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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Why Sonia G wants a ban on govt ads to media is no secret

The suggestions of the country’s largest Opposition party should ordinarily get the attention they deserve from the ruling regime regardless of political persuasion. All the more when they concern on how to deal with the fall-out of a global pandemic which has brought the world to its knees, rupturing the economy and shaking confidence like seldom before in history.

However, when the party happens to be the Congress, and the proposals originate from its Italy-born president who also happens to be the titular head of a Dynasty which has long outlived its utility, you are compelled to tread with caution. The reason obviously lies in the party’s infamous record of minority appeasement, and putting petty politics before the national interest. You can never really be sure of the real motive. Sifting the grain from the chaff becomes imperative.

Predictably enough, two of the suggestions made by Sonia Gandhi to prime minister Narendra Modi in a recent letter on how to generate the funds to fight the Chinese virus nicknamed COVID-19 and cushion its fiscal impact were not entirely apolitical. In fact, even her decision to back the Centre’s announcement of a 30 per cent pay-cut for legislators was delivered a day after it became a fait accompli. It possibly prodded her, presumably on the suggestion of her close advisors, to contribute to the welter of anti-Corona tips emanating from assorted quarters.

Her suggestion that the foreign tourneys of the President, PM, Union ministers, chief ministers, and bureaucrats be put on hold barring the odd exigency seemed patronizing, even plain stupid. Any responsible government would cut its expenditure on foreign junkets in the midst of a swirling virus in which well over a lakh have died so far.

Only the advice to “suspend the ₹20,000 crore central vista beautification and construction project at a time like this,” seems well intentioned. An outlay of this magnitude, said the letter, was self-indulgent and misplaced.

Sonia G’s argument that Parliament can function just as well from within the existing buildings, the walls of which echo the history of nine decades, has its merits. For even if the government feels that today’s parliamentarians deserve plusher environs, the expense can be put off till better times beckon. The money, she suggested, could go to constructing new hospital infrastructure and providing personal protection equipment (PPE) to health care workers.

What, however, gave the game away was the colored suggestion that the PM impose a complete ban for two years on media advertisement, television, print and online, by government and public sectors undertakings (PSUs) with the exception of those on Covid-19. Then came the piece de resistance: transfer all money under the ‘PM-CARES’ fund to the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF).

The stratagem used in the letter was predictable: Mix 2-3 harmless proposals with two mischief-prone in the hope that the former would make the latter seem innocuous. Much like the political tactic often employed by regimes the world over: reshuffle the cabinet or bureaucracy even if the real purpose is to drop or shift out one or two who have earned the displeasure of the powers that be. This way you get what you want without singling out or embarrassing anyone in particular.

Only the politically innocent would contend that Sonia G’s proposal to deprive media houses of precious advertising revenue was driven by her touching concern for the welfare of the Corona afflicted. Much of the media, especially small and medium newspapers, virtually lives off government adverts. It is their lifeline. While the big ones can hobble along on their own with some difficulty, two years is enough to asphyxiate their poorer cousins.

Which is why most media houses in this category have no option but toe the government line. Those backing the government out of genuine conviction for its policies are few though their ranks have tended to swell since Modi’s ascent to power. Many have discovered their nationalist moorings. Predictably enough, they pose the biggest road block to a possible Congress revival which in any case is a near-lost cause. Quite apart from the better known ones the anti-Modi brigade loves to slight as the “godi” (lap) media. They include some well-known TV channels with a large and loyal viewership. Hardened Congressmen like Manish Tewari disparage them as “North Korean” entities. No prizes for guessing the object(s) of his ire.

Doubtlessly, sycophants around the boss convinced madam ji that the Corona scare was the perfect pretext to propose a lockdown on the media’s finances without anyone smelling a rat. Judged by the reaction of the News Broadcasters’ Association, the ploy seems to have gone wide off the mark. If anything it could deepen the divide between the backers and critics of the PM within the media.

Television channels, news websites, and publications which back the Congress are not affected by Mrs. G’s proposal since in any case they have a negligible share of government ad disbursals. However, they make a killing in states where the Congress is in power. One well-known TV channel known for its utterly biased reporting on the Modi regime was showered with adverts during the short lived tenure of Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh. So were individual journalists in the national media who have been known purveyors of fake news favoring the Opposition.

Only slightly less sinister is Sonia G’s proposal to transfer the Rs 6,500 crore which have so far come into the basket of the PM CARES fund into the PM National Relief Fund. This, to ensure better transparency when in reality it is exactly the reverse. PMC was specifically created to fight the Corona monster unlike the PMNRF which, as its very name suggests, is an all purpose relief fund.

The PMNRF was the personal brainchild of J. Nehru. The very nature of its constitution suggests its close ties with the Congress. Its managing committee includes the Congress president though it functions under the overall supervision of the prime minister. The PMC, in stark contrast, has been set up as a public charitable trust with the PM, and ministers of Defence, Finance and Home as members. The PMNRF, on its part, is a deemed trust whose norms remain unclear. It still functions at the PM’s will.

Merging the PMC with the PMNRF would at best be a gambit. Buried in Sonia G’s proposal is the hope that someday a Congress PM would wrest control of it. For a party habitually given to siding with Break Bharat forces, there is only one place her proposal can be accommodated: the recycle bin.

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Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh is an independent journalist who has worked in senior editorial positions in the Times Of India, Asian Age, Pioneer, and the Statesman. Also a sometime stage and film actor who has worked with iconic directors like Satyajit Ray and Tapan Sinha.


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