It is indeed harvest time for the media. Governments at the centre and states have been flooding newspapers and electronic media with advertising/ propaganda blitz just before the Central Election Commission announced the 2019 General Election schedule on Sunday and the coming into effect of the Model Code of Conduct for political parties. It is indeed harvest time for the highly commercialized media to have a windfall from ruling political parties during elections.
After speaking to ordinary citizens one has realized that they by and large perceive that the respective political parties are footing the bill for such extravagant publicity blitz. They were surprised that the governments were spending money from the public coffers for this. One of them commented, “So it is our money that’s being spent to improve their party’s electoral prospects and brand building of their leaders.” The reality however is that there is nothing illegitimate or improper about such advertisement campaigns. On the eve of all elections such heightened campaigns have always been going on.
Yes, it is true that funds for all the ads, report cards and often what people consider unsubstantiated claims published in the print media and broadcast in various channels actually are funded by the public exchequers. That means it is your money and my money.
There is a very thin line dividing advertising and propaganda. These fall in the realm of communication or persuasion to be specific. From the time man developed speech, persuasion has been in vogue with attempts to change people’s opinion. Propaganda did not have a negative connotation initially when religions, especially the Catholic Church used it and politics since the times of revolutions like industrial, Reformation, French or Russian revolutions were driven by propaganda. With modern media emerging, the commercial world used tools of advertisement and in democracies around the world political propaganda and advertisements became inseparable components of elections and government formation. Today political parties compete with each other to persuade people through their media ads and propaganda to accept their individual political ideologies.
As the 2019 General Elections are a few weeks away, there are feverish attempts to influence the voters. We have seen the ruling party at the Center leading the action with its leaders, especially the Prime Minister crisscrossing the country inaugurating or laying foundation stones for development projects and public utility services, addressing political rallies giving a report card about his achievements. After the 2004 “India Shining Campaign” of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, such extravagant campaign [on the eve of the announcement of the election schedule] by the ruling party has never been seen. It is reported that between 9 February and 9 March 2019 the Prime Minister himself undertook 28 trips across the country and 157 projects were launched, inaugurated or even re-launched. The hapless or cash strapped opposition could only attack the unprecedented inaugurations as unethical.
The media in the National Capital, be it print or electronic, had a surfeit of political advertisements alleged to be masquerading as political propaganda. They also accused the ruling party and the government of politicizing the military happenings on our borders after the mindless massacre of our CRPF Jawans by Jaish e Mohammed terror group facilitated and abetted by Pakistan. Delhi incidentally is witnessing a highly competitive advertising blitz by the all powerful Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] led central government and the fledgling giant killer Aam Aadmi Party [AAP] which almost wiped out the BJP and the Indian National Congress in the last Assembly elections. One tried to evaluate the extent of political advertisements by the two parties in three or four days of last week. Each of the parties had four to six pages of full page advertisements in major newspapers. Last Sunday before the election schedule was announced by the Central Election Commission in the evening while the BJP had just one full page newspaper ad, the AAP had five or six pages! The money, the taxpayers spent on these full page inserts is whopping. It seems, modern day elections have a special component of money and media power!
It appears, the BJP’s strategy has been to project “Brand Modi” and no wonder with eighty seats there at stake, special emphasis was given to the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh and its Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. It was interesting that the AAP’s ads projected both the Chief Minister and the Deputy Chief Minister in separate full page ads. On 8th March, observed as the International Women’s Day, while the AAP government came out with a full page ad dedicated to women and the Day, the BJP led central government did not have any; of course there was a small insert by the Public Sector Life Insurance Corporation of India on the Woman’s Day.
Not to be outdone in competitive ad campaigns, at least three non BJP Chief Ministers- Karnataka, Andhra and Odisha have been running longish TV promotional programmes for days together about their achievements. The ruling party of course has used all the media with coverage of the party’s events and official functions and used those occasions to deride political opponents. A glaring example is that of the inauguration of the National War Memorial on 25th February,2019 in Delhi where the PM openly criticized the main opposition party.
There have been serious objections from opposition parties for the alleged promotion of a new brand of nationalism bordering jingoism by the ruling party, following the Pulwama massacre and the Balakot aerial attack by our Air Force and the war like situation on our borders. It may be pointed out that the new situation was marked by proactive, aggressive policy by the government the credit for which has been claimed and appropriated by the ruling party. The party believed to have been under lack of issues and alleged failures in the job and economic fronts found new campaign themes of national security and nationalism. They have realized that for the government’s aggressive policies there have plenty of takers and can be a game changer for the General Elections. If some of the opinion polls following Balakot are to be believed the popularity of the Prime Minister and the ruling party has seen a major upward swing, which may give them political dividends at least in the Hindi belt at this crucial juncture.
Using the valor and military prowess of our armed forces or politicization of the armed forces in an electoral battle has not been appreciated by independent observers. In an open letter to the Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora, a former navy chief Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas [Retired] asked for immediate intervention of the Commission in stopping political parties from using the Pulwama attack, Balakot air strike and Wing Commander Abhinandan Vartaman’s operations to influence the electorate. The former Navy Chief said, “With elections due in a few weeks from now, it is particularly important that there should not be any misuse of these recent events by any political party to send triumphalist or jingoistic messages which can influence the electorate.”
Referring to a poster with pictures of the PM, BJP party president and other party leaders along with Wing Commander Abhinandan, Prof. Yogendra Yadav of Swaraj Abhiyan tweeted, “Dear Election Commission of India, Is this permissible? Using the photograph of a serving soldier in political posters? If not will you act against it?”
Interestingly, last Saturday the Election Commission reminded the parties about a letter dated December 4, 2013 which delineated the reasons for not using the armed forces in poll campaigns, “It is pertinent to mention here that the armed forces of a nation are the guardians of its frontiers, security and the political system. They are apolitical and neutral stakeholders in a modern democracy. It is therefore necessary that political parties and leaders exercise great caution while making any reference to the Armed Forces in their political campaigns.”. The Commission further called upon ,”all political parties to advise their candidates / leaders to desist from displaying photographs of defence personnel or photographs of functions involving defence personnel in advertisements or otherwise as part of their election propaganda / campaigning.”
One hopes political parties would strictly follow these guidelines. The Pulwama attack by Jaish e Mohammad and the timely and strong military actions have already been politicized and their use is too tempting in the Lok Sabha election campaign. A large number of people have become part of the “triumphalism” pointed out by Admiral Ramdas in his open letter to the Election Commission. Veteran journalist and Hindi writer Prof. Ramsharan Joshi said, ”It is in the psyche of our people especially in the Hindi belt to be emotional when it comes to the heroics of our heroes of the past and now our armed forces. There is a sloka that says, “Veer Bhogya Vasundhara”, which means, the Brave Shall Inherit the Earth”.
With such mindset people are easily attracted to such military accomplishments against Pakistan, Joshi added, “already the strong and retaliatory actions of the PM and the government have resulted in the emotional responses of people who may feel that the earth has already been inherited”! The answer to the question whether such responses would translate into votes or not will be known only when results are declared in the last week of May, 2019.