Hours after the first phase of the Gujarat assembly election concluded on December 1, hundreds of hoardings sprang up in Ahmedabad and other parts of the state. This was after the state saw a voter turnout of in phase one.
The messages on the hoardings seemed benign enough, encouraging people to exercise their franchise. Except for a few put up by the Gujarat Garment Manufacturers Association, there was no indication as to who put up the posters. But the colour of the hoardings gave them away – saffron, the party colour of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Newslaundry learned some of these hoardings – about 3,000 in Gujarat – were installed by an outfit tied to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, its ideological fountainhead.
Here’s what we found.
At midnight on Sunday, Newslaundry traversed a 10 km stretch in east and west Ahmedabad, where local shop owners said these hoardings came up sometime in the last two or three days. They carried messages like “let’s go with the entire family for 100% voting”, “first vote, then eat”, “voting is our duty”, and “first vote, then do kanyadaan” – the last a reference to the ongoing wedding season in the state.
The saffron hoardings were spotted at Law Garden, Vadilal bus stop, Paldi Chaar Rasta, Cloth Market Road, Sarangpur bus stop circle, Sambhaav Metro Newspaper circle, Rupali Cinema Chowk, Khanpur, Nehru Bridge Circle, Kaushik Outdoor, Mithakhali 6 Rasta, Navrangpura bus stop, and opposite Nirma University.
BJP Gujarat spokesperson Yamal Vyas told Newslaundry his party did not put up the hoardings. “I am sure the Election Commission is very alert,” he said. “I have not seen these hoardings so I really don’t know. But I am sure these are not ours.”
Someone did claim responsibility though – Ajit Shah, the trustee of the Bharat Vikas Parishad (Gujarat). The Bharat Vikas Parishad is a member of the Sangh Parivar. Its Gujarat coordinator, Dinesh Vohra, described it as a “cultural organisation comprising the intelligentsia of the country”.
Vohra added that their awareness campaign this time is more “expansive” than during the 2017 election. Shah said the organisation has installed “around 3,000 hoardings” across the state for voter awareness. A BJP source alleged Shah has been “linked” with the BJP for “decades” but Shah said this is not the case.
Newslaundry on Sunday had also spotted hoardings – at Law Garden, opposite Nirma University, Nehru Bridge circle and Mithakhali 6 Rasta – urging voters to ensure a “historic victory” for Gujarat chief minister Bhupendra Patel.
A hoarding urging voters to support chief minister Bhupendra Patel.
An awareness campaign put up by the Election Commission.
A hoarding installed by the Gujarat Garment Manufacturers Association.
Shah said the Bharat Vikas Parishad was not responsible for putting them up.
Under section 126 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, political advertisements are not allowed during the ‘silence period’, which kicks in 48 hours before voting.
Dhaval Patel, the Ahmedabad district election officer, told Newslaundry the saffron hoardings were not installed by his office; the Election Commission uses blue and white for its material. When asked specifically about the hoardings seeking votes for chief minister Patel, he said, “First, I will have to check.”
P Bharathi, the Gujarat chief electoral officer, did not respond to Newslaundry’s phone calls.
Former election commissioner SY Qureshi said there is no bar under the Representation of the People Act on colours used in voter awareness campaigns during the silence period.
On the Patel hoardings, he said, “Even if there is no symbol used on the hoardings, but ultimately, you are seeking votes for an individual. So, no campaigning is allowed in that [silence] period.”
Manish Doshi, the spokesperson for the Congress party in Gujarat, said the hoardings are “an old tactic of the BJP”. “On the pretext of voter awareness, the colour of these hoardings shows a hidden agenda – who you should vote for,” he said. “People who have put up these displays are directly or indirectly linked to the BJP.”
He added that since the voter turnout in phase one was lower than the previous election, it showed that the BJP’s core urban voters are “disenchanted” with the party due to issues like inflation and unemployment.
But BJP’s Vyas sounded upbeat. “Our voters have turned up and voted,” he said. “Feedback from our workers and candidates indicates that our victory margin will increase this time.”
Update at 10.25 pm, Dec 5, 2022: Ajit Shah is a trustee of the Bharat Vikas Parishad, not the secretary as previously stated. This has been corrected.
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