On a rare occasion when I sat in front of the TV (in the age of smartphones and OTT), something caught my attention. I witnessed a sudden barrage of advertisements on almost all regional channels, tied together by the theme ‘Vetrinadai podum thamizhagam’ (Tamil Nadu, marching victoriously). It wouldn’t have been noteworthy except for the fact that Tamil Nadu goes to the polls in 2021. Did I just witness an advertisement by the government that aims to create awareness regarding citizens’ rights and entitlements? Or was it one by the political party that appeals to the electorate to vote in its favor? Does this mean that the party in power has unfettered access to the treasury, where it can mask its own campaign as ‘government’s achievements’? This distinction is critical, especially in an election year. To uphold the ideal of ‘free and fair elections, and to provide a level-playing field for all the parties in the fray, it’s imperative that the ruling party doesn’t use the taxpayers’ money for its own electoral propaganda. A recent petition by the opposition party in the Madras High Court, questioning the authenticity of the said advertisements vindicates this line of inquiry.

Let us clarify the agenda of Governmental Advertisements (GA) and Political Advertisements (PA). GAs are aimed towards the electorate, to educate the citizen of the various welfare measures and to attract investors enumerating its achievements. However, PAs are aimed towards the election, to canvass voters based on the party’s ideology and promises. Since GAs are funded by the government and PAs are funded by the parties themselves, the increasingly blurry line between the two has troubling implications for fiscal prudence and the sanctity of elections.

The need for overseeing GA is evident for various reasons. Firstly, the expenditure behind them must be rationalized. A 2018 report by Factly indicates that apart from the increasing trend of expenditure for government publicity by DAVP (Department of Advertisements and Visual Publicity), the same skyrockets during election years, proving that GA-PA delinking is all the more essential. Secondly, more often than not, they discreetly promote party interests. For instance, the Vetrinadai Podum thamizhagam(VPT) series liberally uses the image of late former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, despite a Supreme court judgement (discussed later) that limits the personalities whose images can be used in GA. Thirdly, the megalomaniac nature of such GA contributes to the culture of personality-cult politics. In this context, Dr.B.R. Ambedkar’s words sound ominously relevant “Unlike in worship, in Politics, Bhakti is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship”.

The complexity of the issue and inconsistency in oversight becomes apparent when we trace the regulatory track record behind GA. Deciding on a PIL filed by Common Cause in 2002 to regulate both the expenditure and content of GA, the Supreme Court in 2014 formed a committee headed by N.R Madhav Menon to probe the issue. Based on its recommendations, the Honourable Supreme Court, noting that GA “should be related to government responsibilities”, ruled that a three-member ombudsman, at the central and state level, must be formed to regulate the same. It also ruled that pictures of government functionaries, other than the president, prime minister, and Chief Justice of India, must not be used as focussing on few personalities, rather than the message, will be “antithetical” to democracy. Curiously, the SC also expanded this list to include Chief ministers and ministers when few poll-bound states sought review in March 2016, while the original prayer in 2002 was to disallow any picture at all! The three-member committee, called the CCRGA (Committee on Content Regulation on Government Advertising) has hardly given out notices to the innumerable violations by the Central and state governments, perhaps as it is functioning under (no prize for guessing) DAVP. 

Given this sketchy regulatory regime and the nature of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC), the ruling party easily benefits by conflating GA and PA. Though Section VII (4) of MCC says “Issue of advertisement at the cost of public exchequer…during the election period for…publicity regarding achievements…shall be scrupulously avoided”, the provision, along with the whole MCC, doesn’t come into force until the announcement of election dates, which is the case in Tamilnadu at the time of writing. Let’s also consider the following facts: the VPT advertisements, despite appearing like GA as they consist of the official emblem of the Tamilnadu government, were launched on 29th December 2020, the same day the ruling party launched its campaign at Namakkal for 2021 polls. They also invoke the image of a former chief minister of the party violating the Supreme court judgment, as mentioned earlier. Given all this, the picture that emerges isn’t a pretty one for our internationally reputed electoral fairness.

To be fair, the VPT ads are among the most well-executed GA (or PA?) in recent times. It’s the intention and timing of the ads that ruffle one’s feathers. In the ultimate analysis, a water-tight legal framework around both GA and PA must be envisaged to avoid any convenient GA-PA swap. Considering GA, if the proposition of not using any picture in GA seems radical, it can at least be limited to apolitical personalities like the President and Governor, in whose name all executive action is taken. Our policymakers can also take a leaf out of the Australian and Canadian examples, duly recognized by the SC in its 2014 judgment. The Australian regulations require GA to strictly adhere to five cardinal principles including objectivity, efficiency, etc. For GAs that cross a certain budget threshold, the guidelines require the government to explain the rationale behind such expenditure to the parliament. Likewise, clause 4.3 of Canadian publicity regulations lays emphasis on fairness. In stark contrast, the Indian policy stops itself with issues like the empanelment of media outlets, the process of paying them, etc., looking away from more substantive issues.

 The CCRGA must be given more teeth, free from ministerial oversight. In its latest meeting, it was revealed that only a handful of states are on course to set up state-level content moderation committees. The unwilling states must submit their regulatory authority in CCRGA, as suggested by the government. The possibility of a six-month ban on GA before elections can also be explored, as originally suggested by the Madhav Menon committee, to counter the delay in the announcement of election dates by the Election Commission. Likewise, for regulating PA by parties, it is mandatory to place an upper limit on pre-election party expenditure, similar to those on per-candidate expenditure, to reduce the influence of money in elections. While, according to this judgment, there is a bar on promoting political symbols using state expenditure (including GA), there is no comparably explicit rule that states government symbols cannot be used in PA! Honoring the duty of maintaining communication with the citizen in a non-partisan, cost-effective fashion, while demarcating the boundary between GA and PA needs probity and political will. What we need is codification, not colorability, in public advertisement policy.

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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.