Why did Rajasthan’s PR department protest against covering Modi’s Ajmer rally?

Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje's Gaurav Yatra was a mammoth publicity campaign coming in the backdrop of crucial by-elections losses for the BJP. BJP.ORG
07 October, 2018

On 6 October, Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicked off BJP’s campaign for the Rajasthan assembly elections by addressing a huge rally on the outskirts of Ajmer city. The rally, which coincided with the Election Commission’s announcement of poll dates for the state, was the culmination of Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s Gaurav Yatra—a massive 40-day public outreach crisscrossing the state, perched atop a luxury bus.

The previous day, employees of Rajasthan’s Department of Information and Public Relations, or DIPR, submitted a letter protesting against an order that asked DIPR to manage media for Modi’s Ajmer meeting. The letter was signed by Sitaram Meena, the president of the Public Relations and Allied Services Association of Rajasthan, or PRASAR, the union of DIPR employees. It was addressed to the chief secretary of the Rajasthan government, and complained that government machinery was being deployed for the BJP’s Ajmer campaign rally in violation of a recent high court judgment.

The Gaurav Yatra had run into trouble soon after it was launched, on 4 August, when it was hauled to court over charges that state machinery and funds were being used for political purposes. Two writ petitions before the Rajasthan High Court challenged orders issued and tenders floated by the state’s public-works department, and a DIPR notice directing employees to provide media coverage —all ostensibly for the yatra. On 5 September, the court pronounced its judgment forbidding any state-sponsored functions, exhibitions or launches during the course of the yatra.

Among other aspects, the court had considered an order issued by the DIPR on 2 August, which deputed officers for media management for the Udaipur leg of the Gaurav Yatra and “publicity to the functions organised by the State.” The court did not expressly declare the government order illegal, and notes that during the course of the yatra, DIPR “would be coordinating media publicity not only to the political yatra i.e. Gaurav Yatra of Chief Minister but even publicity to the social welfare schemes of the Government.” Towards the end of the judgment, however, the court notes:

So intermingled are the State sponsored and State financed programmes with the Gaurav Yatra that it would be impossible to segregate one from the other … To a common man, if during the Gaurav Yatra, which is a political event, the leader of a political party who happens to be the Chief Minister inaugurates public functions, the understanding would be the glorification of the political party and not the glorification of the achievements by the Government.

On the day of the high court ruling, the DIPR issued another notification deputing 10 news officials, cameramen and videographers to cover the chief minister’s tour in Bikaner on 6 September. Two days later, PRASAR submitted a letter to the commissioner of DIPR, marking a copy to the Rajasthan government’s chief secretary, protesting the directions for the use of government officials to cover the political event. The letter, written in Hindi, said the DIPR notification was in contravention of the high court order which had specified that the BJP’s Gaurav Yatra was political in nature and employees “were not given a clear written order asking them to cover only the government events and not the political ones.”

PRASAR’s concerns about the contravention of the judgment seem to stem from the ambiguity of the court’s ruling on the use of DIPR. In the letter, the employees refer to the distinction between rajkiya karyakram (governmental work) and rajneetik karyakram (political work).

The distinction between political and government publicity is reflected in the court’s judgment as well. While the judgment does not expressly forbid the DIPR’s involvement with the yatra, it makes it clear that the distinction between political activity and government activity is paramount. It notes that the DIPR “would be coordinating media publicity not only to the political yatra … but even publicity to the social welfare schemes of the Government.” The court refers to both, but does not expressly clarify whether the implication is that DIPR’s coverage of the event would be illegal.

The PRASAR letter also alleged that DIPR employees who had objected to this violation of the high court’s orders were being threatened and coerced by Mahendra Bhardwaj, a media advisor in the chief minister’s office, and Arun Joshi, a joint director in the DIPR. It adds that Bhardwaj and Joshi were constantly calling DIPR officials on the phone and “pressurising them to cover the political events as well.” The letter states:

The employees were told there would be consequences for not complying. They were threatened with transfers and other things. These employees feel tremendous pressure in such a working environment.

According to a serving DIPR official, who asked to remain anonymous, there was resistance within the department’s employees to the official government orders. “We decided to send our news reports to the chief minister’s OSD”—officer on special duty—“in charge of the media instead of sending it directly to media outlets.” The official added that the employees feared they may be in contempt of the high court’s 5 September judgment. The letter reflects this concern as well. It notes: “PRASAR believes that the said order is an unambiguous contempt of the Hon'ble High Court’s order and is against the service rule of the state. This can have an adverse impact on the officials of the department as well as the on the service of its employees. They may even lose their jobs on this basis in future.”

However, Akhil Chaudhury, a lawyer practicing in the Rajasthan High Court, claimed that it was a “weak order” and that DIPR officials assigned to cover the chief minister could not be held in contempt. “The DIPR notifications comply with the high court judgment because they don’t mention whether it is for the Gaurav Yatra or official purposes,” he said. “On paper it is for state purposes, but in reality they may be using government machinery to promote the BJP’s Gaurav Yatra.”

The DIPR has subsequently issued similar orders on 13 September, for the rally at Kota, on 18 September, for the one in Jaipur, and on 26 September for Raje’s visit to Ajmer. On 4 October, it issued another notification for the “media management” of Modi’s Ajmer rally. The next day, PRASAR issued another letter, this time to the Rajasthan government’s chief secretary, reiterating the same points as the 7 September letter.

The October letter, however, emphasised that DIPR officials would only “be present for the government’s works on the specified date and place and they would not take responsibility for the coverage and media management of any political event.” It further stated: “If any administrative action is taken against the employees of the Information and Public Relations department, then the state government and the Information and Public Relations Commissioner will be held responsible.”

The PRASAR union president Sitaram Meena and senior vice president Motilal Verma refused to comment on their letters. The media advisor Bhardwaj and DIPR joint director Joshi both refused to comment on the allegations against them in the PRASAR letter, and asked me to speak to other people about the issue instead, including DIPR employees and the department’s commissioner. But Ravi Jain, the commissioner of the DIPR, too, did not answer multiple calls for a comment.