts has been sent to Election Commission of India”. 

“Meanwhile, some other representations on the matter have been received from some public representatives, which are also being addressed and a detailed response in this regard shall be sent to the commission soon,” he added.

Congress demands an inquiry 

Congress leader and former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan Friday wrote to the country’s Chief Election Commissioner demanding an inquiry in the matter. 

“It is the Election Commission’s responsibility to ensure that elections are conducted in a fair and transparent manner. But, from this incident it is seen that the Maharashtra CEO is falling short at meeting this responsibility. There should be a speedy and impartial inquiry into this,” he said, speaking to reporters. 

Also Read: Gujarat to Delhi, BJP’s ally is Election Commission. And Congress must be blamed for this


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