Ruling Against 'Surrogate Publicity', EC Suspends Release of Modi Biopic

The Election Commission drew on Supreme Court rulings to fight new tools to bypass the Model Code of Conduct, and restrict the film and its publicity imagery.

New Delhi: “Where these (laws) are absent, and yet a situation has to be tackled, the Chief Election Commissioner has not to fold his hands and pray to God… to enable him to exercise his functions.”

These words from a Supreme Court judgement were quoted by the Election Commission of India (ECI) in its order on Wednesday. Citing Article 324 of the constitution, the ECI finally moved to control the flood of film productions and electronic media “displayed with the furtherance of electoral gains during the period of Model Code of Conduct.”

Exercising these powers, it ruled against the release of the film PM Narendra Modi during the poll period, which was meant to debut in cinemas on April 11, the first day of polling for the national election. The order also references complaints about the films Lakshmi’s NTR and Udyama Simham – a biopic of K. Chandrashekar Rao, the chief minister of Telangana.

The EC ruled that it was “prohibiting display in electronic media including cinematograph of any biopic material in the nature of biography/hagiography sub-serving the purposes of any political entity or any individual entity connected to it.”

According to an NDTV report, poll commission sources say the order suspending the release of Modi biopic also applies to NaMo TV – the channel promoting the prime minister and the BJP – which is now likely to face restrictions.

CBFC cleared movie, SC declined to intervene

The order, issued by chief election commissioner Sunil Arora and both ECs, Sushil Chandra and Ashok Lavasa, assumes greater significance because the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) had cleared the Modi biopic just the day before.

Also read: Election Commission Stalls Release of Modi Biopic

On April 8, the Supreme Court had refused to intervene in the matter saying “too much of court time is wasted on these non-issues”. It had left it to the Election Commission to rule on whether the movie tilts the balance in favour of the ruling BJP.

Crackdown on private content for ‘electoral gains’

The Lok Sabha campaign period had left the ECI looking out of its depth. It seemed unable to apply traditional restrictions to a range of new media – including films, dedicated propaganda channels, television shows and social-media ads – in order to protect the basic principles of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC). This was complicated by the fact that these productions all appeared to be funded by private individuals, and not by parties.

Wednesday’s order indicates a way forward, and a higher bar for meeting electoral norms.

Also read: NaMo TV’s Use of Satellite Raises Questions About Compliance With Indian Law

The complaints it received, the commission said, claimed that “such creative contents are a kind of surrogate publicity by the candidate or the political party during the period of MCC. Though the display materials claim to be part of creative content, it is contended that these have the propensity and potential to affect the level playing field which is not in consonance with the provisions of the MCC.”

This kind of content may not fall in the category of advertisement, and may thus remain outside the purview of MCMC certification requirement. Even so, the commission said, “such ‘political contents’ poses a serious threat to the level playing field as it may create an impression of truthfulness” that is not legitimate.

Order covers posters and publicity in electronic media

In its detailed order, copies of which have been marked to the president and general secretaries of all recognised political parties, the poll panel has held:

“That any poster or publicity material related to such certified content, which either depicts a candidate (including prospective) for the furtherance (or purported to further) of electoral prospect, directly or indirectly, shall not be put to display in electronic media in the area where MCC is in operation.”

The commission also held that “in any cinematograph material, certified by the appropriate authority, if there exists such a violation or on receipt of a complaint in this regard, a Committee… shall examine a same and suggest appropriate action.”