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Directed by Omung Kumar, this upcoming Indian biographical movie ‘PM Narendra Modi : Story of a Billion People’ which has been produced by various Producers namely, Suresh Oberoi, Sandip Ssingh, Anand Pandit, Archana Manish and Zafar Mehdi is currently facing controversies during Lok Sabha Elections, 2019.
It all started when the official trailer of the movie was released on 20 March 2019. The oppositions strongly oppose the release of the movie in theaters till the elections are completed as they call this movie a ‘Political Propaganda’ and that this mainly violates the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) issued by the ECI (Election Commission of India).
MCC is the guidelines by the Election Commission of India. This directs the conduct of political parties and candidates during elections mainly with respect to speeches, polling day, polling booths, portfolios, election manifestos, processions and general conduct. This is done to ascertain that the ruling parties whether at the Centre or at the State do not abuse their position of power to get an unfair advantage. The MCC comes into force instantly after the announcement of the election schedule by ECI. And for the 2019 Indian general election, the code came into effect on 10 March 2019 and will remain so till the end of the electoral process.
Petitions were filed in many of the High Courts of India either for postponing the date of release or for banning the movie saying that due to this movie, the “Bharatiya Janta Party”(BJP) can get unfair advantage in general elections which is prohibited as per the electoral laws. Delhi High Court and Bombay High Court rejected the petitions filed against the release mainly on the grounds that the CBFC (Central Board of Film Certification) is the authority responsible for approval of movie releases and the ECI had already issued a notice to the producers warning them not to violate the MCC. Having no option left, the doors of the Supreme Court were knocked.
The Special Leave Petition was filed and on 4 April 2019, it was contended that the Hon’ble High Court has not considered all the important factors. Senior Advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi while mentioning the Court said that the movie is not a separate commercial program but a politically motivated propaganda spreading medium. An attempt was made to show that how the movie is made in close allies with the ruling party (BJP) as three of the four producers are members of the party. It was further argued that the movie was being promoted by the Mahrashtra CM and also by Amit Shah, the President of the BJP. Also, with regards to the certification by the CBFC, it was contended that it’s Chairman, Prasoon Joshi is a part of the movie.
Its further contentions were that the trailer and advertisements are violating Rule 7(3) of the ‘Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994’ in which any advertisement of any political or religious nature are prohibited. Also, violation of S.126 (1) of the ‘Representation of the People Act’ is involved as the ‘silence period’ is going to start on 11 April and there is a restriction on display of election matter by any means which includes cinematograph film.
The Petitioners were seeking a direction to delay the release of the movie and also that the movie trailers and advertisements are in the violation of the MCC and other electoral laws.
The matter was next heard on 8 April in which the Hon’ble SC said any kind of order from the court will be possible if the petitioner states and pleads what the film is seeking to depict and his objections on this count, The bench said, there is no cause of action for challenging the film’s release by now to which Singhvi said, “There is no level playing field and allowing the release of the film would be a direct assault on the structure of the Constitution”. But, the matter was finally disposed off on 9 April and the court told that even if the film is released on April 11, as claimed by the Congress activist, it will be appropriate for him to seek a redressal from the Election Commission and that happened.
Election Commission on the next day deferred the release of the film till ‘further orders’. In a separate order, the poll panel also imposed a ban on public screening of “any biopic material in the nature of biography/ hagiography” which could serve the interest of a political party or candidate, while the Model Code of Conduct is in force. The EC also has stopped the screening of two more biopics, Lakshmi’s NTR on TDP founder, N T Rama Rao and Udyama Simham on Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao’s struggle for the separate state of Telangana. It is being said that the ‘umbrella order’ of the EC will also affect the 10-part web series Modi: Journey of a Common Man which is currently being streamed on Eros Now platforms.
The EC in its order highlighted that “under Article 324 of the Constitution, superintendence, direction and control of elections are bestowed upon the Commission and it is the duty of the Commission to take necessary measures to create a level playing field and provide a conducive electoral environment to all the stakeholders.” It also reiterated “in catena of judgments, Hon’ble Supreme Court has held and acknowledged that the Model Code of Conduct, which ensures free and fair electoral process, which is sin[e] qua non for the electoral democracy”, and said that it was of “the considered view that there is an emergent need for intervention in the matter of those ‘political contents’ which are intended for benefitting or discrediting the electoral prospect of any candidate or/ and any political party, for ensuring a level playing field”.
The EC with regards to the future complaints for violation of MCC said that a committee headed by a retired Supreme Court Judge or a retired Chief Justice of a High Court would vet them and the names will be announced soon.
Hang on; the controversy doesn’t end here, what next can you think could have happened? Yes, the producer Sandip Ssingh has now approached the SC under Article 32 against the EC’s order contending that the order is a violation of their freedom of speech and expression. Hitesh Jain, the lawyer for the producers says that “A five-judge bench of the Supreme Court has already held that although the EC has plenary power under Article 324 of the Constitution, these powers have their limitations. When Parliament or any state legislature has already made a valid law then the EC should act in conformity with that law and it cannot transgress it. As far as film release goes, CBFC is the appropriate authority to take decisions under law.”
The question to be determined here is, “Can the EC issue such an order even if the film is certified by the CBFC?” The Supreme Court heard the matter on 15 April 2019 and had asked the EC to watch the film first and then take any decision. The EC has watched the film as of now and they had to submit their decision to the SC in a sealed cover by today i.e April 19, 2019 and the case will be heard next on 22 April.
The fate of PM Narendra Modi, the movie is looked for.
The matter of concern in the current case revolves around how strong are the electoral laws and its enforcement with regards to regulation of movies, which will further open up to the laws governing digital media with respect to paid news or fake news during elections. As in one of the cases in 2018, the Delhi High Court set aside the EC’s order disqualifying one of the BJP’s Cabinet Minister on the grounds of paid news. The Hon’ble High Court held that the EC’s power is limited to Poll expenditure incurred by a candidate and not content of speech. It further observed that “the content of a media article, or a news feature or series of features on particular candidates should ordinarily not be regulated indirectly through the directives of EC; there essentially fall within the domain of free speech”.
With this, it can be seen that the limited powers given to the election commission are being curtailed due to the lack of specific laws with respect to digital propaganda or fake/paid news and the effect of the same can be seen in the case of PM Narendra Modi.
The fate of future electoral laws is also awaited.