A 14-member committee set up by the Election Commission (EC) in January to examine and suggest changes to Section 126 of the Representation of the People Act (RP Act) has been given more time to file its report. Section 126 bars election campaigning in the last 48 hours before voting.

The committee, which had been expected to submit its report by April, has sought time to file it by June 30, EC officials said on Tuesday. Officials aware of the development said the committee has so far had two rounds of meetings — in February and May — and is awaiting responses from political parties.

“The commission has also sought feedback from social media companies and parties and a report will be submitted once we hear from them,” one of the officials cited above said on condition of anonymity.

The committee, headed by deputy election commissioner Umesh Sinha, was announced in December after the EC took cognisance of parties violating provisions of Section 126. It also had the mandate to examine how media platforms could be regulated during the 48 hours before voting in a multiphase election. The committee, with members from EC and officials representing the ministries of information and technology, law and information and broadcasting, the Press Council of India and the National Broadcasters Association, was formally constituted in January.

On Monday, as bypolls were being held in several Lok Sabha and assembly constituencies across the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s interaction through the NaMO app with beneficiaries of the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojna, under which cooking gas connections are provided to poor households, was relayed by television channels.

This, according to a former chief election commissioner, had the “potential” to influence voters.

“This issue of indirect canvassing has been raised time and again, but is happening with more alacrity now. The election commission had sought the opinion of former Attorney General Ashok Desai and a need to revisit the provisions of Section 126 was felt. While the provision is being examined, it is incumbent on the political parties to ensure they avoid violating the rule,” the former CEC said, requesting anonymity. The commission has been unable to take action against parties and their candidates for violating Section 126, since most speeches are made are outside the precincts of the poll-bound area. The practice has raised concerns since these speeches are relayed live, even as polling is underway, through television and mobile communication means.

“When the RP Act was drafted in 1951, no one imagined the present-day communication systems. So there is a need to revisit the section and make amendments. The EC needs to be clear on what they want so that they can get the political parties to adhere to the new code,” former CEC HS Brahma said.

Jagdeep Chhokhar of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), an election watchdog, said parties were exploiting loopholes in the system which allows technology to relay speeches even as polls are underway. “Prime facie, this [PM’s address] is a violation of rules. The EC should take cognisance of this and ensure that the rules are followed in letter and spirit,” he said. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the PM’s speech coinciding with bypolls was not intended to sway voters.

BJP spokesperson Anil Baluni said: “The PM works 24x7, 365 days a year; those who criticise him have no other work. Even on Tuesday he addressed the beneficiaries of the Mudra scheme (for small businesses). There are no polls being held anywhere.”

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