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SC scan on govt poll-eve ads
- Bench asks Centre, states for ‘suggestions’ to restrict spending

New Delhi, April 2: The Supreme Court today asked the Centre and states to suggest ways to restrict the spurt in election-eve advertisements following a plea that said governments spend huge public funds on such media campaigns to create an “exaggerated impression” about their achievements.

A bench of Chief Justice P. Sathasivam and Justices Ranjan Gogoi and N.V. Ramana told the governments to respond within a week with “suggestions” for framing guidelines.

The court was dealing with public interest petitions filed by two NGOs, Common Cause and the Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL).

Common Cause had filed the original petition in 2003, after the then ruling NDA had launched a massive publicity drive in the run-up to elections the following year. The CPIL, too, came up with a similar petition. The court had then sought a response from the Centre but did not get any for nearly a decade.

The Centre did file an affidavit in 2013, claiming such publicity was meant to commemorate anniversaries of departed national icons.

By then, Common Cause had filed a fresh application. The 2012 application questioned the “profligacy” of the media campaign launched by the Tamil Nadu government after it had completed a year in office. The AIADMK government is alleged to have spent nearly Rs 16 crore on media advertisements. It was also submitted that most national newspapers carried four-page advertisements with a full-page photograph of chief minister Jayalalithaa.

The NGOs, in their plea, had cited the NDA’s “India Shining campaign of 2003-04” that subsequently took the form of “Bharat Nirman” in 2008-09 and 2013-14 with the change of regime at the Centre. “It is clear from the tenor of these advertisements that they aim to create an exaggerated impression of the achievements of the incumbent governments…,” the NGOs said.

At the hearing today, the court asked senior counsel K. Radhakrishnan, who appeared for the Centre, whether there was any policy on bringing out media advertisements, especially during elections. The counsel said the government followed guidelines framed by the Directorate of Audio and Visual Publicity.

The Chief Justice was not convinced. “Those guidelines are only procedures to be followed for issuing advertisements to print and electronic media,” the bench said. “They don’t cover the issue that we are dealing with.”

The bench then turned to counsel Prashant Bhushan and Meera Bhatia, who appeared for the NGOs. “Can we say you have no objection (to the) government highlighting its achievements or informing (the) public about its programmes without photographs?” it asked.

“If it is a birthday of Mahatma Gandhi or Dr B.R. Ambedkar and (the) government (is) issuing advertisements informing (the) public about the programme and steps taken for it, do you have any objections?”

Bhushan said he had “no objection” but added that the intention of parties in power was to camouflage their personal interest while trying to take “political advantage”.

Justice Sathasivam then asked: “When the government wants to convey something to the people of India, is it wrong to carry the photographs of the Prime Minister and in a similar situation of the chief minister in the state?”

The bench said it would examine all these questions before giving its verdict.