Like neo Zamindars, elected governments at the Centre and in the states have for long used ‘government advertisements’ as part of their carrot-and-stick policy to keep the media under control. But no government before 2014 has spent so much on publicity as the Modi government during the last five years. No government has ever spent so much of public money in building a personality cult around the Prime Minister. And no government has arguably been as brazen in treating advertisements as instruments of reward and punishment. It therefore came as no surprise when at least three credible media reports suggested that the government, in its second term under Mr Modi, has stopped releasing advertisements to three big media houses, namely the Times group, The Hindu and the ABP Group which publishes The Telegraph. But although the issue was raised by the leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha and despite a pointed reference made by Trinamool MP Mahua Moitra in her maiden speech, the government has reacted with deafening silence.
In any case, the response, as and when it comes, will be predictable. The government, Parliament will undoubtedly be told, acts on principles. “There are laid down rules and norms for releasing advertisements and there are agencies which ensure that the norms are met. The opposition is unnecessarily politicising the issue and reading too much into it,” or words to that effect will be stated for sure. The government may also release a few advertisements in the intervening period and claim that the reports were false. Advertisements had never been stopped. It is also equally possible that after signaling its displeasure, the government may again start releasing advertisements and earn goodwill, if not gratitude, of the media houses.
But the real question that should worry us is about the way tax payers’ money is used. In November, 2016 the then I&B Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore had informed that a sum of Rs 5,700 crore had been spent on publicity. As was rightly pointed out in the Lok Sabha, the figure related to the central government and did not include amounts spent by Public Sector Undertakings. Together, the figure for the period ending in March, 2019, would certainly be higher. And since it involves public money, Parliament has the right to be informed how the money was spent.
Substantial parts of funds earmarked for various central schemes like Swachh Bharat, Ayushman Bharat and Mudra Scheme, for example, have been spent on publicity. The Supreme Court in 2015 had ordered that government advertisements should not carry photographs of any leader other than the Prime Minister. While the court modified the order, it needs to be revisited in the light of what we have seen in these five years. The Opposition will do the media and the country a good turn by insisting on a discussion in Parliament on all aspects of publicity and public funds.