The Indian state led by Narendra Modi, whose party leads in polls to win Indian elections starting next month, restored access to some official economic data that it had blocked on its website during the campaign.
The Directorate of Economic Statistics in Gujarat, the state Modi has run since 2001, last night made available all but five of 53 documents that it earlier blocked, R.N. Pandya, the agency’s director, said by phone from the state capital of Gandhinagar today. It is setting up a pay wall for access to the other documents, which have more detailed data, he said.
The data, which was still available through search engines when the report names were entered, could be used for comparison against Modi’s campaign message of economic success during his tenure leading Gujarat. Polls show his opposition Bharatiya Janata Party winning the most seats in elections starting April 7 while falling short of a majority.
Pandya said in an interview two days ago that his agency had blocked publications detailing the state’s budget, census and economic growth data to comply with the Election Commission’s code of conduct. He declined to comment on the reason for yesterday’s change of policy, and why certain documents -- including the 2010 report “Statistical Outline, Gujarat State” -- will require a fee.
While the code of conduct “doesn’t specify each and every item” to be removed, the agency took the action to avoid violating stipulations that ban promoting the state government’s achievements, Pandya said on March 27. “It is like ethics: not everything is written in black and white.”
The Election Commission has never asked the National Informatics Centre to remove any data, according to Shefali Sushil Dash, its director general. The state-run agency manages the government’s databases, including the Planning Commission’s hub for statistics.
“We’ve got an order which says that references to ministers launching projects should not be highlighted, but it doesn’t ask anyone to block any data,” she said by phone.
Gujarat is the first state to have acknowledged blocking access to economic data on its web pages during the campaign period, said Jagdeep Chhokar, founder of Association for Democratic Reforms, a New Delhi-based group monitoring the elections. The state has outpaced the national economic growth rate in 11 of the past 12 financial years, according to data on the website accessed through putting the report name into a search engine.
“I have not heard of any other state doing this, but other states are not as sensitive because they do not have a prime ministerial candidate,” Chhokar said, referring to the decision to remove economic data. “Removing the information raises some questions about the motives for doing so and doubts that the information could be misused.”
The Election Commission’s code of conduct is meant to prevent incumbents from using government resources to gain an unfair advantage over challengers, said Anita Karwal, chief electoral officer for the organization in Gujarat. It forbids ministers and government authorities from announcing financial grants, starting government programs or promising new roads and water supply to the electorate.
“We do not ask the departments what they have removed and what they have not removed,” Karwal said by phone from Ahmedabad in Gujarat, without commenting directly on whether it’s necessary for the state government to remove economic data. “If we get a complaint, we will look into it.”
Rajesh Malhotra, spokesman for the federal Election Commission of India, deferred comment to the agency’s unit in Gujarat. Jagdish Thakkar, a spokesman for the Gujarat state government, did not answer calls to his mobile phone. Three calls to Modi’s office were also not answered.
Prakash Javadekar, a BJP spokesman, deferred comment to state officials in Gujarat.
The Election Commission’s code of conduct has created confusion among other official bodies, including the central bank. The Reserve Bank of India asked the commission earlier in March whether it could approve new bank permits during the campaign period. The agency has yet to make a decision.
The documents on Gujarat’s website include statistics on inflation, transportation, literacy, slums, irrigation and other socio-economic indicators.