Guwahati: The regional media in Assam that is busy focusing on the assembly elections found itself entangled in a political controversy over poll advertisements published by both the BJP and the Congress in newspapers last week. However, the publications have responded to notices from the Election Commission of India, denying that they’ve broken any rule.
The controversy began when an advertisement issued by the BJP was published on 28 March in eight English, Assamese, Hindi and Bengali daily newspapers — The Assam Tribune, Asomiya Pratidin, Aamar Asom, Niyomia Barta, Asomiya Khabor, Dainik Asam, Dainik Jugasankha and Dainik Purvodaya.
This was the day after the first phase of polling in Assam, and the ad claimed the BJP would win all 47 seats that were up for grabs.
The ‘skybus’ advert read like a banner headline — “BJP to win all constituencies of Upper Assam”.
The Congress filed a complaint the same day, alleging that the advertisement violated a directive of the ECI, the Model Code of Conduct and provisions of Section 126A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951. This section prohibits, among other things, “election campaign activities through public meetings, processions, etc., and displaying of election matter by means of television and similar apparatus”.
The ECI then issued notices to the newspapers the same day, asking them to clarify their position.
Sources told ThePrint that all the newspapers have submitted their replies to the state’s Chief Electoral Officer. ThePrint has accessed the reply sent to the Chief Electoral Officer on 29 March by one of the Assamese dailies, Asomiya Pratidin.
While acknowledging the Representation of the People Act, 1951, and the guidelines issued to the print media by the ECI, Asomiya Pratidin’s publisher clarified: “After the first phase of polling was over, a copy of the advertisement was received from the advertisement agency managing the publicity on behalf of the BJP. The said advertisement was to be published on 28 March. Since the first phase of polling was already over, the requirement of pre-certification did not apply in this case.”
A pre-certification from the Media Certification and Monitoring Committee (MCMC) of political advertisements is mandatory for those adverts that are to be published in any newspaper on the day of the poll or one day prior to the poll.
“However, the advertisement conformed to all requirements laid down under Section 127A of the 1951 Act, and it was clearly stated on the left side of the ad that it was paid for and published on behalf of BJP,” Asomiya Pratidin stated.
Section 127A of the Act provides that no person shall print or publish, or cause to print or publish, any election pamphlets or posters which do not bear on it the names and address of the printer, press and the publisher thereof.
The paper added: “No exit poll regarding election results was ever conducted by the newspaper, nor have results of such exit polls been published. The newspaper does not employ any editorial control, whatsoever, over the content and nature of the advertisements carried on its pages, unless it is ex facie evident that such an ad may directly lead to the violation of any law.”
Ad was ‘nothing but truth’, Congress unable to digest it, says BJP
In this competitive race for advertising space, the BJP clearly leads the way, with more “innovative” ads than the Congress, according to Assam BJP spokesperson and the convenor of its advertisement committee, Pabitra Margherita.
Margherita said the advert published after first phase of polling was “nothing but the truth”, and that the Congress is not being able to “digest” it.
“The frustration in the Congress is palpable, because the ad was put out as a celebration. The way we presented, it almost reflected the truth from our perspective — because it is the truth,” he said.
“We are releasing skybus advertisements for the last couple of days in a series actually. So, it’s nothing new. We celebrated the overwhelming support of our karyakartas — this was the punch line there. And it was very prominent — that it is an advertisement with full authority of the BJP. There was also a mention that it was written and published on behalf of the party. Even a school student can understand that,” Margherita added.
He also claimed that the BJP has spent less money than the Congress on adverts in social media, newspapers, television and radio. The BJP has 37,000 active WhatsApp groups operating across Assam at the moment.
“Money we spent on adverts is very little compared to the Congress. We focused on the content and the presentation only, and worked locally, while they have outsourced to an agency. In 39 organisational districts, we have social media cells and IT wings up to the grass-root level. We execute in a pyramid system. Any content put atop the pyramid is passed on to the next level within five minutes, and so on, till it reaches the booth level,” Margherita added.
Congress’ own ad
The Congress’ Assam unit filed a police complaint on 28 March against Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, BJP national president J.P. Nadda, state unit chief Ranjeet Kumar Dass and the various news publications for “abetting the crime” (publishing the political ad).
Two days later, the party surprised all by publishing its own advert in most of local English and vernacular dailies under a below-masthead headline — “5 guarantees top agenda for voters — Congress wave across Assam”.
Bobbeeta Sharma, chairperson of the media department of the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC), told ThePrint: “Common people thought that the newspapers have given headlines that BJP is winning. Hence, to counter that, we had to make them understand that it is an advertisement. Besides, the content of BJP ad was absolutely misleading and deceptive, where they claimed to have achieved victory in Upper Assam, which is a violation of the rules, as we have mentioned in our complaint to EC.
“We are still against the content of the BJP ad. In contrast, ours does not give a verdict,” Sharma said, adding that the Congress advert highlights the party’s goal and people’s faith in its “guarantees”.
However, BJP’s Margherita called this a “contradictory stance”.
“It’s interesting and funny — they wrote to the EC against our advertisement, and after a day, they put their own ad in newspapers. If what we did is unethical, if it is not in encouragement, if the publishers or the editors or any department violated law, why did they (Congress) put out an advertisement?”
Regional party complains against both BJP, Cong
The regional Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) has accused both the BJP and the Congress of trying to influence voters through advertisements in the garb of news.
In its complaint to the chief electoral officer, the AJP sought action against the Congress for publishing the ad. The AJP, born out of the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests in September 2020, had earlier asked the ECI to restrain the BJP from publishing such advertisements.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)
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