Polishing a Neta’s Image at the Cost of Public Funds

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Thrusting greatness on run-of-the-mill occupants of public office at public expense is an act of betrayal. It has no place in a mature democracy like India

By Jayaprakash Narayan

Illustration: Anand Naorem

IN THE 1970s, we used to see large advertisements issued by the North Korean government in Indian dailies extolling the virtues of dictator Kim Ilsung. Totalitarian governments habitually spend vast sums of public money to project their leaders and publicise their “achievements”. Mao, Castro and many other totalitarian leaders and tyrants acquired a larger-than-life image at great public expense. Their statues were erected in every public place and their large portraits visible everywhere.

Sadly, this publicity mania has become the norm in Indian politics. Self-aggrandisement at public cost has spread to most political parties and leaders in power at national and state levels. A host of leaders keep spending crores of rupees of taxpayers’ money for advertising themselves. Their names and photographs, their selfproclaimed successes and achievements, and their personalities are deified every day to the delight of their admirers and disgust of their opponents.

This process was started at the centre. Indira Gandhi has been deified and myths have been created to perpetuate her name, even as poverty continued to remain with us. So is the case with Rajiv Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi. Like in so many other issues, the congress made this personality cult and misuse of public money into a fine art, and all other political parties have followed suit.

In recent times, astronomical sums have been spent at the cost of the taxpayer to benefit individual politicians and parties. According to information obtained under RTI, in 2008-09, Andhra Pradesh spent Rs 318.85 crore on such ads. Most of it was for the personal aggrandisement of the then CM late YS Rajasekhara Reddy, and had little bearing on public interest. Judging by the massive advertisements in the national media featuring large pictures of leaders such as Sonia Gandhi, J Jayalalithaa, Narendra Modi and Mayawati, probably a sum of Rs 1,000 crore of taxpayer money is spent annually. Typically, such expenditures increase enormously in the months preceding a General Election.

Such acts of spending for private gain are insane, immoral and unacceptable. There is a case for the government informing the public to alert (say about an epidemic, or precautions relating to national security), advise (about certain services and mode of delivery), caution (about tax payments), or notify (master plans, projects, etc). But it has to be rare, to the point, and without any politician’s name or picture or political overtones.

Nearly Rs 1,000 cr of taxpayer money is spent annually to glorify national and state leaders

Greatness comes to those who make a durable and positive impact on public lives. Thrusting greatness on run-of-the-mill occupants of public office at public expense is an act of betrayal of public trust. Mahatma Gandhi, Ambedkar, Nehru, Patel, etc. are great not because they advertised themselves at public cost. They were great because of the power of their ideas, purity of their hearts, tireless striving for perfection, and the universal and eternal truths their work represented. If we deify them, these are choices made by a grateful nation, not crassly imposed on the unwilling public by those who occupy positions of power.

Of late, this deification at public expense has crossed all limits of decency. Some leaders erect statues for themselves. Others deify their parents or political mentors merely because they happen to die in office. Countless statues of criminals and corrupt leaders adorn our landscape. It is a travesty of everything noble in public life.

Politics is a noble endeavour. We need to find legitimate ways of funding it. The 2003 law provides tax exemptions for donors to political parties. The law provides for free airtime in electronic media for recognised parties (though this part is not implemented yet). We could think of other innovative ways of encouraging and supporting legitimate politics. But spending tax money on advertisements eulogising a leader or building a personality cult is not the way to clean up politics. We need dignity in public office, accountability of our public servants, and a level-playing field. Or else we will get tin-pot dictators and dangerous megalomaniacs.

(The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own)

Jayaprakash Narayan is a Founder-President, Lok Satta Party.
letters@tehelka.com

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