Congress leader Prithviraj Chavan on Friday alleged that an advertising and social media company owned by a BJP office-bearer was hired by the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) Maharashtra to issue election-related online ads during the 2019 assembly polls.
The former chief minister demanded a probe by the Election Commission of India (ECI) into the matter. Chavan told a press conference here that he had written a letter to the Chief Election Commissioner, seeking an inquiry into the alleged episode which took place when the BJP was in power in Maharashtra. An ECI spokesperson said the commission has sought a detailed factual report in the matter from the CEO Maharashtra immediately.
"The sanctity of the election process has to be maintained. We request you to conduct a thorough enquiry into the whole episode because the very integrity of free and fair conduct of the election process appears to be undermined, Chavan said in the letter.
The former Union minister said the CEO Maharashtra ran an advertisement campaign related to election on Facebook. The advertisements issued under the campaign had the private address of the advertiser and not that of the CEO Maharashtra, he said.
"On enquiry, it was discovered that this address belonged to an advertising agency Signpost India. The company is a social media and outdoor agency and was appointed by the erstwhile BJP government for government publicity," he said.
"On further enquiries it was found that the same address was also used by a digital agency called Social Central. All these agencies belong to and work for the BJP in Maharashtra.
"The agency Social Central is owned by Devang Dave,who is an office-bearer of the BJP. He is the national convenor of the IT and social media cell of the BJP Yuva Morcha," the Congress leader said.
Chavan said the Social Central website shows the BJP and CEO Maharashtra as its clients.
There is evidence to establish that CEO Maharashtra's social media campaign was being run by a BJP-sponsored company owned by Dave, he said. Dave also operates social media pages like 'The Fearless Indian and "I support Narendra Modi which are propaganda pages and have "hateful" content, he claimed.
Chavan said the website claims that Dave was a member of the "IT board" of the Maharashtra government. "I have been the Chief Minister and am not aware of such a post in the government," he said.
"It is shocking that a senior officer of the ECI, the CEO Maharashtra, chose a company owned by a BJP office-bearer to operate the CEOs social media campaign during the assembly elections.
"The ECI is mandated to monitor the social media activity of all parties, but the CEO Maharashtra worked with an office-bearer of the (then) ruling party," Chavan said. "The Election Commission has access to voter database and demographics.
This data is crucial in targeting specific voter groups. It is clear the data was available to the BJP through the social media agency run by the BJP," he said. Chavan sought to know how this particular agency was selected by the CEO Maharashtra.
"Was there a transparent advertisement process used and was a background check done on the selected agency. "Was there political pressure, direct or indirect, by the then state government to use services of the particular agency," the Congress leader asked.
A tweet from Sheyphali Sharan, official spokesperson of the ECI, said the "commission has sought detailed factual report in the matter from CEO Maharashtra with respect to the alleged locale of the incidence immediately".