Under the current call for austerity, the recent advertisements by various political leaders and their parties, as also the Government, spread across multiple pages in almost every newspaper has evoked strong public outrage. People want to know who is paying for these adverts, where is the money coming from, are they really required and what purpose do they serve? While these may never get answered, one piece of news, which deserved a lot more media (both print & electronic) attention than it received, is about a public interest litigation (PIL) which was filed in the Delhi High Court against political advertisements and public schemes being named after a select few leaders. This PIL was heard on 16th May (coincidentally the same day when Jayalalitha ads were plastered across the country) and the Court issued notices to the Director General, Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP), as also the Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, asking them to respond to the averments in the PIL.
Notably, DAVP is the nodal agency that undertakes multimedia advertising and publicity on behalf of the Government and its various Ministries. Its primary objective is stated as being to promote the policies and programmes of the Government and its advertisement campaigns are intended to focus mostly on communal harmony, national unity, family welfare, health care, rural development, empowerment of women and other similar objectives.
The PIL is based on the responses to certain RTI applications filed in December 2011, which revealed that around 30 crores had been spent by the central Government on newspaper spreads between 2009 and 2011 to commemorate the birth and death anniversaries of certain political leaders and has been filed by 34 year old Umesh Sethi, an IT professional. Sethi says that as a taxpayer he is concerned that money belonging to the public exchequer is being used to fund political advertisements. Sethi’s inspiration to file the PIL came from the recent civil society activism and he was quite vocal that without any direct advantage to the populace, public money was being spent on advertisements and schemes all of which he believed to be “wasteful, unnecessary, and illegitimate expenditure whose burden is on the citizens.”
Citing violations of the Prevention of Corruption Act, the PIL avers that a public servant commits the offence of criminal misconduct if he dishonestly misappropriates or otherwise converts for his own use any property entrusted to him or under his control as a public servant. The PIL states that an offence under the Act is committed if a public servant abuses his position and thereby obtains for himself or for any other person any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage, which has no public interest. Obtaining goodwill through advertisements and other promotions would fall as being extremely valuable in the political context. The PIL cites a Supreme Court decision that a minister is a trustee in respect of public property under his charge and discretion, and he must therefore deal with people’s property in a just and fair manner, failing which he would be personally liable for criminal breach of trust. While the legal propositions in the PIL appear to have merit and the Supreme Court has previously recognised misfeasance in public office as a part of the law of Torts, at this stage, while the matter is sub-judice, it would be inappropriate to comment on how it may progress. However, the fact that the Court issued notice can safely be regarded as being positive.
Legality asides, has morality disappeared from current day public functioning? Much as we’d like, fingers can’t be pointed only on one party since this malaise cuts across party lines. This compels the question: is our political class really getting removed from reality? The Indian economy is plagued by rising public expenditure which has led to increased fiscal deficit and it is unlikely that the Government will be able to meet its revenue collections. Any shortfall will lead to delay in implementing new polices and that may add to the acute price rise and inflation, the worst being double digit food inflation. Add to this stalled economic growth and the failure of the Government to bring about policy reforms and that may explain the fall in the Rupee to an all time low below 56. Market sentiment about investing in India has been gloomy for some time and the S&P reducing its credit rating for India only worsened matters.
The point is not that we need fewer advertisements. Rather, we probably need more of them. But the adverts should focus on the objectives and goals to which particular leaders were committed and for which they would like to be remembered.
Thus, at times like these, the kind of advertisements the political class should focus on are the ones that can help create a broad based consensus amongst them on how best to tackle the challenges, like naxalism, terrorism and food security, facing the nation. While the achievements and sacrifices of our political leaders need to be remembered, their anniversaries are perhaps better served by trying to use them to develop collective action, especially on matters of national interest, like pushing important economic reforms in the field of multi-brand retail, aviation, insurance and pensions. Let’s use these occasions to shed the policy paralysis tag and to address issues like corruption on which the electorate actually desires to know about the progress made. Let’s use these opportunities to focus public energies on constructive action. If the political class expects private businesses to adopt austerity, its time it leads by example and demonstrates some amount of Political Social Responsibility. And while advertisements of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme pay due homage to the father of our nation, the one advert that he would have perhaps really enjoyed seeing would have been of his quote: “Action expresses priorities!”
Satvik Varma is an Advocate and Corporate Counsel based in New Delhi.
First Published in The Economic Times on 24th May, 2012 .