The Big Picture – SC’s Curb on Government Ads: Pros and Cons
In a landmark judgment, which is going to have large scale consequences for ruling party politicians both at the center and the states, the Supreme Court has barred using pictures in government advertisements. Except for the pictures of President, Prime Minister and Chief Justice of India, no pictures of anyone else can be used in government ads as the court felt that it is encouraging personality cults at the government expense. The court has also directed the center to appoint a three member body to iron out issues regarding implementation of its decisions and compliance. The order while being welcomed by various quarters has also been criticized with some taking objections to barring chief ministers. Some also feel that it is a case of judicial overreach. It’s a fact that both at the center and the states thousands of crores of rupees are spent on issuing advertisements in the print and electronic media.
Holding that the government advertisements in connection with an event along with the photograph of a state or party functionary has a tendency of associating that individual with the achievements sought to highlighted, the court has said that such media blitz has a potential of developing the personality cult around such state functionary. Exception is given only in the case of the president, prime minister and Chief Justice of the country who may themselves decide the question. The court has further said that the advertisements issued to commemorate the anniversaries of acknowledged personalities like the Father of the Nation would carry the photograph of the departed leader.
The judgment was based on petitions filed by NGOs. Two NGOs had approached the court seeking directions to restrain the central and state governments from using public funds on government advertisements that were primarily intended to project individual functionaries of the government or the party in power.
The regulations are based on the recommendations of a committee headed by eminent academician Professor N Madhava Menon, which was formed by the court last year. The Court accepted all but three of its suggestions. It refused to appoint an ombudsman to deal with complaints of violations, instead asking the Centre to form a three-member panel to ensure compliance and giving it the liberty to nominate the members. It also refused to order special audits and did not restrict the government from issuing ads on the eve of elections.
The Court has asked the government to constitute a three member body consisting of persons with unimpeachable neutrality and impartiality and who have excelled in their respective fields to deal matters relating to the decision.
Experts are of the opinion that since this was a policy decision which should have been taken by the government there was no need for the Supreme Court to intervene. Those who are against the decision are of the opinion that the decision of the Supreme Court impinges on the right of other leaders to connect with their people and militates against India’s healthy federalism. India’s polity features a large number of powerful and charismatic leaders who have won office through the rough and tumble of electoral politics. These people need to reach out to their constituents, and state government ads legitimately showcase their achievements to the people who vote for them. Experts also say that it would be incongruous to picture only the PM and not the chief minister in an ad that highlights a state government project, especially in a state run by political parties other than the BJP that rules the Centre. They point out that the Prime Minister was symbolic of the central government and a chief minister was his equivalent in the state and hence Chief Ministers also should be given an exception.
The Supreme Court has gone beyond individuals and said institutions need not be glorified. This has been opposed by many experts. They say that individuals come and go, but institutions are permanent. Democracy functions through institutions, which are represented by individuals elected or otherwise and hence it was unfortunate for the Supreme Court to say that.
Coming at a time when the judiciary and the executive are already engaged in a turf war over judicial appointment following the enactment of the National Judicial Appointments Commission Act, the verdict is bound to be viewed as yet another example of judicial activism.