A day after RTI activist and journalist Saket Gokhale alleged that during the Fadnavis regime, Maharashtra's Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) issued ads through an agency owned by the BJP IT cell convener, former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan on Friday asked the Election Commission of India to conduct a thorough inquiry into the whole episode.
He said such a probe was necessary as ‘‘the very integrity of the free and fair conduct of the election process appears to be undermined’’.
Interestingly, the Election Commission of India has sought a report from Maharashtra CEO Baldev Singh, who succeeded Ashwani Kumar, who was shifted by the erstwhile BJP government in July 2019.
In a two-page letter to the Chief Election Commissioner, Chavan said, ‘‘It is shocking that Maharashtra Chief Electoral Officer had hired an advertising agency owned by a member of the BJYM, Devang Dave to operate its social media page during 2019 state assembly elections. I have asked the Chief Election Commissioner for a thorough investigation in this matter.’’
He further stated, the ECI is mandated to monitor the social media activity of all the parties – both direct and proxy - during elections but in this instance, the Maharashtra EC worked with an office-bearer of the ruling party.
‘’The Election Commission has access to voter databases and demographics. This database is crucial in targeting specific voter groups. It is clear that this data was available to the BJP through the social media agency run by the BJP,’’ said Chavan.
The veteran Congress leader has raised other questions, including the process involved in selecting the social media agency by the CEO Maharashtra and how this particular company was selected. ‘’Was there a transparent advertisement process used and was there a background check of the selected agency by the CEO Maharashtra? Was there political pressure – direct or indirect - put on the CEO by the state government to use this particular agency?'' Chavan asked.
Further, Chavan said, in the advertisement campaign run by CEO Maharashtra on Facebook, the address of the advertiser was a private address –‘’202 Pressman House, Vile Parle, Mumbai’’ and not the official address of the CEO Maharashtra.
‘’On inquiry, it was discovered that this address belonged to an advertising company called Signpost India, a social media and outdoor advertisement company appointed by the erstwhile BJP government in the state. On further inquiries, it was found that the same address was also used by a digital agency called Social Central,’’ said Chavan. He noted that all these agencies belong to and work for the BJP in the state.
‘’It is further learnt that the Social Central agency is owned by one Devang Dave, an office-bearer of BJP, being the national convener of the IT and social media cell of the youth wing of the BJP - the BJYM,’’ said Chavan.
This was clear evidence establishing that the CEO Maharashtra’s social media campaign was being run by a BJP sponsored company, Chavan argued.