The basis of the case related to the ‘Talk to AK’ campaign, for which a CBI team “visited” the official residence of Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia Friday as part of a preliminary enquiry, lies in an unusual fact: the AAP government doesn’t have a credit card. Sources told The Indian Express that it was due to this reason that the government asked PR firm Perfect Relations last year to pay social media platforms such as Facebook, Google and YouTube for the interactive publicity campaign featuring Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.
Sources said Perfect Relations was chosen as media advisor in June 2016 after the Department of Information and Publicity (DIP) floated a tender in February. The cost of hiring the PR firm was drawn from the Rs 200-crore allocation to the DIP in the 2016-17 Budget. The company’s contract was for a one-year period between July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017.
According to government officials, the PR firm is yet to be paid for its services, including for the ‘Talk to AK’ campaign. This, they said, was because the files related to alleged irregularities in the promotion of the campaign were first attached by former L-G Najeeb Jung and are with the current L-G Anil Baijal.
This month, Perfect Relations sent the government a legal notice asking for “outstanding payment”, which amounted to Rs 2,33,26,973 as on March 31, 2017. Of this, officials said, the cost of advertisements on social media was cumulatively around Rs 98 lakh. Perfect Relations refused to comment on the case.
\”The government doesn’t have a credit card and can’t directly pay companies like Google or YouTube. They are massive monopolies. So it was decided that Perfect Relations, who were already working for the government, be given a separate work order, without paying them any additional money,” said a Delhi government spokesperson.
Last July, the work order was issued by the DIP to “launch an advertisement campaign in digital media ie Google, Youtube and Facebook”. Perfect Relations was picked from among six applicants and awarded the tender, said sources. The reason cited by the DIP while seeking the concurrence of the Finance Department for its decision was that the work would imply “single source selection”, for which they don’t have the mandate, said sources. The detailed cost was initially estimated to be around Rs 1.58 crore and later revised to Rs 1.05 crore.
The government specified three conditions on which the work was awarded. First, that Perfect Relations give “an undertaking” that rates charged “are non negotiable” and “lowest possible” without any “discount or concession or commission”. Second, “no fee shall be payable…for undertaking the assignment” apart from what is provided in the original agreement. Finally, there would be “no advance payment”.
\”We told the company (Perfect Relations) that we will pay them the cost of advertisement on Facebook, Google and YouTube. We will not pay them anything extra. Moreover, when the DIP speaks of single source selection, who will give the competing bid in a tender process? Does Facebook have a competitor or YouTube?” said the Delhi spokesperson.
The written undertaking for doing the work was given by Perfect Relations on July 13, 2016, four days before the event. However, sources said, Dharmendra Sharma, a 1988-batch IAS officer, who became Delhi’s principal secretary (finance) in June 2016 after being transferred from Arunachal Pradesh, raised objections to the hiring of Perfect Relations. In particular, he cited a “conflict of interest… where the consultant voluntarily and unethically became the beneficiary of its own advice in terms of both selection and potential commercial/financial implications”.
Sharma was transferred to Goa on October 1, where he is the chief secretary.
\”In a case like this, the question of selection doesn’t come into the frame. There are no options for a Google Hangout and Facebook Live. The matter was referred to the Cabinet and the payment was cleared on September 2, 2016,” said the spokesperson. Sharma did not respond to requests from The Indian Express seeking comment.
The ‘Talk to AK’ programme, launched on July 17 last year, was designed as an interactive session with Kejriwal wherein he would take questions from people through social media, phone calls and text messages. Launched before the assembly elections in Goa and Punjab, it was was meant to counter Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Mann ki Baat’ with AAP stressing on its initiative being a “dialogue”.