Elections and the airwaves

Elections and the airwaves


  • In the recently­concluded Karnataka Assembly elections, political parties were provided free airtime on public broadcasters, All India Radio (Akashvani) and Doordarshan during elections.
  • The allotment was available to six recognised national parties — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Indian National Congress (INC), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the National People’s Party (NPP), the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and one recognised State party, the Janata Dal (Secular).
  • The parties were allocated a base time of 45 minutes and additional slots based on performance in previous polls.
  • A total of 630 minutes of free airtime was issued under this allotment.

What is the rationale of the scheme?

  • The facility to provide free airtime for political parties during elections was given statutory basis through the 2003 amendment to the Representation of People Act, 1951.
  • The Supreme Court, in its famed judgment (The Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting vs Cricket Association of Bengal and ANR, 1995), held that airwaves are public property and its use should serve the greater public good.
  • Elections being the lifeblood of a democracy, the misuse or abuse of airwaves to gain unfair electoral advantage is a key regulatory apprehension of governments around the world.

What is the working of the scheme?

  • In the Karnataka elections, the BJP received 167 minutes of broadcast time on both DD and Akashvani, while the Congress got 174 minutes and the JD(S) got 107 minutes.
  • Time vouchers are distributed by a lottery system by the Election Commission in a transparent process to obviate any preferential treatment in getting primetime slots.
  • Since the content being aired has to adhere to specific codes, it upholds the principle of fair play.
  • The guidelines by the Election Commission of India (ECI) also require that a maximum of two panel discussions are also aired by Akashvani and DD.
  • These discussions provide an excellent platform for parties, both big and small, to debate and criticise each other’s policies and manifestos, and in general promote an informed citizenry.

What are the operational challenges?

  • The fact that the scheme is available to national and recognised State parties may attract arguments that it is not truly equitable.
  • In light of the recent retraction of the national party status for the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) and the Trinamool Congress (TMC), this observation becomes important.
  • The Apex Committee comprises officials from Akashvani and DD and are expected to sit in review of their own decision in case of conflict with the political party on the content of the transcript.
  • This leaves scope for conflicts of interest and therefore, a more representative committee may be constituted.

Way forward:

  • There are calls for extending the provision to cover private broadcasters akin to the fairness doctrine of the U.S.
  • A designated slot may be mandated for private channels to air content equitably and provide a platform for smaller parties and candidates.
  • The political broadcast may be clearly differentiated from regular news broadcasts and programmes.

Syllabus: GS II – Polity and Governance