Why the EC’s clean chit to govt on A-SAT is dodgy

RISAT-2B can take pictures of the earth during day and night, and also under cloudy conditions. With a mission life of five years, the satellite would also be used for military surveillance. Photo for representative purpose only

The Election Commission is in the eye of a storm by giving a clean chit to the Prime Minister on his announcement of Mission Shakti. 

On Friday night, the EC declared that PM’s address to the nation on successful completion of A-SAT mission didn’t violate its Model Code of Conduct. The decision was based on para 4 of part VII of the code that applies to the party in power — “Issue of advertisement at the cost of public exchequer in the newspapers and other media and the misuse of official mass media during the election period for partisan coverage of political news and publicity regarding achievements with a view to furthering the prospects of the party in power shall be scrupulously avoided.”

There are three aspects on which the EC seeks to reign in the party in power: advertisements on tax payers money, misuse of official media, and publicising own achievements to improve electoral prospects. 

The government did not issue any advertisement per se, therefore one can perhaps say that the first objective is met. In the latter two issues, did the EC allow the government to get away purely on technicalities undermining its own code?  

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The EC swung into action after receiving the complaint and set up an official committee. The panel held several rounds of meetings with senior Doordarshan and All India Radio officials and examined the “technical aspects of feeding and broadcast through AIR or DD”. 

Since “the source of the feed was a video received from ANI” (a private news agency) and more than 60 news channels in addition to DD had telecast live, the panel reached the conclusion that there has been no violation of code of conduct. And hence the clean chit.  

The issues that EC seem to have examined are the Prime Minister’s announcement before the address to the nation, the content of the speech and finally the role of state media — DD and AIR. 

Skirting around the model code

The Prime Minister in his twitter handle had announced: “I would be addressing the nation at around 11:45 am – 12.00 noon with an important message. Do watch the address on television, radio or social media.” 

The tweet was generic in nature without specific mention of DD or AIR. The speech congratulated the scientists involved in the project, outlined its objectives and described how it was a proud movement for the nation. According to those familiar with the working of the EC, since PM did not claim it as an achievement of the government or the party the code was not violated. 

The EC seems to be suggesting that ANI got the address and shared it with all its clients including DD and AIR and therefore there is no violation. Also there has been no partisanship. So obviously care has been taken by PM’s officials to ensure that legally all aspects that could have violated the code of conduct are covered. 

But the issue does raise questions on EC’s conduct. Why did the EC not serve a notice on PM’s office as it did in the case Rajiv Kumar, vice chairman of Niti Aayog, who had accused Congress leader Rahul Gandhi of promising the “moon to win the elections” through his minimum income guarantee plan. Since the prime minister had alerted people to look out for an important announcement, why didn’t he used the opportunity to simultaneously write a letter to the EC informing them of his address to the nation? 

In his address to the nation, the Prime Minister had not mentioned his party, but later in his political rallies he has been mentioning the launch of A-SAT as a major achievement of the government. Since the party in power is expected to list its achievements before the electorate, in EC’s view this may not be construed as violation of the code of conduct. But what about the complaint of Opposition that the government was indeed publicising the achievement only to improve its electoral prospects? 

Modi supporters immediately took to social media and rubbished the Opposition, especially the CPM that went to the EC with the complaint. Those opposed to Modi, however, described this as a sign of another institution going down to serve the interests of those in power. 

The Opposition has raised questions on the timing of the announcement as well. Why was it announced by the PM after the model code had kicked in? If informing the people, immediately after an important scientific achievement was the objective, it could have as well been announced by a senior official of the scientific establishment. Why him? They argue.

The Opposition is wondering whether it is a fall of another institution which is supposed to be a an autonomous constitutional authority. 

A scientific achievement

The BJP is using offence as the best defence by refusing to get into the merits of the case. It is using nationalism as a stick to beat the Opposition. Their argument is simple. India, by firing the A-Sat missile, has joined the exclusive league of nations and since this achievement is a matter of national pride everyone should be welcoming it. This should not be linked to elections at all. 

The government may well get away with the arguments and the EC may justify its decision based on in its own findings on “technical aspects”, but the issue does raise ethical and moral questions as the Model Code of Conduct is supposed to apply in a broad framework to ensure free and fair elections.

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