The Economic Times
New Delhi

NEW DELHI: The Election Commission has cleared the decks for adding expenses of Baba Ramdev's voter awareness camps in Chhattisgarh to BJP's election spending account, setting a strong precedent for parties and individuals running surrogate political campaigns in the guise of public events.

The chief electoral officer (CEO) of Chhattisgarh has received the commission's green signal to include the yoga guru's 'Yoga Diksha' meetings held during his recent visit to the state in which he praised Narendra Modi and criticised Congress to BJP's campaign expenditure for the state elections, due next month.

Chhattisgarh's CEO, Sunil Kumar Kujur, told ET it would take him a few more days to ascertain the exact expense of the meetings. A final decision could be expected in "two to three days", Kujur said.

"Each and every citizen of this country is free to hold public meetings to canvass support for a candidate or party, but you have to make your intentions clear at the time of seeking EC's permission. You can't tell us you're holding an awareness camp and use the opportunity to praise a political party or candidate," said a senior EC official, who did not wish to be identified. The decision will serve as a warning to candidates and political parties resorting to surrogate campaigning without the commission's approval.

It could also puncture the yoga guru's assertions that he is apolitical. Ramdev has often denied any association with BJP, even though he has praised Modi, the party's prime ministerial candidate.

EC's Model Code of Conduct dictates that public meetings or events such as weddings, festive celebrations, political rallies and training camps held during the election period — counted from the date of announcement of elections to the date of polling — require prior permission from the state electoral office. The political intention behind such events has to be made clear at the outset.

But according to the complainants in this case — the Chhattisgarh Swabhiman Manch and Congress party — although the yoga guru had sought permission for conducting voter awareness and yoga camps just ahead of state elections in five districts from October 3-8, he used the platform to mount an attack on Congress and solicit support for Modi.

The complaint had evoked a strong reaction from BJP.

"This is absurd if such a suggestion has been made and I don't think the Election Commission should approve the proposal," BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar had told ET. A spokesman for Ramdev said EC's decision was wrong. "We resist this observation on grounds that we are neither a political party nor any of our associates is contesting elections. We're just telling people about the sins of this government," said SK Tijarawala.

This particular decision, however, is unlikely to hit BJP very much because there is no limit to how much a political party can spend during elections. Limits on election expenditure only apply to candidates. In Chhattisgarh, for instance, a candidate cannot spend more than Rs 16 lakh. EC sources said although the commission has actually advised Kujur to add the expenses of Ramdev's events to the expenditure account of candidate/candidates, it cannot be done in this instance because BJP had not declared its list of candidates at the time of the Yoga Diksha meetings. Activists welcomed the precedentsetting decision, but were sceptical whether it would actually be implemented.

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