Government ads, who needs them really?

As netas focus on whose face should go with ads, the real question is, how are they using the taxpayers’ money?

ByVikram Johri
Government ads, who needs them really?
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Appearing before the Supreme Court on March 9 as the government’s counsel on the issue of advertisements, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi argued: “Ministers have become nameless and faceless. Only PM’s face is shown in government advertisements. Each minister is as important as PM and there is no basis for allowing photos of only three persons. Why not the photographs of CM and ministers in the Centre and states? This is a democracy and creation of a personality cult would not augur well.”

Coming from the government’s lawyer, the argument can be read as an attempt by the Narendra Modi-led government to present itself as suitably self-deprecatory. “Look here,” the Prime Minister seems to be saying, “I am no egomaniac. I want everyone to enjoy the fruits of their hard work by being able to advertise their achievements to the common man.”

By spending government funds, he might add. For evidence, consider this Twitter thread by Newslaundry’s consulting editor Anand Ranganathan, who has painstakingly exposed the hypocrisy of our elected officials — and Modi is one among many — who preach austerity when not in power, but quickly jump on the media-spending bandwagon when they are in government.

What is it that the government has really asked? That CMs and ministers be allowed to paste their photos on government ads? Why precisely? In a country where the cult of the leader already reigns supreme (look no further than Tamil Nadu), how does making the CM the face of all government largesse help the spirit of democracy? If we are to take the government’s stand to its logical conclusion, shouldn’t the hundreds of thousands of government employees who help put government policies in place also be part of government ads? That would take federalism to the absolute grassroots.

Rohatgi also said: “Court has no jurisdiction to say what and how a government should advertise. Every penny that government spends is authorised by Parliament which can refuse budget for ads.”

Look at the sly evoking of executive privilege in a matter that has little to do with the government’s remit being overstepped and everything to do with proper usage of taxpayer’s money. And given how easily members of the legislature agree on issues affecting them, such as perquisites, there is little doubt that Rohatgi’s stand has across-the-board support.

Beyond the pros and cons of spending taxpayer’s money on self-promotion, there is another argument this government is wont to make. One of the criticisms that the Modi government has lobbed at the media is the latter’s refusal to showcase good governance. Kiran Bedi, appearing on an ABP News show, said that she reads many papers cover to cover, but finds little on the many projects the government is undertaking. While that is not entirely true – in the recent past, say, India’s jump in the ease of doing business rankings has been covered nearly universally – let us assume it is and examine the implicit claim that the government is eager to spend hundreds of crores so that its achievements reach the common man.

There are two issues at play here. One is the nature of reportage around the government. It cannot be denied that a lot of it, at least in the mainstream media, focuses on issues that are beyond the rubric of development. The government is fond of saying that even its minor mistakes get disproportionate play in the national media. That may well be true and it may also be the case that some mediapersons have an axe to grind when it comes to the government.

But equally, the government has its own supporters in the media, and they are as visible and as ready to exhibit their support as those on the other end of the spectrum. All said, the government cannot rue this state of affairs.

The other issue is this government’s inability to present its case in a reasonable manner. From Dadri to JNU, the government’s response is a high-pitched nationalism that may resonate with the ‘masses’, but it doesn’t earn the government legitimacy. Look, on the other hand, to Professor Makarand Paranjape. His speech and subsequent interview with Firstpost are ready guides on how to bring forth the government’s case. Instead, the government invariably opts for rabble-rousers and hooligans who hijack the narrative, resort to violence and, therefore (notice the causation) receive inordinate media play.

As much as our government may wish to play the victim card, journalism works best when it is anti-authority. That is its primary function. There is no denying that the government is doing some stellar work in building roads and improving the power situation in villages, and indeed these successes are duly noted in the media. But at its heart, the media is a watchdog and it must plump for caution. Any information coming from the government should ideally be checked and rechecked in order to ensure the media doesn’t become the government’s mouthpiece.

The NDA government, when presented with this argument, usually insists that large sections of the mainstream media treated the UPA with kid gloves. This is untrue. The UPA’s serial governance failures, including the giant corruption scandals, were extensively covered by the media covered during the second term of Manmohan Singh’s government.

So if the media is going to give you bad (and good) publicity anyway, should the government have the freedom to use public money to advertise? Sure, but there should be limits to such expenditure, and the Supreme Court, by putting restrictions on how advertisements should look (if not the expenditure itself), had made an important intervention. That the government has now chosen to fight back by attacking the letter (and spirit) of that judgement is unfortunate. In asking for other leaders to have the freedom to display themselves, the government has lost the opportunity to have a substantive dialogue on the nature of media access today.

In any case, if it really wanted the media to sit up and take notice, then maybe the government could focus on actually executing their fancily-advertised policies and sharing their results, rather than just announcing programmes one after another.

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