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Money, media and votes

Money, media and votes
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The chorus that these are bad days for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) may have dampened the 'ninth anniversary spirits' of the Congress...

The chorus that these are bad days for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) may have dampened the 'ninth anniversary spirits' of the Congress leadership, but may not have disturbed it the way Delhi Lokayukta's indictment of Sheila Dixit did. It may have even sent alarm bells ringing because the case that the Lokayukta, Manmohan Sarin, has made out against the Delhi Chief Minister can be made against the Manmohan Singh government as well in the wake of UPA's 'paisa vasool' campaign targeting the next Lok Sabha ballot.

Like the BJP's Hindu Hrudaya Samrat in Gujarat, Sheila 'Didi' in Delhi has several run-ins with the Lokayukta. Unlike Narendra bhai's, her face-offs with the Ombudsman have not made to the front pages. Not the latest indictment though. The gravity of the case is such. Also because it has coincided with the brazenness of the UPA's celebrations despite surveys that have sent out alarm signals to the Congress about ballot Waterloo.

Shorn of officialese and legal jargon, the case is that Sheila Dixit had used public funds to mount a media campaign to gain political mileage in the 2008 Assembly election. And that there is material evidence to prove that she had masterminded the campaign strategy to overcome the anti-incumbency factor. Since Sheila Dixit and her Congress party had benefitted from the campaign, either she or her party should foot the bill, not hundred per cent but just 50 percent, the Lokayukta's order says. It means that either should shell out Rs11 crore.

All this sounds bizarre since almost all governments from Gujarat to Assam and from Tamil Nadu to Jammu and Kashmir release full-page display advertisements in newspapers not only of their region, but also of other States, besides the national media. The other day 'Amma' Jayalalithaa had come up with four full pages of advertisement as if she is on a mission to sensitise the electorate across the country and thus make out a case that she is a better bet than her good friend from Gandhinagar. Otherwise, what mileage could she have expected to derive from an advertisement that presented her beaming face at the breakfast table in the capital?

Almost all state governments appear to see a full-page monologue as the 'taraka mantra' for survival. Yes, the likes of Konijeti Rosaiah pay the price by trying to think big, but then it is a self-inflicted wound; they do not fall into 'Amma League'. Also to their great relief, nobody has knocked at the door of their 'local' Lokayukta, like a BJP leader did in Delhi to the discomfiture of Sheila Dixit.

The institution of anti-corruption ombudsman is one of the toothless wonders our clever system has created to keep the talking shops busy. When Morarji Desai, as head of the first Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC), spoke in 1966 of the need for an Ombudsman in the country, his idea was of a mechanism for redressal of citizens' grievances.A It was not meant to be a forum for settling proxy wars or a super 24x7 vigilante making the netas, police and business men lose their sleep.

Five years after Morarji-speak, the State he had ruled as chief minister, Maharashtra, came up with the country's first Lokayukta. Delhi is one of the states that followed Maharashtra's example to the last letter and created an Ombudsman, who is weak conceptually, weak powers-wise, and weak funds-wise, and who could do no more than make a recommendation; so much so that Justice Sarin's indictment of Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit need not cause many ripples. But it will because of its timing. It also brings up several uncomfortable questions.

First of these questions is related to the BJP and the moral high ground it seeks to occupy vis-a-vis Dixit. If the Delhi Chief Minister was guilty of misuse of funds, it also should bear the cross for the India Shining campaign it had carried out with the hope of another term for the National Democratic Alliance government. The BJP governments in various states are also using public funds to spread the good word about their work.

Yes, these Parivar governments can turn around and say that they are simply following the example set by their Congress predecessors in office. But here the question is not who did what. The question is of propriety. Media campaigns by the government are primarily intended to neutralise the anti-incumbency factor and then to materialise the X-factor to win the election. This naturally denies a level playing field at the ballot box. The resources at the disposal of an opposition party are not a match to the war chest of a ruling party.

And if the government in an election year, like the UPA-II, spends extravagantly, every one of our Manish Tiwaris will force Paul Joseph Goebbels to put on the thinking cap to become a one-man Shah Commission to reinvent the Kristallnacht.

As G V G Krishna Murthy, a noted jurist and an Election Commissioner of India during a particularly critical period, told me once, if money and media alone can win elections in India, then Ambanis and Goenkas and Chettiars will have a field day. There will be no need for political parties and their leaders running around voters' homes every now and then.

This truism is what makes Manish Tiwaris of the day work overtime and tap every available source and resource to keep the flag flying for the party. And the Rs 30-crore plus budget for India Shining-II reflects the fear psychosis. While the dilemma of the publicity managers of the party in power is understandable, I am reminded of the publicity brief given during the Emergency days. It ran like this: "You are doing publicity for the government.

What is government? It is the party in power. What is a party in power? It is the leader who is getting the votes for the party? Who is the leader? You know. Go ahead and talk unabashedly, as loudly as you can". Times change only to remain the same. Any doubt?

(The writer can be reached at mramarao2008@gmail.com)

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