Dropped in Popularity Polls? BJP Govt in Manipur Calls It Criminal Defamation

The state government is suing the Imphal Free Press, an independent newspaper, for commenting on the vagaries of an India Today opinion poll.

New Delhi: On October 14, on the weekly show ‘Political Stock Exchange’ on India Today TV, Rahul Kanwal aired the results of a continuing poll on India’s ‘Best Chief Minister’. The chief minister of Manipur, N. Biren Singh, had reason to be glad – he was ranked in third place.

The state unit of the BJP embarked on a round of celebrations, and even held a felicitation ceremony by governor Najma Heptullah in the Raj Bhavan the next day.

On October 21, a new episode of Political Stock Exchange was aired, with an updated list – Biren Singh was not on it.

The third position had now been taken over by Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani, who followed Odisha’s Naveen Patnaik and West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee.

In the light of the new rankings, an October 24 report in the Imphal Free Press (IFP) called the party’s celebrations “a bit premature”. The state government then slapped a criminal defamation case against the publisher, editor and one reporter of IFP.

Part of the article, titled ‘Biren loses 3rd best CM rank’, said:

“The popularity level of Biren Singh has gone down in the graph as the India Today popularity assessment programme continue across the country with chief ministers of more states being added in…the assessment was an incomplete one as the India Today programme stretches for a series of episodes, some which are still yet to be telecast. The channel had only assessed 23 states out of 29 when the announcement was made on the sixth edition of the programme.”

The newspaper report said, “IFP called up India Today journalist, and co-host of the show Rajdeep Sardesai and inquired about the poll and whether Biren Singh being third best CM is validated. He said that the polls were only for the 23 states and that the popularity graph of CMs is undergoing changes as the series is progressing with the CMs of more states being added in.”

However, the report didn’t go down well with the state government and party. On October 25, Rahul Kanwal tweeted the earlier list of popular chief ministers:

On October 26, IFP published another report quoting India Today’s associate editor Kaushik Deka stating on Twitter, “The north-east chief ministers were not considered (in the seventh episode), so all NE CMs went missing, there is no drop in his popularity score, rank change when there is a change in context.”

The IFP report added, “(The) question, however, has not subsided as to why the chief ministers of the northeast were not considered and why the division? Are North East CMs not under the popularity graph and why was Biren Singh who got third position among 23 states not considered?”

An Imphal-based broadcast reporter told The Wire, “The contradiction on the rankings became a big embarrassment for the party and the chief minister. A show hosted by the local news channel Impact TV in response to the newspaper’s report featured its editor Pradip Phanjoubam, a Congress spokesperson, and the BJP state spokesperson… who accused the editor of siding with the Congress.”

The notice of a criminal defamation suit arrived at the IFP office a week after the report was published.

So far, two hearings of the case have taken place – on December 1 and December 11. The counsel for the newspaper, Rakesh, said, “The case is filed by the state government under section 500 of IPC. Therefore, it is to be handled by the public prosecutor.’ He added that on the dates of both hearings, the relevant public prosecutor was on leave.

Phanjoubam, the editor of Imphal Free Press, refused to comment on the case, calling it “a sub judice matter”.

In the late nineties, the newspaper also faced a defamation case from the state government, then led by Congress chief minister Wahengbam Nipamacha Singh. The case dragged on for 15 years before the court acquitted the paper of all charges.

The next date of hearing of the present case is January 3.