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Monday, February 16, 2004

dir="ltr">Can governments of the day advertise their accomplishments at the cost of public exchequer before elections are notified? The question needs to be answered at two levels.

First, the technicalities of law, practices and precedents. There was a time when Congress dominated the national political scene, and there was no competition. The electronic media were under state control, and satellite television and private channels were unknown. The code of conduct before elections was more of a pious proclamation of intent, and no more. Things changed since then. The advent of satellite television and private channels and FM radio coincided with the code of conduct being given a statutory status. Now the parties, in or out of government, can no longer ignore the code and the Election Commission (EC) guidelines. But the code comes into effect only after election dates are formally announced by the EC. Until that time, the EC has no legal jurisdiction. Therefore, on technical and legal grounds, the government is right in its claim that EC cannot force it to stop the ‘India Shining’ advertising blitz.

But there is a larger, and more important question. Should governments spend public money at all in advertising their “successes” ? In a democracy, the government is elected to serve, and its legitimacy is derived from people’s support through vote. The government spends our tax money, or money borrowed mortgaging our children’s future. The government certainly has to keep us informed of what it is doing with our money, and how it is using the power given by us. But such communication has to be through normal channels – notifications, proactive disclosures and news coverage of significant events. When clear public interest, safety and emergencies are involved, government can certainly advertise. For instance, pulse polio campaign, voter rolls revision, and such other events need to be advertised to inform and alert people. There can even be advertisements to solicit investments. But in a democracy it is offensive for a government to spend public money for boosting the image of a party or individual. Good work has to be seen and reported by the media, and experienced and appreciated by the people. Paid advertisements crediting a government or its leaders or a party at the cost of the exchequer is a practice which should end. The timing of such a campaign is irrelevant.

Election is not about power games; it is about agenda and policies. Power is not for private aggrandizement; it is about people’s lives and social capital. Politicians need to be reminded of these simple truths, and parties must evolve healthy conventions.