Updated: May 15, 2015 12:00:54 am
Ruling on a case filed by the NGOs Common Cause and Centre for Public Interest Litigation, the Supreme Court has prohibited the use of public funds by political parties in government to develop “personality cults” around their leaders. Henceforth, only the pictures of the president, the prime minister and the chief justice of India may appear in government advertising. The order will be well received by the public, which stoically endures advertising where political leaders take credit for all sorts of successes, from submarine launches to space missions, which generally owe to the industry of other people. Unfortunately, government advertising tends to visually associate schemes and benefits with political individuals who may not have played a crucial role in bringing them to fruition.
However, the court’s order is not wholly consistent — while seeking to promote democracy by pruning the number of mugshots in advertising, it turns up the lights on a trinity. This will prevent whole platoons of ministers from appearing in state-funded advertising, but it will have the unfortunate effect of reserving the limelight for the head of state and the head of government. The cult of the political pantheon would be replaced by the cult of the sole leader, which is even more anti-democratic. At the same time, if it is legal to depict these three officials in advertising, why bar the heads of important democratic institutions? By the implicit logic of the ruling, why should the speaker of the Lok Sabha not feature in advertisements, for instance, or the army chief? With all respect, however, the chief justice must please be released from the onerous responsibility of appearing in advertisements. The law is supposed to be above it all.
While political advertising at public expense is deplorable, the courts must tread a delicate line in such matters. As the guarantor of free speech, they should not be seen to be curbing communications, unless it is to discourage false claims and socially harmful messages. The Supreme Court has observed that the legitimate objectives of government advertising can be achieved without publishing pictures of individuals. While that is technically correct, this is an extremely visual age. Is the court competent to get into the minutae of unnecessary and insufficient conditions for communications and persuasion at this point? In grappling with personality cults, too, is it not striking out beyond its ken? Such matters, which lack legal definition, are best administered by prescriptive wish lists, rather than proscriptive rules. Parties in office should know that advertisements featuring their leading lights like a rogues’ gallery are not appreciated either by the judiciary or the common public. But if they persist in behaving deplorably, the electorate knows what to do about it. The judiciary need not exert itself unduly.
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