RTI activist alleges that Maharashtra’s Chief Electoral Officer hired the services of a company linked to the BJP’s IT cell

Published : July 26, 2020 10:23 IST

Devang Dave (left) with Devendra Fadnavis, former Chief Minister of Maharashtra. Photo: Twitter/@DevangVDave

A series of tweets on July 23 from Saket Gokhale, a Right to Information activist, caused an uproar in Maharashtra’s political circles. The first in the thread said: “Shocking details: Election Commission of India literally hired the BJP IT Cell for handling their social media in Maharashtra in the run-up to the 2019 State Assembly Elections” (Readers can view the entire thread here: https://twitter.com/SaketGokhale/status/1286285658068103168.)

Gokhale—who introduces himself on Twitter as “Anti Fascist; Former foreign correspondent; If you love Bob Dylan, you’re my best buddy by default”—alleges that Devang Dave, the national convener of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) IT cell, was given the contract to conduct voter awareness campaigns for the 2019 Assembly elections in Maharashtra despite an obvious conflict of interest.

Gokhale says that the Chief Electoral Officer employed a company called Signpost India Pvt Ltd for its publicity work. He found out that Signpost and another company called Social Central had a common registered office address. Social Central runs Facebook pages such as “I Support Narendra Modi” and “Fearless Indian”. And the managing director of Social Central is Devang Dave.

Prithviraj Chavan, senior Congressman and former Chief Minister, has demanded an inquiry from the Election Commission of India (ECI) into Saket Gokhale’s allegations. He said: “According to Article 324 of the Constitution, the ECI has powers to direct, schedule and control elections. It is the duty of the ECI to conduct elections in a free and fair manner. This incident shows that the ECI’s machinery in Maharashtra failed in its duty. Therefore, there should be a thorough and impartial inquiry into the matter.” Chavan also alleged that “voter databases and demographics were made available to the BJP through the social media agency”.

Prithviraj Chavan said Dave’s social media firm shows the Chief Electoral Officer, Maharashtra, as a “client” on its website, http://www.socialcentral.in. The agency also lists the BJP as a client and a few other government agencies as well. He said: “This is clear evidence to establish that the CEO, Maharashtra’s social media account was being run by a BJP-sponsored firm owned by the BJP’s office bearer Devang Dave. Dave also operates social media pages like Fearless Indian, I support Narendra Modi, which are propaganda pages on behalf of the BJP. The website also claims that Dave is a member of the IT board of Maharashtra government. It is not clear when and how the government of Maharashtra appointed Devang to the post.”

The ECI has taken cognition of Gokhale’s tweets and has asked the State’s Chief Electoral Officer for a report. Baldev Singh, the Chief Electoral Officer of Maharashtra, said it was not his office that appointed Signpost. He said his office had asked the Directorate General of Public Information and Relations to choose an appropriate agency.

Defending himself on Twitter, Dave wrote: “We do not earn our bread and butter by doing any kind of ‘Dalali’ but by hardwork. The work assigned by Election Commission to Signpost was after following due process. There is no illegality whatsoever. Is it also forbidden for political activists to make an honest living” (Readers can see the full thread here: https://twitter.com/DevangVDave/status/1286578444252241920).

Dave has a Wikipedia page that says he is “an entrepreneur and the National Convener for IT-Social Media at BJYM [Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha], the youth wing of BJP. He has also been BJP’s social media head for Maharashtra. He has been a pioneer in establishing and creating successful political strategies for the Bhartiya Janta Party in Maharashtra”.

A day after he posted his tweets, Gokhale put out another one.  “URGENT: RSS WORKERS ARE OUTSIDE MY HOUSE CHANTING JAI SHRI RAM. THEY JUST THREATENED MY MOTHER.” He looped in Anil Deshmukh, the Nationalist Congress Party’s (NCP) Minister for Home, and the Thane Police, requesting their assistance. He also posted a video of the incident (https://t.co/PQZ85RpQCg https://twitter.com/SaketGokhale/status/1286627355448942592?s=20).

Gokhale had filed a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in the Allahabad High Court seeking the postponement of the bhumi puja at the proposed Ram temple in Ayodhya becauseof the pandemic raging across the country. In his petition he pointed out that under the guidelines of Unlock 1.0 and 2.0, the Central government banned religious gatherings. The petition was rejected by the Allahabad High Court. 

The people who gathered in front of Gokhale’s house and chanted Jai Shri Ram were members of the BJP’s youth wing. They were taunting Gokhale about his rejected petition. Responding to Gokhale’s tweet, the Thane Police sent a team to his home in Kashimira. The video Gokhale had shot was used to identify the culprits. Four of them were arrested and booked under IPC sections 143(a) (unlawful assembly), 188 (disobedience), 269 and 270 (spread of infection). They were later released on bail. The police are looking for six others who were also present. Gokhale has been given police protection on the instructions of Anil Deshmukh, Home Minister.

(Updated on July 28, 2020.)