Thursday, November 18, 2010

Rumblings after Ashok-Parva

By Jaideep Hardikar

The ‘Ashok Parva’ is over. Its aftershocks aren’t.

Here’s another trouble brewing up for the axed chief minister Ashok Chavan, and this one might actually be worse than the Adarsh society scam that saw him lose his throne.

While the Prithviraj Chavan cabinet is likely to take oath, the former CM would on Friday be defending his 2009 election to the legislative assembly when the Election Commission of India (EC) holds the next and what is likely to be the final hearing of a petition that seeks his disqualification for allegedly fudging his poll expenses, including the unaccounted spending on what has come to be known as paid news.

The Ex-CM is defending a notice served on him earlier this year by the EC to explain why he should not be disqualified under the relevant sections of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, this – after his rival Madhav Kinhalar petitioned the EC following a series of reports that embroiled Chavhan in the paid news controversy. More than a dozen newspapers, some of them leading ones in the state, had in the run up to the polls published several pages in Chavan’s praise. The petitioner’s argument has been that one, the published content (dozens of pages virtually praising Chavhan) qualifies as “paid news” and, if accounted for, they would have cost crores of rupees breaching the Rs 10 lakh poll expenditure limit. In his official submission to the retuning officer of his Bhokar constituency, Nanded, Chavhan showed his expenditure to be Rs 7 lakh on his entire campaign, and a mere Rs 5,379 on newspaper advertisements.

That included of Rs 4400 he spent on the rally where Bollywood star Salman Khan was an attraction. And a meager Rs 200 on the pandal, Rs 1000 on setting up of the stage, Rs 40 for the cloth to cover it, and Rs 200 on the sofa-rentals. The rent of the meeting venue, added to the expenditure sheet later: Rs 500.

Kinhalkar holds that the very fact that EC sent notices to Chavan means that it is convinced that there’s prima facie a case against him and that there’s some violation. In his submissions before the EC, Chavan has denied any wrongdoing. Senior Congress leader, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, is said to be his counsel.

The BJP’s Kirit Somaiyya, who is intervener/petitioner on the issue, would also get an hour to plead his point of view before the EC, through his counsel and Rajya Sabha member, Ram Jethmalani.

The voluminous material evidence and other advertisements that were not accounted for in Chavhan’s election expenditure statement now form part of the EC hearings on the complaint.

The complaint against Chavhan and successive hearings over it hold significance, given that the EC, keen to clean up the malaise of paid news, has now set up a special cell, just before the Bihar assembly polls, to generally keep tab on paid news that favour some candidates and black out others in elections. The EC, sources in the know said, has this year issued circulars describing what according to it would qualify as paid news – content that is paid for but published under the garb of news.

In the previous hearing on November 12, the petitioner completed his arguments. The EC set November 19 as the date for next hearing, when Chavhan would get to explain his side of the story.

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