In view of concerns that the Election Commission of India (ECI) is yet to act on allegations that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may have misused the Aadhaar data of Puducherry voters to boost its electoral campaign, the Madras High Court today mused out loud whether the polls should be postponed.
A petition had been moved by the President of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), Puducherry, A Anand, who has submitted that bulk SMS messages were sent to Puducherry voters whose mobile numbers were linked to Aadhaar with a link to join WhatsApp groups run by the BJP. There were around 952 such groups, he has alleged.
The matter came up before the Bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy today.
While the ECI was assuring the Court that appropriate action would be taken and that the writ petition may be kept pending, Chief Justice Banerjee remarked,
“We are wondering whether we should postpone the elections. Let us postpone the elections until some action is taken.“
The ECI counsel responded that the inquiry is still underway and if the party is found guilty, action may be taken including the de-recognition of the party in Puducherry. He argued that the question of postponing the elections would not arise, in any case. He added that the action of de-recognising a party is very serious and, therefore, a proper enquiry has to be conducted.
“You may also find that there is violation – then what is the consequence?”, Chief Justice Banerjee asked.
“This issue relating to MCC, we can only re-recognise them. Investigation is on…stopping of the election with regard to this will not arise. We are doing a very honest job”, ECI assured.
“That’s your self-certification“, Chief Justice Banerjee remarked.
“No, I’m bound to do it”, the ECI counsel said, prompting the Court to further remark, “We’re not certifying to that.”
The Bench added that the ECI has done nothing, Chief Justice Banerjee further remarked that in the last hearing, the ECI had only submitted that the matter may be sent to the crime cell and, thereby, into cold storage.
In this backdrop, the petitioner’s counsel chimed in to remark that the BJP, Puducherry has “not even bothered” to reply in the matter.
Before adjourning the matter for further hearing on March 31, Wednesday, when the ECI is expected to file a status report, the Court also orally urged the ECI, “Keep everybody in check please.. it is a matter of serious concern.”
“We are trying our best”, the ECI counsel responded.
“We don’t want to undermine you, you are in institution that is responsible for all this”, the Court added.
UIDAI should look into the matter immediately
The Court today also took note that the UIDAI appeared more pre-occupied over the petitioner not having addressed a representation on the issue to the body, rather than the allegation itself.
“The relief sought is on basis of alleged tampering but no representation was made to Respondent 7 (UIDAI). I will have to take a decision whether database is tampered or not”, argued the counsel for the UIDAI.
The Election Commission, in the meanwhile, claimed that it had brought the issue to the UIDAI’s notice.
The Court proceeded to opine that UIDAI should look into how a political could have accessed its database immediately.
“It is apparent that the Respondent 6 political party (BJP) may have resorted to a form of campaigning not permissible under the model code of conduct. It is also evident that personal details of voters and citizens may have been obtained by such political party and put into use for campaign purpose. Unfortunately rather than the Respondent 7 authority (UIDAI) try and ascertain how personal details of voters may have been leaked from its system, such authority accused the petitioner of not having brought the matter to the notice of the relevant authority… Respondent 7 should immediately ascertain how such material could have been accessed by a political party”, reads the order passed today.
ECI asked to file another report
After the Court on Wednesday orderd the ECI to file a report in the matter, the ECI issued a letter on March 25 directing all political parties to strictly abide by the Model Code of Conduct (MCC), the Bench was told today. This letter also cautioned the parties against issuing bulk messages to voters without obtaining permission first.
However, apart from this, no action had been taken till date, it was contended before the Court today.
The ECI countered that it has already issued a show-cause notice to the BJP unit on March 7 after it received a complaint over the party sending bulk messages to voters. A report was also given to the Cyber Crime unit, which is investigating the case, it was argued.
The ECI also informed that it had not received any application from the BJP unit seeking permission to send bulk messages to voters. As such, as on date, the party did not have any such permission, the Court was told.
The Election Commission added that it is only concerned over whether the expenditure made by the BJP unit is permissible and whether there is a violation of the a symbols order under the MCC since there was no permission given to send bulk SMSes to voters. The question of unauthorised access to personal data is not in the Election Commission’s domain.
As regards the alleged MCC violations, the inquiry is in progress, it was submitted. Therefore, the Election Commission sought for an adjournment of the case to next week so it can give a clearer picture of the matter.
Before adjourning the matter, the Court has now asked the ECI to file a further report in the matter by the next hearing, expressing hope that appropriate steps would be taken against the political party concerned in connection with its March 7 notice.
A “preliminary report” filed on the investigation so far in sealed cover were re-sealed and returned to the respondents. The Court added that it is “hoped that the investigation will be completed as expeditiously as possible and immediate appropriate action taken in accordance with law.”
In response to concerns that the SMS messages sent by the BJP party to Puducherry voters still continue unabated, the Court has added,
“It is for the Election Commission to take immediate action if such is the case.”
Petitioner’s family not to be harassed
In the course of the hearing, the Court was also told that the petitioner was being harassed by the police, in that his grandmother and sister were today summoned by the cyber cell.
The Court, in turn, observed,
“(It is a) further grievance that in the course of investigation, as is usually the case, the complaint has been harassed. The investigating agency is reminded of its duties despite the allegiance that it may seek to portray.”