Pre election advertisement politics

IN Media Practice | 17/02/2006
Ever seen a sting or expose on how governments spend money on meaningless press advertisements? You won’t.




S R Ramanujan



If there is one area which the press and television channels scrupulously avoid for exposes or stings, it is the money that is spent by governments on meaningless press advertisements, marked by irritating frequency, especially before elections. The reason is quite simple. The press is the only beneficiary of such governmental largesse involving crores of rupees. You can call it collusion if you like. Before the Bihar elections, Lalu Prasad Yadav saw to it that his ministry released advertisements with a minimum of quarter page in all the major dailies of the country, never mind whether it was for opening a railway gate or a station in obscure locations, with his picture being a must. The added attraction was the mascot of a station master holding Lalu’s poll symbol -the lantern! It was not necessary for the minister to be present on such occasions to warrant his picture. There could have been at least two dozen such insertions prior to the polls. The poll code did not come in the way because elections were to be held only in Bihar. The trend continued even after the elections. Very recently there was an half-page ad where the Railway Minister advises the passengers to check the coach and berth numbers before traveling.


With elections round the corner in Tamil Nadu, the same pattern unfolds there, and is attaining ridiculous proportions. But, the actors are different. They are T R Balu, Union Minister for Surface Transport and Highways and Dayanidhi Maran, Communications Minister.  If you look at the newspapers in Tamil Nadu, you may wonder whether there were no roads at all in the past in the state. Every alternate day there is an ad for the foundation stone laying ceremony of some highway or the other in the state issued under the auspices of Baalu’s department - National Highways Authority of India. A unique feature of such large ads is the inclusion of DMK chief M Karunanidhi’s picture alongside the pictures of the Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi.


The Prime Minister’s picture is understandable in an ad released by a department of the Union ministry. Sonia Gandhi’s can be explained away because of her status as chairperson of the UPA. What is the relevance of Karunanidhi in an ad issued by the Union government,  except that the state is slated to go for polls with MK playing a leading role as co-ordinator of a seven-party alliance (it is a different matter that the alliance itself is in doldrums). Therefore, he has to be projected at the tax payers’ cost.  MK may be the Chairman of the DPA. Does this give him the  official status to be part of a government ad? Will this rationale be extended to other states? Will an ad by PR Das Munshi’s I&B ministry include Biman Basu of the Left Front in W Bengal?


Next comes Dayanidhi’s unbounded affection for his maternal grandfather. One does not know the link between script writer Karunanidhi and software technology. Never mind, he was very much there along with the PM and Sonia Gandhi, in the advertisment, released by the information technology department for the foundation stone laying ceremony of  a STPI Facilities Centre in Chennai. There was no role for the grandfather at the function either as chief guest or ribbon cutter, but his photograph is a must in all the ads released by Union ministers from Tamil Nadu belonging to the DMK. The only difference is that while Baalu fights shy of his picture being placed along with MK, Dayanidhi loves to be seen with his grandfather.


What took the cake was the full page ad released in almost all the newspapers of the country costing a few crores of rupees for Dayanidhi’s "OneIndia" revolution. While the "former chief minister, Tamil Nadu" (that is how MK was identified in the photo caption) was featured in the ad published in the Hindu and the Indian Express, he was conspicuous by his absence in the ads released for other national and regional dailies published outside Tamil Nadu, such as the Times of India, Deccan Chronicle (Bureaucrats in the ministry might not have known that DC is also published from Chennai) Economic Times, Financial Express etc. This gives out the motive behind the inclusion of MK in all the Union government ads in Tamil Nadu dailies. When the  former chief minister is featured, why not the present chief minister. In fact, if you closely watch the conduct of the Union ministers from this state, you will get the  feeling that no state government is in existence in Tamil Nadu.


This is not to suggest that chief minister J Jayalalithaa has any scruples when it comes to draining the state exchequer to boost her image before the elections. She too pays back union ministers in the same coin, treating them like dirt. This must be the only state in the country where the leaders of both mainline parties are not even on talking terms. Karunanidhi has not attended the assembly session even once in the last five years, because his bete noire sits on the chief minister’s chair. Apart from this, the sops Jaya announced to every section of the public, besides free distribution of saris, dhotis, rice, kerosene, and cash, might cost the state government at least one billion. Since Union ministers from the state cannot do this, they are spending an equal amount in press advertisements. Of course, television is free for both the contenders. What is dished out in their channels are only advertisements in the name of news. When "OneIndia" was announced, SUN TV went to town with it, blurring the line between news and advertisement. For Jaya TV, any routine announcement by the government has to be in the name of "Selvi Jayalalithaa" and it is news for the channel. It could be her condolence message to a lone accident victim in some corner of the state or a wedding anniversary greetings to a party functionary.


Is there no way to check this tendency of the leaders to squander the tax payers’ money for partisan political purposes? Or, is this the price we have to pay for democracy? There are so many less important issues of which our judiciary has taken suo motu note. Should not this daring "robbery" of public money attract its attention? 




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