The substance of the controversy over the "India Shining" advertisements has been devoted to one question: are governments, States or Centre, permitted to use taxpayers' funds to promote their political fortunes? Rs.500 crores is the figure being tossed around as the approximate cost of the advertisements so far; this number is bound to rise further. Criticisms have come from many quarters, including from the newly appointed Chief Election Commissioner. In response, BJP politicians, including the Prime Minister, have indicated that they are within the law in spending this money. The government's view is that it is the obligation of the ruling party to inform the voters of its achievements. Regardless of the political colour, parties appear to be comfortable with this spin, making no distinction between what may be legal and what is proper.
Plainly, these advertisements are not about 'informing' people about the development programmes of the government, as Agriculture Minister Rajnath Singh puts it with a benign touch. There is obviously a very political element to many of the advertisements, especially the ones in the print media; they do not merely inform the people about the milestones of this government, but additionally glorify particular individuals as being responsible for the party's work. The Golden Quadrilateral, for instance, can be advertised without the Prime Minster's visage; that would inform the people adequately. The addition of various "Honorable" people, notably the PM himself quite regularly, to this information may be what makes the expenditure unacceptable.
Third, the information being served is also very selective. After all, one could just as easily advertise legislative and judicial achievements, especially bi-partisan ones such as the embargo on jumbo cabinets, the anti-defection amendment, political funding reform, vastly improved disclosure requirements for electoral candidates, etc. But the bottom-up changes, which empower people to hold their politicians in check, are not as widely publicized - and sometimes not at all - as the ones extolling our leaders' selective largesse towards various vote-banks.
The public's tolerance for this should not be seen as an expression of solidarity with the 'shining India'. Some citizens simply expect no better from a political system that has failed them so miserably over decades. Others, like one citizen commenting a recent NDTV show are feeling proud about the achievements -- i.e. the messages are having some impact. It is a telling comment on the state of politics in the country that a huge and partisan expenditure of public funds is justified as 'within the law', with little regard to whether such expenses are appropriate.
Finally, what of the media? Why are self-proclaimed guardians of the public trust so happy to take the money that funds these advertisements? If these messages appear even remotely partisan, should the media not be pulling them, and letting the parties inform their voters by other means? Journalists' coverage of the controversy too has been largely limited to 'news' stories about opposite sides flinging words at each other. There has been less introspection to ask whether these advertisements somehow diminish the media's own standing.
The print media have been especially egregious; this is partly the consequence of a lengthy history of profiting from government money. The countless tenders, applications and announcements from unintelligible government departments and government-run institutions have always formed a significant portion of the advertising in our papers, and advertising itself has accounted for the largest portion of revenue. In short, therefore, the newspapers' principal business - measured in revenue terms - may by now be the placement of government advertising in public spaces. From that history to India Shining is a small step, one that is made with less squeamishness than is expected of a news organization.
Must taxpayers fund India shining?