It’s your money. Do you care?

Scheme (noun): A large-scale systematic plan or announcement for attaining some particular object or putting a particular idea into effect

We learn from an NDTV report that in the month before the Election Commission announced polling dates for the 17th Lok Sabha, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made 28 trips across India in course of which he launched 157 schemes. This is in addition to 57 schemes launched between January 8 and February 7, making for a total of 214 schemes launched in 60 days.

A scheme, to mean anything, needs to tick a few boxes: A purpose, a plan, a roadmap and a budget (including a clear idea of where the money to pay for it will come from). None of the 200-plus schemes announced by the PM during this year tick all these boxes; some tick none. Which brings up the second definition of the word ‘scheme’:

Scheme (verb): make plans, especially in a devious way or with intent to do something illegal or wrong

The NDTV report cited above has certain points of interest in context of this definition. For instance:

Some of PM Modi’s launches appeared to be older projects re-launched as new. For instance, earlier this month, the Prime Minister dedicated to the nation a joint venture of Indo-Russian Rifles Pvt. Ltd, for a Kalashnikov Assault Rifle Production plant in Uttar Pradesh’s Amethi. But according to a government press release, the plant, inaugurated in 2007, began production of carbines, rifles, and INSAS machine guns in late 2010.

Note that the program was not billed as an “inauguration”, for obvious reasons — the PM was “dedicating” an existing facility to the nation — which is clearly specious. But the truly insidious nature of this public engagement lies in how the PM spun it during the rally that immediately followed:

Launching a Kalashnikov rifles manufacturing facility in Amethi – the Parliamentary constituency of Congress president Rahul Gandhi – Prime Minister Narendra Modi targeted the Congress saying this factory has been pending an opening for a decade under the previous regime.

Two elements worth noting: A “dedication” becomes a “launch”; chances are it is not deliberate distortion so much as a lazying buy-in to the way the government spins it. The second bit is, not only is the PM “dedicating” a factory that was inaugurated eleven years ago, he manages to blame the previous government, and the MP of Amethi, for delaying the opening by a decade. To repeat: It is billed as a “dedication”, but the accusation is that the “inauguration” hadn’t happened.

But here is the bit that strikes you most forcefully: While it is true that the plant was fully functional, and was manufacturing arms for the Services, it is equally true that the Indo-Russian joint venture to replace the AK-47 with the AK-203 is of recent vintage, an outcome of a meeting this February between PM Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. That is what baffles you, repeatedly, about Modi: Even when he has an actual achievement, of whatever magnitude, he still feels the almost Pavlovian compulsion to surround it with hot air and to belittle any work in that space that was done before his time.

Also from the same story (emphasis mine):

In another instance, the Prime Minister laid the foundation stone for a sewage network at Karmalichak in Bihar on February 17. However, he had laid the foundation stone for the Karmalichak sewage treatment plant under the same project in October 2017. 

Besides dedicating fully functional facilities, the PM also lays one foundation stone on top of the one he had laid less than two years ago (which, among other things, means that nothing had been done since that foundation stone was laid in October 2017).

Why is any of this important? Because it is of a piece with the PM’s, and the government’s, egregious misuse of public funds to run party propaganda. Since these are technically billed as official functions, the government exchequer foots the bill for the PM’s trips around the country — with all the bells and security whistles attached to a head of government’s trip — to shill for votes.

Further, anyone who gets print papers will note that over the last couple of weeks, their newspaper of choice has been bloated with full page ads, all touting this scheme or that. A HuffPost story sourced from Reuters says three newspapers — Times of India, Hindustan Times and Indian Express carried 162 government ads between March 1-10, of which 93 were full page ads.

The day after the polling schedule was announced, none of the three papers carried any ads, which accords with the provisions of the model code of conduct, which says:

No advertisements shall be issued in electronic and print media highlighting the achievements of the government at the cost of public exchequer.

The sting is in the tail — using public money to hype the “achievements” of a government is an egregious breach of norms — the government, clearly aware of the imminence of the EC announcement, rushed to get in as much of such advertisements as possible.

Misuse of public funds for electioneering apart, there is this: For the publishing houses concerned, the flood of advertising has been a windfall (doubly so at a time when revenues are otherwise declining or flat). It is a stretch to imagine that the media houses that benefited from this will not, in return, ensure that the NDA gets maximum publicity. (Addendum: The carrot of big-ticket advertising can, and is, also used as a stick: the GoI, without any official explanation, instituted a ban on advertisements in two leading Kashmir dailies. Rewards for compliance; punishment for taking a questioning position — and both, using public funds for party/political purposes).

Anecdotal evidence supports this point. The other day, a group of professionals in Bangalore invited me for an informal q & a session on contemporary politics. One of the questions that came up was about the strange silence of the Opposition in general and Rahul Gandhi in particular which, I was told, contrasts with Modi and the rest of the BJP hierarchy who are constantly traveling, holding rallies, making speeches.

In response, I asked them to check the social media page of the Congress, to see what exactly Gandhi was up to. One of them surfed over to the party’s Facebook page — and it turned out that the Congress president has been traveling across the country, addressing rallies, meeting with various groups — which is what the assembled group complained he wasn’t doing.

That raises the question: How is it that every appearance of Modi, every utterance, is reported live and then retransmitted endlessly on television channels, while the events of Rahul Gandhi and other opposition leaders are as invariably blanked out — or used only to underline a line, a statement, that can then be attacked?

The BJP has been benefitting from the enormous amounts of oxygen — free publicity worth crores of rupees — willingly provided not only by openly compliant media channels, but even the supposedly neutral ones who get sucked into the thinking that because he is the PM, his every utterance should make headlines (the trap CNN and others fell into during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign). A news story from May last year is worth a re-read in context (emphasis mine):

The Bureau of Outreach Communication under the Ministry said the government spent ₹4,343.26 crore on advertising its programmes across media platforms.

This included ₹1732.15 crore on advertisements in the print media (from June 1, 2014, to December 7, 2017) and ₹2079.87 crore in the electronic media (from June 1, 2014, to March 31, 2018). A sum of ₹531.24 crore was spent on outdoor publicity (June 2014 to January 2018), it said.

Note that these figures do not account for the recent publicity blitz detailed above. Note that the amount spent on hoardings etc is only a fraction of what has been spent on print and electronic media — because a hoarding is not going to do any special favours for you, whereas media houses can, and will. Note, too, that all is being purchased with taxpayer money. I’ll leave you with this thought for now.

PS: Alongside the occasional longer posts, I’ll try and do a daily round-up of stories from the media that I think are worth reading. The first such roundup will be with you tomorrow morning.

5 thoughts on “It’s your money. Do you care?

  1. Pingback: Scratch pad, Sunday April 7 edition | Smoke Signals

  2. Rather than imploring people to care, may be the focus should be on why people don’t care. Especially when it comes to stuff like this. That the BJP has always been marketing- and tech-savvy is an open secret. That it has not ‘always’ succeeded in elections in spite of that is also an open secret. If you are talking about the dodgy ethics of using public money for advertising a party’s strengths, I think all parties are guilty of the same (think AAP). Personally, I am fine with it if the parties have something to show for all that ad expenditure (again, think AAP). Democracy is expensive and someone has to foot the bill. I might sound cynical when I say this but delving into minor (relatively speaking) transgressions over major issues will be akin to missing the forest for the trees. Come the day of casting the ballot, I will judge this government on what it has done in the past five years and what it can do over the next five years. I realise what you’ve written is not intended to be a commentary on these issues, so please excuse.

    As for channels according disproportionate airtime to Modi, have you thought it’s also because he is a crowd puller and has a knack for public speaking? When you add the fact that he is the PM, it becomes even more sense for media to highlight the most marketable politician in the country. As for the content of his speeches, do you really believe his personal compulsions play a role or that this is a classic politician at work? To be honest, more than the politician mouthing such stuff, I find the people who react (to either extremes) to it more problematic. Politics is as much about perception as it is about policy. I will not blame the person or party that has understood that fact and plays it to its advantage.

    • To try and answer these points in order: The BJP in 2014 sought power on the argument that all political parties thus far have been guilty of acts of malfeasance, and that if given the mandate, it will change all that and usher in a new era of probity. To now justify its acts on the grounds that the other fellow did it too seems, um, odd. Why then are you the party that will make a difference?

      “Someone has to foot the bill” — yes. The political parties do. Not the taxpayer. You must have read the same stories I did, of the BJP’s enormous treasure chest of funds. Despite having all that money, the party still misuses taxpayer funds? Here is a basic: The government has income, and expense. That is what it lays out in its budgets. Was this part of the budget — that it will spend thousands of crores on promoting itself? But more to the point — taxes are collected for the public good. Not for public relations and propaganda.

      We live in a strange world where misappropriation/misuse of thousands of crores of public money is a “relatively minor” issue. Could I have looked at much bigger issues? Sure — and I will. But when you start or in this case restart blogging, you begin somewhere, and I began with something that happened just right then.

      As to channels publicising the PM because he has a knack for public speaking and he brings in TRPs, I’ve worked in, and led, newsrooms both in India and abroad, and I was never taught that the job of the media is TRPs — that is for the accountants, not the actual journalists, whose job is to explore issues.

      I don’t presume to know what the PM believes, or does not — therefore, I don’t impute motives, I only go by what I can see, and hear.

      To the last bit, that the reaction is more problematic than the action, fair enough, that is how you see it; I see it differently, and there is still room in our country for differing opinions, so no issues there.

      Cheers

      • “We live in a strange world where misappropriation/misuse of thousands of crores of public money is a “relatively minor” issue.”

        Could have done without this snark. My remark was to juxtapose that with disasters like Demo.

        On the whole, I’m glad you restarted this blog. Looking forward to more such posts and interactions. And completely agree with your closing statement. I’m roughly half your age but wish had your zeal for idealism. Guess that is a non-negotiable for being a journalist.

        Cheers indeed!

        • It was just a comment I have felt, and made, previously — not snark. And to your point about disasters such as Demo, that is what I was talking about when I said I had to start someplace.

          Thanks for the kind words. And yes it is — or should be — non-negotiable. But we’ve left that ideal world very far behind, and my best guess is, it is going to be a long, painful process finding our way back, if we ever do (or want to).

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