The Supreme Court has ruled that it is okay for the photographs of governors, Union ministers, chief ministers and state ministers to appear in government advertisements. This modifies its 2015 order that allowed only pictures of the President, Prime Minister and Chief Justice of India.
The issue relates to governments’ obligations to inform citizens and the establishment’s propensity to use that facility solely to enhance the visibility of political leaders. In fact, the court’s order last year was a reaction to the misuse of taxpayer money over the years, which saw every conceivable anniversary or public ceremony used an excuse to issue advertisements with ministers and other worthies featured prominently.
The court has now heeded the pleas of some state governments which sought a review of the order. In a sense that’s only fair. The Prime Minister is, after all, a party political figure and regulation that enhances his visibility exclusively can only be at the expense of regional leaders. The Court’s earlier ruling also served to sever the link between proclaimed achievements of governments and leaders supposedly responsible for them. Denying such causal claims deprives the electorate the chance to make rounded judgments on executive decisions, which ultimately translate into firmer political preferences. The new order makes that possible.
There are other angles that leaders should be mindful of. The use of taxpayer money for popularising governmental narratives puts Opposition parties at a disadvantage, tempting them to use similar devices when in power and perpetuating the spin cycle. Regulatory standards can be devised but compliance will be challenging to ensure.
Parties may be better off reflecting on the content of advertisements to enhance credibility of ministers. Relentlessly positive narratives become a tough sell when reputations are constantly under pressure amid the media glare. Being visible in representative democracy is admittedly difficult. But politicians should know that the citizen’s aesthetic demands are a lot more evolved now.