If you have read your newspaper today, no matter where in India you are, you might have seen extensive coverage of Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP Government in Delhi, that too mostly positive articles, and all condensed on a double page. No, all Indian media houses did not decide to simultaneously publish such an Ode to the Delhi Government, but in fact these are advertisements published by the AAP Government.
What distinguishes these advertisements from the run of the mill ads which political parties often put up, are the fact that these AAP Government ads are designed so as to look like proper news articles. The modus operandi seems to be news article styled pieces which glorify the AAP Government are published on newspapers. Such “ads” were seen in far flung cities and villages all across the country including Karnataka, Mumbai, Ajmer, Gujarat, Odisha, Agra, Hyderabad, Ranchi, Goa , Indore , Kerala and even vernacular papers. There seems to be no pattern to these places, some states are due elections soon, some have just gone through a round of elections and some have a considerable amount of time till elections are due.
— Sambit Nayak (@sambitlnt) July 15, 2016
— Politico Pandit (@politicopandit) July 15, 2016
Some of the newspapers mention that this feature is an “advertorial”, some get creative, using names such as: “marketing solutions”, “Vigyapan Parishisht” etc, while many remain silent and do not mention anywhere that these are not regular news pieces but advertisements. This seems to be the result of the Rs 526 crore advertising budget of the Delhi Government. But are such advertisements legal? After all, Kejriwal has previously been censured by the courts and the CAG
Let us examine what the Supreme Court has to say on Government advertisements. A Historic Judgment was delivered after a writ petition was filed by “Common Cause and Center For Public Interest Litigation” which sought a restraining order against misuse of public funds for advertisements which are intended “to project individual functionaries of the Government or a political party” and sought drafting of guidelines to be formulated by the SC. The SC judgement clearly mentions that the “guidelines” are only for the time till a formal policy is rolled out by the government. In view of this the Government of India has constituted a committee to formulate advertisement guidelines. Until the committee comes up with the same, all Governments have to adhere to the SC laid guidelines.
So what exactly are the guidelines? Let us examine para wise.
Objects of the Guidelines
The purpose of the guidelines is clearly to prevent “arbitrary” use of public funds without any “attendant public interest”. The guidelines seek to ensure that “government messaging is well co-ordinated and effectively managed”. It further seeks to ensure all government activities satisfy the test of “reasonableness”.
Critically examining the object of the guidelines and advertisements issued by Kejriwal led Delhi Government, it is clear that these guidelines aren’t being followed in both letter and spirit. What explains issuance of “advertorials” about the work of the a small state Government like Delhi in far off Gujarat or Chennai. How does it affect them?
Government Advertisement to “Inform People”
Delhi Government’s constitutional obligation is towards the people of Delhi. It has absolutely no right to splurge tax-payers moneys on advertisements all over India. They are not “obligated” to inform people sitting in Bhopal, Varanasi or Chennai. They are answerable to people in Delhi.
The only kind of ads which would be justified to be published all over India would be if the ads were to invite investors to a business summit, instead the Ads in question, talk about mundane things like renaming a fly-over. Is it any “substantial change in policy, products or services” which require spending of crores of rupees? It can be argued that the content of the advertisement was to appease Punjabi voters for the upcoming elections. Same case with increase in salaries of Punjabi teachers or making Punjabi compulsory language.
Further few days back the Delhi Government issued an advertisement with many spelling errors thereby violating clause 2(vii) of the guidelines. It shows there are no systems to cross-check or pre-test the material. Its sheer wastage of funds.
Recently Delhi government issued advertisement in which they said “The Center has withheld approvals to 14 such bills of public interest passed by the Delhi Assembly” and mentioned “they kept troubling us, we kept working” including a “humble appeal to the central government”. This is what the guidelines say:
This ad by the AAP Government is clearly not maintaining political neutrality, and attempts to further political ambitions and “directly attacks the views or actions of others in opposition”
Can this be contempt of court?
Patronising Media houses
SC guidelines clearly mention that advertisements shall not be used to receive “favourable” reporting but in earlier post by Arpit Parashar it was alleged that Delhi Government might be misusing “power of the purse”
Basically the SC order expects governments to ensure that
- advertising campaigns are to be related to government responsibilities,
- materials should be presented in an objective, fair and accessible manner and designed to meet objectives of the campaign,
- not directed at promoting political interests of a Party,
- campaigns must be justified and undertaken in an efficient and cost-effective manner and
- advertisements must comply with legal requirements and financial regulations and
Can the Kejriwal Government clearly claim adherence to these guidelines?
We will probably never hear anything about this from our esteemed media, because by questioning AAP Government’s ad spend, they will kill their own revenue source: Either AAP Government will withdraw ads to punish the media, or the ads may stop thanks to law taking its course.