The Madras High Court has ordered the Election Commission of India (ECI) to probe allegations of targeted campaigning by the BJP in Puducherry, wherein phone numbers of voters were obtained using data from Aadhar cards. The direction came on a petition filed by Puducherry (DYFI) President, who sought action against the party for targeting voters at the booth level and sending them ‘predatory’ SMSes to add them in a booth-level WhatsApp group of the BJP.
In his petition, he stated that since March 4, several Puducherry residents have been receiving SMSes with an invite link to join a WhatsApp group. Adding that he also received one such message, the petitioner said, “Out of curiosity, I clicked on the invite link to find the source of that SMS. The link points to a constituency-booth level WhatsApp group (For instance, named BJP-PUD-Law-11-12, meaning Bharatiya Janata Party-Puducherry-Lawspet constituency number 11-booth number 12), the constituency and the booth the receiver of the SMS belongs to.” He alleged that several such booth-level WhatsApp groups have been created by the party to target the voters.
The petitioner also stated that when he asked the admin of the WhatsApp group in question about how they obtained his phone number, he was told to approach the Puducherry BJP office to know more about the SMS or the WhatsApp group. “I asked him, in particular, why my name was added in the group. He replied that not only my number, there are WhatsApp groups for around 952 booths in the union Territory of Puducherry and all the voters are added in the respective WhatsApp groups,” the petition said, adding that he also received calls from random unknown phone numbers that gave him his name, booth and his constituency correctly without him having to reveal any of it.
Further, the petitioner alleged that these SMSes and phone calls were being received only on numbers that are linked to Aadhar cards of the voters. “For instance, if a person uses two mobile numbers, which is very common nowadays, the SMS is only sent to the mobile number linked with Aadhar and not in the other mobile number,” the petition added. It further pointed out that since many smartphone users have UPI apps like Google Pay on their phones, it is easy to send them money too through mobile phones without being tracked. “There is no mechanism to check these kinds of money transactions, which makes the conduct of free and fair elections preposterous.”
The petitioner also stated that the electoral rolls provided by the ECI do not include phone numbers and hence it is unclear where the BJP got access to mobile numbers of the voters. He added that none of the other political parties have sent similar SMSes or WhatsApp group invites on a booth level. He further alleged that the only way the BJP could have obtained the mobile numbers in an unauthorised manner is from the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). “Being the ruling party at the centre, BJP has misused its seat of power and indulged in identity theft under section 66 of the Information Technology Act, 2000, clearly in breach of the fiduciary duty it owes towards its subjects ie., the general public. The said offence is committed with an intention to threaten the security of the country, leading to the offence of cyber terrorism under section 66F of the Information Technology Act, 2000,” the petition added.
He further pointed out that Aadhar card was brought in to ensure targeted delivery of welfare schemes and subsidies and other social benefits and that as per the Aadhar Act, 2016, the UIDAI has the responsibility to ensure that the data collected by them is secure and confidential. Adding that while the government asks for Aadhar details for everything, the petition said, “…it can be seen from the case on hand that any third party can gain unauthorised access to the Aadhar database and can do whatever they like to do with the information of the individuals, ie., voters, in our case.”
He also mentioned that he had filed a complaint with the concerned authorities on the matter. On March 15, he was called for an inquiry by the police where he submitted evidence for his complaint. Seeking action against the BJP for violating the model code of conduct, the petitioner also sought the court to order action against the BJP to ensure free and fair elections.
Taking note of the case, the Principal Bench of the court comprising Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy said that the allegations made by the petitioner are serious since it involves accessing personal data. The court also directed the ECI to file a report on the matter within Friday and warned it not to pass the buck to the Cyber Cell of the police.