EC’s Niti for Modi’s benefit

The Election Commission’s clean chit to the Niti Aayog over violation of the model code of conduct for elections is based on wrong and false grounds, as in the case of other chits given by the commission to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. Niti Aayog had, on a directive from the Prime Minister’s Office, written to government officials in union territories and districts where Modi was to address rallies, for information on these places. Pinky Kapoor, the Niti Aayog’s economic officer, sought detailed information from the places to be visited by Modi. This information was for use by Modi in his election speeches. Opposition parties had sought action by the EC against the PMO as this was a clear misuse of official machinery for electoral purposes. 

The ground for the exoneration, according to Deputy Election Commissioner Sandeep Saxena, is that the PM is exempted from the provision that bars ministers from combining official visits with election campaigns. This provision, introduced in October 2014 on a request by the present government, is wrong and unfair. The rule should be the same for the Prime Minister and other ministers, as there is no justifiable reason to give special treatment to the PM. The information procured and provided by Niti Aayog was not used for governmental activities but for electoral purposes. So, the exemption to the PM was actually misused. Even if the PM can combine his official and campaign trips, it only means that the expenses on the trips may be borne by the government. The provision does not give him the right to use data specifically procured through the official machinery for poll speeches. The EC had written to Niti Aayog chief Amitabh Kant to explain why such data was provided to the PMO. It is not clear whether he replied, what the reply was and where it was posted. The public has a right to know this. 

Last month, a commerce ministry officer, Aastha Grover, also sought inputs from other officials on government initiatives and programmes and the information was reportedly used in the BJP’s poll manifesto. The commission was wrong to dismiss such charges. To claim that no political data was given, as the commission maintains, is untenable. What matters is that the data was used politically and for an electoral purpose. This is not just a violation of the election code of conduct but an offence under the Representation of the People Act, which bars the use of official machinery or personnel for poll campaigns. It is an offence that can lead to the disqualification of the candidate. Niti Aayog is an institution of State, not a political body. The distinction is crucial but as in the case of many other institutions, it has been blurred in the recent past, especially during the election campaign. 

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