Delhi HC seeks Centre’s stand on PIL against use of public servants, Army for political propaganda

The Delhi High Court on Monday sought the Centre’s stand on a PIL against the alleged use of public servants and defence personnel to spread “political propaganda” by showcasing the achievements of the government in the last nine years.

A bench headed by Acting Chief Justice Manmohan observed though there should not be any objection to a government popularising its welfare schemes but asked the central government counsel to take instructions on publicising the work done in the last nine years.

“You can say recent. Why nine years?.. Make it recent issues or developments,” the bench, also comprising Justice Mini Pushkara, said.

Petitioners EAS Sarma and Jagdeep S Chhokar, represented by lawyer Prashant Bhushan, said several selfie points were being installed with directions to soldiers to promote the work done by the ministry of defence, and public servants were being deployed as special officers in “Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra” to “canvass” for the ruling party in the upcoming elections.

Bhushan argued that the communications issued by controller general of defence accounts on October 9 and the department of personnel and training on October 17 about publicising the government’s development activities amounted to “corrupt practice” under the Representation of the People Act which prohibits the use of public servants for the benefit of the ruling party in elections.

The election of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was set aside for using government officials, he said.

“This is political propaganda of the government highlighting only achievement of the last nine years.. It says nothing about the scheme. Exercise seems to be showing that government has conferred all kinds of benefits to people (but) it says nothing about the scheme.. Unfortunate that public money is being used for government advertisement,” Bhushan argued as he objected to the presence of photographs of the prime minster at these exercises.

The court observed using the prime minister or chief minister’s picture was a norm and these could be seen on top of advertisements, unless the model code of conduct was in force, as they become “poster boy” of the ruling dispensation. Political propaganda, it said, includes using the name of the political party in such exercises.

“Every person wants to be aware of the latest schemes…people are uninformed,” the court said.

“Miners were trapped in the tunnel…If Indian Army wants to popularise that (their rescue work), I dont think there is a problem. There is no political party. There has to be a connection,” it said.

The court also asked the counsel for the Election Commission to seek instructions on the issue.

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Additional Solicitor General Chetan Sharma opposed the petition and said the petitioners were wrongly assuming that the government was a political party.

“Government of India and party are different things. This is pure government, and for government, it is permissible. We will take instructions on nine years,” he said.

The petition said the government’s action of deploying public servants to showcase the achievements for a political purpose disturbs free and fair elections and the level playing field, which are essential parts of democracy.

“Centre’s brazen move, referred to above, has wider implications. Firstly, considering that the campaign to showcase the NDA government’s achievements, for the time being, will extend up to 25.01.2024, it will amount to deploying civil servants and public resources to influence the voters even during the 2024 Parliament elections,” the petition said.

“Secondly, the Centre’s move has set an unhealthy precedent to encourage the political leadership in each State going for elections to do likewise, deploying their government machinery and resources in electioneering, a situation that would certainly lead to anarchy and wholesale, irreversible erosion of democratic values,” it further asserted.

The matter will be heard next on January 5.

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