July 18, 2009

Help yourself, it is public money

The U.P. Chief Minister Mayawati has been on a spending spree using public funds amounting to several thousand crores of rupees, to create parks, memorials and statues in the State. The Congress party as also her other political rivals have rightly condemned such a huge misuse and wastage of public funds.

Digvijay Singh of Congress Party said: “Public money is being wasted. They will not forgive her”. Chidambaram termed the statues ˜shameful”. He said that in a state like UP which is reeling under power shortage and lack of health facilities, this amount could have been used for development. “She is spending Rs 1000 crore on establishing statues of elephants and herself. Can there be something more shameful than this in Indian politics.” Well yes, there are more shameful things indulged in by his own party in such matters over the years. It is a case of pot calling the kettle black.

Public assets, plans, projects, schemes, institutions...

Whose money is it anyway?

Over the years, the Congress Party has usurped the credit for hundreds of Central and State projects and programs funded with public money, by naming them after its own leaders from a particular family to secure their place in history and in the people’s minds. According to Mayawati’s party, at least 125 national institutes named after just Rajiv Gandhi are run with public funds, not Party funds. The latest instance is the move to name the Sea Link in Mumbai, costing Rs. 1650 crores, just four times more than the original estimate, after Rajiv Gandhi. Ironically, while criticizing Mayawati’s project to create statues of just over 50 elephants, the Congress Party wants to have the privilege of naming the Sea Link, said to weigh the equivalent of 50,000 elephants, after a member of the family which the Party holds in awe. Although Mayawati’s abuse of position and misuse of public funds particularly for personal idolatory is wrong, she is right in pointing fingers at the Congress party for doing exactly the same thing all this time. The Congress party is habituated to unabashedly venerating its party leaders at the cost of public money.

More shameful ...

Not content with naming public assets after its leaders, the Congress party has progressed into systematically promoting its leaders through huge advertisement campaigns in media. This is done not with Party funds and in the name of the Party but misusing public funds and also misusing the name of the Government of India. Chidambaram, the custodian of the public exchequer till not long ago, must be fully aware how his party, through the Ministers, has been helping itself with funds under his custody, to promote its leaders. Taking a cue from his Party, other parties have been doing the same in a free for all.

In the last year, particularly during some months before the elections, an estimated around Rs. 400 crore which could have been used to prevent farmer suicides or for development was diverted for wasteful advertising by Government Ministries, other public authorities as well as PSUs. Rainbow colored full page advertisements were splashed in print media all over the country day after day ad nauseam, to further political interests in the garb of informing the people of the plans or achievements of the Government. Many newspapers carried four or more of such full page advertisements on a single day. Ministries concerned with the so called aam admi oriented programs spent more recklessly by having two full color pages in a newspaper on one day.

These advertisements carried pictures of the Prime Minister, Ministers and a motley assortment of politicians in various permutations, some showing as many as 20 faces. Above all, the advertisements prominently displayed the picture of the Congress Party’s Sonia Gandhi. Taking advantage of the Congress Party’s urge to misuse public funds in this manner other parties did the same. Laloo Yadav used advertisements by the Railways to show pictures of Rabri Devi and others from his party. Sharad Pawar got ICAR under his Ministry to release advertisements from its meager budget to project pictures of himself, his daughter and other senior members of his party. His man Praful Patel, made the Airports Authority and the ailing Air India along with a few private players contribute for a massive 20 crore plus campaign on civil aviation, featuring his picture (see here). A. Raja asked BSNL, a PSU under his Ministry, to show in its advertisement the picture of the DMK mentor Karunanidhi who holds no office in Central Government. Other ministers also participated in this “Help Yourself” project to show images of themselves and their favored ones through their Ministry advertisements.

But the prime objective of the entire campaign by the Government of India (even some Congress ruled State Governments) was to glorify the Congress President Sonia Gandhi, who does not hold any office in the Government or any of its organs whose advertisements carried her picture. A clever subterfuge was used to mislead the people by describing her as “Chairperson of UPA” as if it is a position in the Government although it is not. The advertisements were supposedly meant to inform about various government schemes, projects, policies and plans. If that were really so, it could well be done economically and effectively by the Press Information Bureau without using full color full page advertisements. Even if recourse was taken to advertisements, there was no need or justification to show pictures of even any Ministers in advertisements meant only “to inform” the people. These pictures were intentionally placed and purposive where the official "information" was incidental. The Government went even farther by showing pictures of persons having no connection with the Government at all.

It is evident that the campaigns were not released in the ordinary course of Government’s activities. They were just an artifice to idolize the Congress Party President at public expense. By linking her picture in advertisements of the Ministries and other authorities, it was sought to be conveyed that effectively she is the one to be credited for the work done by the Government even while being outside of it!

It is worth understanding how the Government is being used to systematically create her image with campaigns obviously conceptualized by the Party’s spin doctors. Consider just one campaign entitled “Nuke-Pact”, a set of five advertisements released nationally in December 2008- January 2009. There is a very clever use of the advertising technique known as association principle. All these advertisements have a common tagline “A step even time salutes”. It is an obvious attempt to create by means of association a favorable image of the present President of the Congress Party by virtually putting her on the same pedestal as Mahatma Gandhi and for that matter Nehru and Indira Gandhi, although no one would say that she can hold a candle to any of these illustrious leaders. Notice, that the campaign shows four personalities including three Prime Ministers from a single family. It is meant to suggest that no other Prime Minister made any worthwhile contribution and to strengthen the "brand-image" of one family that the "time salutes" and "shall salute". Why is Manmohan Singh appearing? He is there, being the present Prime Minister and Nuclear Deal is acknowledged by his Party and even its President to be solely his baby and he has been given the entire credit. Why then is the picture of Sonia Gandhi there? It is there to snatch some credit for the deal (as for everything else) for her and the entire campaign is to build her image. Why is Mahatma Gandhi there? He is there only to avoid the campaign from appearing as a "family affair" and to more effectively use “association” by linking the common surnames of the present Gandhis with the great Mahatma Gandhi. Clearly, it is a most scandalous example of official Government sponsored image building of an individual and a family.

Serious Issues

The abuse of official machinery and public funds to apotheosize their own leader by the Congress Party is utterly reprehensible although it may be justifiable in its own book of morality and ethics. What Mayawati is doing by putting up her own statues is being done also by the Congress party by placing pictures of Sonia Gandhi in advertisements for the same purpose. The big difference is that whereas Mayawati holds an official position and spends public money through budget provisions, Sonia Gandhi being not in Government, has to inspire her minions in Government to use public funds by abusing their authority. Qualitatively too, expenditure on media advertisements is utterly wasteful as it does not create any value. The amount of money spent by either is just a matter of degree and the net effect is the same viz. diverting resources away from essential purposes as the need of resources for development is equally acute for the States as well as the Centre.

What is the difference?

But in the case of advertisements for Sonia Gandhi’s image building, there are more disturbing issues. The first serious question is whether a Government can undertake such promotional activities to blatantly glorify anyone and that too someone who is nobody in Government? Advertisement space paid for by the Government belongs to Government and if it is used even indirectly for private purposes under the cloak of some official purpose the expenditure is illegal. The second issue relates to the bureaucrats who really provide continuity to Government and who are expected to protect the System against improprieties by transient political superiors. They cannot escape their accountability and culpability if such illegal expenditure is incurred under their charge.

However, there is another issue of a fundamental nature at a higher level. When official advertisements consistently show the picture of a person who is not part of the Government, the role of the person in Government functioning is implicit and gets a certain legitimacy in people’s minds over a period. In the present case, the Prime Minister who heads the Government, by merely allowing such advertisements, accepts the de facto role of Sonia Gandhi in his Government, clearly lowering the authority of the High Office and the Cabinet. See also an article here in another but related context. It is not a personal issue, it concerns a Government Office. The most serious aspect is the fact that the advertisements are released in the name of the Government of India. It means that the Government itself accepts the existence of an extra-constitutional authority and is effectively sanctifying such a position. In a democracy having clearly defined structure of the Government and other constitutional authorities, such legitimization of something which the Constitution does not envisage, can have a deleterious effect on the polity not only at the Centre but also in the States.

This aspect needs to be carefully pondered over by constitutional experts, opinion makers and even the general public. It is futile to expect the present day politicians in power to be concerned about such "technicalities" that could restrict them from misusing their authority at will.

सारे जहाँ से अच्छा, हिंदोस्ताँ हमारा