Rarely does the government’s gigantic publicity-patronage machinery, with its daily panorama of sponsored talismans, invite public scrutiny. This gigantic bioscope does not come cheap and the expenditure of keeping it going has been growing. According to data generated through an RTI application submitted to the Directorate of Advertising & Visual Publicity (DAVP), a sum of Rs 6,000 crore was spent in the 11-year period from 2004 to 2015, with the UPA government having spent twice the amount in its second term as it did in its first; and the initial year of NDA rule under Prime Minister Narendra Modi alone having notched up outgoings to the tune of Rs 993 crore.
The figures indicate a growing anxiety on the part of the Central government to project itself positively in a manner that would capture and hold public attention for its agenda setting purposes. However, there is also a recognition that it is not just the content in these publicity ads that could ensure this objective. The ads themselves are being used as bargaining chips to persuade the media to put out content that favours the ruling dispensation. It was this danger that was underlined by the Supreme Court appointed committee set up in the Common Cause vs Union of India matter, when it prescribed that “government advertisements shall not be used for patronising media houses or aimed at receiving favourable reporting for the party or person in power.” The fear was that government advertising would be used as both as carrot and stick, indeed carrots as sticks, to ensure that even independent media fall in line.
State governments, too, have followed a similar trajectory. The AIADMK government of Tamil Nadu is generous with its advertising, but only if the suzerainty of Poes Garden is acknowledged and applauded, else the carrot can transmogrify into a defamation notice. A mother knows what’s good for her children in the media!
The recent acts of kindness extended by the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government in the form of government advertising to a cluster of websites with questionable antecedents (‘MP list for 2012-15 shows dodgy websites run by journalists got Rs 14 crore in govt ads’, IE, May 9) could be shrugged off as inconsequential. In an era when political malfeasance walks wreathed in innumerable zeroes, the sum of Rs 14 crore that the ruling dispensation in Madhya Pradesh is alleged to have paid through government advertising to a cluster of websites may seem small change. But the odour of political patronage that the arrangement exudes should demand a closer scrutiny. Apart from the fact that the pattern of awarding ads favoured party interests in this BJP-ruled state, it also provided clear evidence that it was not the effective impact of the ads themselves that was being sought here — many of the rewarded websites were no better than duds. The prime intent was to buy media goodwill for a government negotiating various challenges, including the Vyapam swamp.
State patronage of the media through political advertising has had a chequered history in India. In its earliest avatar, it was presented as a symbol of state benevolence to help create a more level playing field in an unequal market, with small publications regularly petitioning governments at the Centre and the state for support. Writing for a media journal in 1980, Rutgers University academic I.B. Singh observed that “Indian newspapers depend a great deal on governmental advertising, without such revenues it would be difficult for many newspapers to stay in business.” The altruistic mask, however, often slipped and, as Singh noted, many of these publications became vulnerable to government manipulation. Never more was this the case than when Mrs Indira Gandhi was in power. During the Emergency, she used varied methods to discipline the media because, as her government had then argued, the media was acting in a manner that “seriously hindered the state in its efforts to promote economic production and social justice.” Her actions against the media at this point fell under three broad categories, according to Singh: a shotgun merger of news agencies; use of fear-arousal techniques on newspaper publishers, journalists and individual share holders; and, of course, allocation of government advertising.
The irony is that the exponential growth of media platforms across the print, television and digital space since the Indira era has not translated in a commensurate increase in the contestation of ideas and a toleration of dissent within this universe. The Gujarat government, for example, by assiduously patronising the local media over the years has succeeded in creating a monochromatic and partisan media landscape. Governments in the country, it seems, have internalised their Chanakya: the media is truly like the holy fruit in every season. Regular watering keeps that tree verdant and all-giving.