Political messaging at taxpayers' expense
Unlike many who cheer and applaud every time the Supreme Court steps into the domain of the executive, I tend to take the old-fashioned view that in a republic with a written Constitution, as India is, the fine balance between the three pillars of democracy should be maintained scrupulously. The Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary have their demarcated domains and responsibilities mandated by the Constitution. None should step on the toes of the other or assume their responsibilities.
Yet, there are occasions when the judiciary, on being implored, cannot but step in to prevent or punish gross misconduct of the executive and the legislature. Some examples would suffice. But for the Supreme Court, the UPA Government’s Great Spectrum Robbery and the Coal Scam would have gone unchecked and unpunished. The legislature’s failure to realise the damage potential of the IMDT Act that worked in the interest of illegal immigrants instead of enabling their detection and deportation was set right by the Supreme Court striking down this pernicious law.
The Supreme Court has ruled that only the photographs of the President, Prime Minister and Chief Justice of India can be used to adorn what passes for public service advertising in our country. File pic
Hence, perhaps a black-and-white view is not wholly correct. Judicial interventionism, as opposed to judicial activism, has its uses, especially when both the executive and the legislature think nothing of unethical conduct, lowering the bar so as not to stumble and fall while committing deeds that are, to put it mildly, questionable in the least. Much as we may be reluctant to admit it, ours is an imperfect system that hobbles democracy and denudes the Constitution of its nobility. The judiciary steps into the breach to paper over the faultlines.
This week’s ruling by the Supreme Court listing the dos and don’ts of issuing advertisements by governments in the states and at the Centre should be seen against the backdrop of the rather elaborate opening paragraphs of today’s commentary. The Supreme Court has ruled that only the photographs of the President, Prime Minister and Chief Justice of India can be used to adorn what passes for public service advertising in our country.
The rationale for its ruling, according to the Supreme Court, is to curb the waste of public funds, or taxpayers’ money, on promoting a “personality cult” which is an “antithesis to democracy”. The publication of photographs of Governors and Chief Ministers at public expense has been specifically prohibited; “institutions need not be glorified”, the Bench has commented, “they must earn glory by contribution and work”.
The court has added that only one advertisement should be issued to commemorate the memory of national heroes. For instance, there is no call for every department and PSU to issue an advertisement extolling the high principles of Mahatma Gandhi or Chacha Nehru’s love for children. I’d presume this would also apply to the innumerable advertisements issued on Independence Day and Republic Day.
But such lofty views are likely to be lost on politicians who hold public office. Issuing advertisements that contain a dhobi list of ‘achievements’ and photographs of the Chief Minister, ministers and other notables, has little to do with spreading awareness. It’s about political advertising for which the bill is picked up by taxpayers. This would also hold true for advertisements issued by the Union Government.
The purpose behind such wasteful advertising is two-fold. First, to promote politicians and political parties. There is nothing offensive about this purpose so long as either politicians or the political parties they are affiliated to pick up the tab from personal or party funds. Second, the so-called public service advertising is geared towards favouring media houses. Those who are supportive of the establishment are rewarded handsomely while those who believe in interrogating the establishment are punished. This is abhorrent and unconscionable.
Information dissemination is essential to raising public awareness. Issuing advertisements for this purpose is fine, but can we please not turn information into political slogans? Can we also not use inventive means of giving spurious official positions to non-public office holders, like the UPA did with Congress president Sonia Gandhi, in order to include their photographs in public advertisements?
It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court’s ruling is adhered to in both letter and spirit. For instance, will we see a stop to advertisements meant to inform impoverished farmers how to deal with drought, or how the poor can empower themselves, being issued to English language newspapers and channels?
The Supreme Court’s ruling is a good start to a long-pending task that awaits completion. Yes, it is an intrusion by the judiciary into the executive’s space, but the latter has only itself to blame for the restrictions that are now being sought to be imposed on it.
The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta