In late May, Shiv Kumar Banerjee, the sub-divisional magistrate of Chhattisgarh’s Rajpur area, conducted an inspection of a school premises ahead of a public meeting organised by the state government. The meeting was part of the Chhattisgarh government’s Vikas Yatra—according to Chief Minister Raman Singh, a government programme to “provide the benefit of various schemes” across the state. Banerjee reportedly issued directions for the removal of the BJP flags hoisted at the venue, noting that flags of political parties could not be displayed at a government programme, which prompted angry BJP workers to protest and demand disciplinary action against Banerjee. The protest only ended a few hours later, once the workers were allowed to hoist the flags.
While the BJP identifies the yatra as a government programme, and not an electoral campaign, the media reports reflect a truer picture of its nature and purpose—most reports referred to it as the “BJP’s Vikas Yatra,” and the Indian Express even identified it as the party’s “Chhattisgarh poll campaign.” The state government extensively publicised the programme through advertisements campaigns, which have been funded from the public exchequer. In 2015, the Supreme Court had issued directions regulating the content and expenditure on government advertisements—but as illustrated by the Vikas Yatra, both state and central governments have been consistently violated them, without facing any repercussions.
The Supreme Court’s regulations arose from a 2002 petition filed by the non-governmental organisation Common Cause, which claimed that political parties heading state and central governments were spending approximately Rs 2,000 crore on advertisements every year. Over a decade later, based on the recommendations of a court-appointed committee, the Supreme Court laid down guidelines to regulate the content of government advertisements. In accordance with the recommendations of the committee, the court noted that government advertising campaigns “should be related to government responsibilities” and the “materials should be presented in an objective, fair and accessible manner.” It also ruled that the “campaigns must be justified and undertaken in an efficient manner and cost-effective manner, and that they should “comply with legal requirements and financial regulations and procedures.”
The regulations that form the basis of the Supreme Court judgment state that a government advertisement campaign should “not be directed at promoting political interests of a party.” In this regard, the recommendations prohibit any government advertisement from mentioning the ruling party by its name, attacking the views or actions of the opposition parties and including the party symbol or logo in the advertisement. Additionally, the regulations also prohibit the publication of photos of government leaders in advertisements, except the images of the president, the prime minister, the chief justice of India. On appeal from various state and central governments, the court relaxed its guidelines in March 2016 in order to include the photos of chief ministers, governors and union and state ministers of the departments concerned with the advertisements within the excepted list.
But the state government’s advertisements for the Vikas Yatra in Chhattisgarh blatantly flout these guidelines. The publicity campaign for the programme includes full-pageadvertisements by various government departments that carried the BJP logo, as well as photographs of the BJP national president, Amit Shah, the party’s state president, Dharamlal Kaushik, and other local party leaders. None of these leaders hold a position falling within the exceptions carved out by the Supreme Court. Moreover, the chief minister Singh also toured Chhattisgarh in a bus specially assigned for the yatra, which prominently displayed images of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue Deendayal Upadhyaya.