Opinion | Elections 2024: The Myth Of A 'Silence Period' When Everyone Is Online

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Campaigning for the Lok Sabha elections has formally concluded. As per the existing rules, political parties are required to enter a 'silence period' 48 hours before voting ends.

Section 126 of the Representation of The People Act has provisions for the "prohibition of public meetings during a period of forty-eight hours ending with hour fixed for conclusion of poll", while Section 126A places restrictions on the publication and dissemination of exit poll results before voting ends. The logic is that discussion about such surveys ahead of voting can influence people.

The Logic Behind A 'Silence Period'

A 'silence period' allows both election authorities and political parties to take care of the logistics. While poll officials work to ensure that all arrangements are in place to conduct elections in a fair and peaceful fashion, political parties and their cadres firm up arrangements to get out the vote. Away from the hustle and din of campaigning,  the 'silence period' allows the voter, the most important person in this entire drill, time to cement their decision and exercise their democratic right. Authorities ensure that no public meetings are held by a party or candidate in a poll-bound area after the end of the campaign period, thus providing a level-playing field to all contestants. Only door-to-door campaigning is allowed. 

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Over the past two decades, however, with the march of technology, the very meaning of public meetings has changed. For instance, while parties still prefer physical rallies to demonstrate support, speeches and campaign remarks are no longer limited geographically. TV channels cover public rallies live, and social media activity can disseminate a message far and beyond a particular rally. The footprint of satellite pictures is much wider than the actual event, and it's not hard for the chatter from one public meeting to reach a constituency that's under a 'silence period'. This is best seen in phase-wise voting. 

Politics Has Moved Online

Nearly half of the country's population has access to social media today, and it has become the 'go-to' medium for everything. No wonder then that political parties have started employing social media experts who can shape their online campaigns and target youth effectively.

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In summation, parties and candidates in constituencies that are under a 'silence zone' can reach voters through social media. Links can be shared for political rallies being held outside such zones. Candidates can deliver customised messages to target groups, put out advertisements, generate automated calls, and much more. All this remains outside the realm of existing laws. And so, even though there is technically no breach in real terms, the spirit behind the Representation of The People Act is lost. 

A Pressing Need For New Rules

Five years ago, a committee headed by a Deputy Election Commissioner submitted a report to the Election Commission observing that the task of maintaining the spirit of the 'silence period' was becoming "increasingly onerous in the light of the increasing influence of digital media". The committee suggested that apart from taking a legal approach, the problem required proactive support and sustained effort by all stakeholders. The poll body worked with social media and digital platforms to develop a Voluntary Code Of Ethics, but nothing much happened beyond that.

In the current elections, besides asking a social media platform to take down a few posts, the Election Commission wrote to all parties about using the medium responsibly and told them to strictly avoid any wrongful conduct. 

Two decades ago, the poll body had collaborated with major stakeholders to counter the spread of paid news. In the age of AI and deepfakes today, the Election Commission must look at ways to tackle the challenges posed by social and digital media. 

(K.V. Prasad is a senior Delhi-based journalist)

Disclaimer: These are the personal views of the author