Silence is golden goes the age old adage, but that’s something that political parties in Punjab don’t seem to, or don’t want to, understand as they went ahead violating the 48-hour silence period granted by the Election Commission ahead of the Sunday’s polling.
The “silence period”, as per the EC norms, starts immediately after campaigning ends ahead of an election. During this period, candidates and parties are supposed to go “silent” and stop all forms of campaigning.
On Saturday, however, less than 12 hours after curtains on the high-voltage canvassing, the electors in Punjab were exposed to several kinds of campaign material as bulk messages, asking them to vote for a particular party, were received on their WhatsApp and other social media platforms. On WhatsApp, the messages in forms of graphics, videos etc came from random numbers. The candidates too continued to push campaign material on their social media handles in one or the other form. Voters said that most of the material that they received on WhatsApp asked them not to vote for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
For instance, one voter shared: “I got a WhatsApp message which had a graphic with the slogan ‘Aisa koi saga nahi, jisko Kejri ne thaga nahi..’ and it had photos of all those AAP leaders who left the party.”
Some voters said that they also received some material on the messaging platform related to designated terrorist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun’s ‘Sikhs for Justice’ saying that AAP was supporting the pro-Khalistan elements.
Mocking AAP’s election slogan ‘Ik Mauka Kejriwal nu’, some videos were also received by voters which had the song, ‘Mauka, mauka.. mauka de ditta ohna nu, milega dhoka dhoka…’ “The video also showed some AAP workers wearing caps and holding brooms,” said a resident from Ludhiana.
Some voters also received a video with a text message that contains the purported “leaked audio clip” of Sunita Kejriwal, wife of AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal. The party later in the evening filed a complaint with the Election Commission alleging that the video was “fake, forged and doctored” and demanded its immediate removal from all social media platforms and “to take legal action against the responsible person as per law in interest of justice”.
Voters were also flooded with random messages with purported videos of SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal with a ‘vote appeal’ saying that it was the only party that belongs to Punjab and rest all were “outsiders” and “remote controlled from Delhi”.
The video was also accompanied with graphic messages and photos of Sukhbir that read “Sadda iraada sudhar da vaada” and “Badal karega badlaav”.
Without naming anyone, Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi posted a series of tweets from his official handle comparing himself to CM candidates of other parties. ‘Public sab jaan di hai… One CM face who works hard day and night, one CM face who drinks day and night, one CM face who loots people who work hard day and night…. one CM face who stands for Punjab and Punjabis, one CM face who stands with Delhi, one CM face who stands with mafiaraj,” he tweeted.
Requesting anonymity, some returning officers at district level said the section 126 of the Representation of the People Act which deals with the rules for the campaigning during 48-hour period before voting does not specify rules for social media and other digital platforms.
“Social media and WhatsApp became prominent mediums for campaigning during these elections due to Covid but the RPA Act is quite old and it needs update on rules specifically for social media and other platforms such as WhatsApp. However, if an opponent party files a complaint alleging violation, we initiate action immediately,” said a returning officer.
Section 126 (b) of the RPA Act dealing with ‘Prohibition of public meetings during a period of forty-eight hours ending with hour fixed for conclusion of poll’, says: No person shall display to the public any election matter by the means of cinematograph, television or other similar apparatus.’
Contacted, Dr S Karuna Raju, chief electoral officer, Punjab, said: “We refer to the section 126 of the RP Act and the action will be taken according to the law related to any kind of complaints for campaigning and code of conduct violations during the Silence Period.”
On February 14, the Election Commission, in a note had said: “…Section 126 prohibits displaying any election matter by means, inter alia, of television or similar apparatus, during the period of 48 hours ending with the hour fixed for conclusion of poll in a constituency”.
The Section 126 also defines the “election matter” as something “intended or calculated to influence or affect the result of an election”.
It also reiterated that the electronic media — TV, radio channels, cable networks, internet websites, social media platforms — should ensure that content they broadcast during the silence period doesn’t contain any material “that may be construed as promoting or prejudicing the prospect of any particular party or candidate(s) or influencing/ affecting the result of the election”.