In the first case of action against a politician for 'paid news' syndrome, the Election Commission on Thursday disqualified a woman MLA from Uttar Pradesh for three years for incorrect statement of election expenditure incurred on 'news items' in two Hindi dailies.
The decision to disqualify Umlesh Yadav, an MLA belonging to Rashtriya Parivartan Dal, headed by controversial politician D P Yadav, can have ramifications in other cases including that of former Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan.
Chavan faces a similar complaint against him in a case pending before the Election Commission.
The three-member Commission headed by Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi took the decision on a complaint filed by losing candidate Yogendra Kumar whose complaint with the Press Council was upheld and formed the basis for the commission's action.
Having due regard to the totality of the facts and circumstances and the law on the subject, the commission said it was of the opinion, and accordingly held that Umlesh Yadav did not maintain a correct and true account of her election expenditure under section 77 (of the Representation of the People Act) in connection with her election to UP Assembly from Bisauli in April 2007.
It held that she filed such incorrect account of her election expenses with the district election officer and had denied filing such incorrect account and defended her action.
The Commission said to some people its view that the suppression of the expenditure of Rs 21,250 by Umlesh Yadav in her account of election expense and her failure under law might appear too harsh.
"The commission is however bound by law made by Parliament and is duty bound to follow the same, particularly where the law so enacted does not give any discretion to the commission or leeway in the matter of its application," the commission said.
Accordingly, it said, it had no option but to declare Yadav disqualified for the failure for being chosen as or being a member of Parliament, legislative assembly or council for three years from Thursday.
Yogendra Kumar had complained against Hindi dailies 'Amar Ujala' and 'Dainik Jagran' in July, 2010 before the Press Council alleging that these papers had published 'paid news' items in their papers on April 17, 2007, a day before the election in favour of Yadav.
The papers maintained that the matter complained against was an advertisement and was clearly distinguishable from the news items. They maintained that at the bottom of the entire advertisement the word 'ADVT' was published that showed it was not a news item.
The Press Council held that the format of the impugned article was such that it would appear as a news report to the layman and the word 'ADVT' printed at the lowest end rather appeared to accompany a small boxed appeal by the candidate.
The council felt there was beyond doubt a possibility of confusing the voters when the elections were just a day away and all campaigning had stopped.
"The act was not only unethical by journalistic standards but also in violation of the election laws," the Press Council said.
The Commission then asked Umlesh Yadav to explain why she should not be disqualified under the Representation of People Act for three years for not lodging true account of her election expenses.
Yadav vehemently denied any expenditure on advertisements and so the question of reflecting that in her expenses account did not arise. She alleged that the publication of advertisements could have been the handiwork of her opponents to malign her image and get her disqualified.
However, the commission found on the basis of documents supplied by two newspapers that bills were issued in the name of D P Yadav, the president of Yadav's party and one Pramod Mishra.
The question that arose for the commission's consideration was whether the expenditure of Rs 21,250 on publication of 'paid news' in 'Dainik Jagran', the day before the poll, can be said to have been authorised by Umlesh Yadav within the meaning of Section 77 (1) of the RP Act and ought to have been included in her return of election expenses filed under Section 78 of the RP Act.