By Ravi Boolchandani, Amity Law School, Delhi.

NGOs Common Cause and the Centre for Public Interest Litigation had approached the Supreme Court in 2003 regarding the matter of “photos of politicians, ministers in government ads”. Renowned Indian lawyer Prashant Bhushan represented the Petitioners in the Supreme Court. These two NGO requested the court’s intervention to restrain the Centre and State governments from using public funds on ads primarily intended to project a particular individual as the sole reason of the achievements of a government policy. On May 13th, 2015, Supreme Court passed this judgement with certain guidelines.

We all know that, for giving an advertisement in a newspaper or a public hoarding, we have to splurge a heavy amount of money. Giving a full page advertisement is a very costly task. We often see the government in power giving incessant advertisements in almost all the newspapers. Don’t they have to spend so much money in all this? Even they have to spend a large amount of money for all this but they don’t do it from their pockets as they are the “tax collectors”. They don’t account for the tax-payers’ money.

Supreme Court once again gave a landmark judgment and reprimanded the political leaders and said that tax-payers’ money cannot be spent to build the “personality cults” of political leaders. Democracy runs on the tenet of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, the government who is in power is because of the consent of the majority of people who have voted them in power, so it is the paramount duty of the government in power to be accountable to its citizens and honour their faith and money in the righteous direction. It can’t spend people’s money for their personal extol and image making. Since it is the responsibility of government to safeguard the trust and confidence in the integrity and impartiality of public services and hence it should be the policy of government to use public funds in such a manner as to obtain maximum value of taxpayers’ money. There had been “misuse and abuse” of public money on such advertisements by government to give publicity to political personalities, parties or ministers garner political mileage.

In 2014, Supreme Court formed a panel of three members with legal luminary N.R. Madhava Menon as its head. The panel submitted its guidelines on “Content Regulation of Government Advertising”. The Supreme Court guidelines are based on the guidelines submitted by the panel but with some modifications.

Guidelines:

A bench comprising Justices Ranjan Gogoi and P.C. Ghose said that on almost each and every day the newspapers contain government ads being published for some event or occasion. Some prescribed guidelines are-

  • The Supreme Court has exempted the Prime Minister, the President and the Chief Justice of India from this restraint if these personalities allowed their photographs to get printed in government ads. This will also make them personally accountable for the publication of their photographs.
  • The Apex Court also said that in matter of commemorating birth and death anniversaries by publishing photos in government ads, commemoration of birth and death anniversaries of only “Acknowledged and great personalities” (like Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji Subash Chandra Bose, etc.) is permissible. The UPA government, ousted in the April-May general election. spent nearly Rs.143 crore to commemorate the birth or death anniversaries of 15 late leaders in the five-year period from 2008-09 to 2012-13, according to data from the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity.

Also, such commemoration is not permissible if the government is publishing multiple ads for the same.

  • Using the party logo is also not permitted in the government ads.
  • The Supreme Court directed that, ads regarding the announcement of projects, schemes and successful ventures of government are permitted because such ads keep citizens abreast of the latest information and developments.
  • If the ads are specifying or giving information about the near approaching end of the government’s fixed tenure then such ads are also permissible. As they also keep the citizens informed about the election, voting and keep them updated.
  • Advertisements regarding the mentioning of great achievements of institutions are not permissible because glory is never given, it’s rather earned.
  • An amount or budget for the public advertisements should be declared by each ministry and public sector undertaking and it should be audited by CAG.

Modifications to the original guidelines:

In some guidelines, the Supreme Court introduced some modifications in the original guidelines given by the Madhava Menon Committee.

  • The committee wanted that either the exemption should be given to the Chief Ministers, Governors also in addition to the President, the Prime Minister and the CJI or no exemption should be given to any dignitaries including the President and the Prime Minister.

Supreme Court denied this right to the Chief Ministers and   Governors but gave it to the PM, the Prez and the CJI

  • The Supreme Court differed from the committee on one more pertinent point i.e. curbing government advertisements on election eve. Supreme Court said, “Curbing such ads on election eve is unnecessary. They will not be curbed only if such ads should serve the public purpose and should facilitate the spread of information to the citizens”.

The judgement greatly benefits some peoples while for others it acts as a stymie to connect with their voters and their crowd.

Judgement is criticized by some political factions of the country:

DMK chief and former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi deplored this Supreme Court judgement. He said that such a decision takes away the rights of the states.

He further added that in a federal set up, the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister holds the same status and in the states, the people give more importance to the CMs rather than the PM.

He went on saying that not all people are educated, if ads contain pictures then it becomes lucid to understand them. Pictorial depiction of something is always better than otherwise. Such ads are inevitable.

While the judgement seems to benefit some parties because of the exemption clause incorporated in the guidelines:

It is a common assertion that Narendra Modi was the biggest reason of BJP’s thrashing victory in the 2014 LS elections.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, no stranger to the promotion of a personality cult, stands to benefit from such a ruling, especially in the government sponsored ads in the states where the order prohibits chief ministers and governors from appearing in ads and in those states where there is no BJP government.

This situation is undoubtedly going to help the BJP as he is their trump card and has campaigned for them in every state election displaying a one man show. The ruling only paves the way for Modi to stare at us from every government ad on every street corner.

This is for sure that Modi and BJP will be greatly benefited from this exemption clause or a loophole because if we analyse it practically, the ruling party will try to publish ads of Modi in every corner as the CMs (who are from other parties) can’t publish their photos and the photos of the President and the CJI gets published rarely.

Final Take:

This is a note-worthy fact that all the political parties whether in power at the centre or in the states, blatantly misuse and abuse the public money to do the self-promotion of their leaders’ image, particularly during or before the elections. “It is indeed worrisome that political leaders and parties are building and marketing their ‘brands’ at the expense of the ordinary people. Therefore the SC judgment will be an important step in the direction of building accountability in the expenditure of the tax payers’ money,” says Dr Vipul Mudgal, director of Common Cause.

The Indian Languages Newspapers’ Association warmly welcomed the decision banning the use of pictures of political leaders.

The court has further directed the government to appoint an ombudsman of three independent neutral people to oversee the implementation of this direction.

The ruling will strive for achieving political neutrality. Albeit it’s a long way process, but after more than six decades of perpetual misuse of taxpayers’ money by publishing advertisements containing photos of politicians for their self-promotion and display of personality cults, finally there is some ray of hope and accountability.