Activist Saket Gokhale posted a tweet thread on July 23 alleging that the Election Commission of India “hired” the IT cell of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to manage their social media in Maharashtra ahead of the 2019 assembly elections.
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.
— Saket Gokhale (@SaketGokhale) July 23, 2020
Gokhale pointed out that advertiser details on the Facebook page of Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) Maharashtra carry the address “202 Pressman House” in Vile Parle, Mumbai.
This is also the address mentioned by pro-BJP Facebook page ‘The Fearless Indian’.
Mumbai-based advertising agencies Signpost India and Social Central use that address as well.
But the address is not the sole link between Signpost India, Social Central, and ‘The Fearless Indian’. In this report, we will investigate advertising agencies with close ties to the BJP handling social media for Maharashtra Election Commission. The story begins with Devang Dave.
Devang Dave’s links with BJP IT cell
Devang Dave is the managing director at Social Central and the founder of Facebook pages ‘The Fearless Indian’ and ‘I Support Narendra Modi.’ He is the social media head of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), the youth wing of the BJP. Dave’s profile picture on Twitter is with Prime Minister Modi.
The address used on CEO Maharashtra’s advertiser details appears on Devang Dave’s website. It is noteworthy that Dave changed the address on his website after Gokhale’s tweets.
The Election Commission of Maharashtra is a client of Social Central and so is the Ministry of Steel and Maharashtra BJP.
The company Signpost India also handled social media for Maharashtra Election Commission and Ministry of Steel. This was found through the LinkedIn profile of a former intern at Signpost.
Devang Dave’s association with Signpost India
There are several pictures of BJYM IT cell head Devang Dave that place him inside the office of Signpost India.
After it was brought to light that a company that handles social media for the BJP is also managing Maharashtra Election Commission’s online presence, Devang Dave put a statement on Twitter. “The work assigned by Election Commission to Signpost was after following due process. There is no illegality whatsoever,” he claimed.
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? (1/4)
— Devang Dave (@DevangVDave) July 24, 2020
While Dave has denied any conflict of interest, the URL ‘isupportnamo.org‘ redirects to the website of Signpost India.
Domain ‘isupportnamo.org’ used to be the corresponding website of Facebook page ‘I Support Narendra Modi’ (facebook.com/isupportnamo) which has a massive follower count of 16 million. This page was founded by Devang Dave and as the name suggests, regularly posts content favouring PM Modi and the BJP.
On a web archive link from 2018, we found that Devang Dave’s personal website was hosted on the same server as isupportnamo.org, Signpost India, Social Central, ‘Fearless Indian’ and several websites of BJP leaders including Nirmala Sitharaman and Poonam Mahajan.
Signpost India’s clientele
Signpost’s past projects reveal a close association with the BJP. Union Minister Rajnath Singh was photographed at Signpost India’s launch of a Digital India project in 2018. The company had also uploaded pictures of BJP Assam MLA Himanta Biswa inaugurating a project in 2018.
Last year in December, the Ministry of Steel had extended its contract with Signpost India of managing social media presence of the ministry and its ministers.
Therefore, ad agencies with deep ties to a member of BJP IT cell have the Election Commission of Maharashtra, an autonomous constitutional body, as one of their clients. Devang Dave has claimed that Singpost India’s work with CEO Maharashtra is unrelated to his association with the BJP. But the redirection of ‘isuppprtnamo.org’ to Singpost India’s website and the nature of Signpost India’s clientele shows a conflict of interest.
Responding on the matter, ECI spokesperson said that the commission has sought a detailed factual report from CEO Maharashtra. Former CM Prithviraj Chavhan said that he will address a press conference on July 24 on the matter.
. @SpokespersonECI must explain as how can the constitutional body be usurped by the ruling party in the Centre. @ECISVEEP
This is a case of regulatory capturing.@CMOMaharashtra @OfficeofUT must take immediate cognisance of this matter. https://t.co/DTYTbpv2j2
— Eminence Grise 😎 (@bl_khatri) July 23, 2020