Public advertisements have come under the scrutiny of the apex court in two different cases. On Wednesday, the Delhi and Tamil Nadu governments were hauled up by the court over the alleged misuse of taxpayers’ money in public advertisements that sought to “glorify” Arvind Kejriwal and Jayalalithaa respectively. The court asked the respective State governments why contempt proceedings should not be initiated against them for violating its previous order on public advertisements. To the uninitiated, the apex court last year had ruled that public advertisements can only carry pictures of certain dignitaries like the President, Prime Minister, and Chief Justice of India. Meanwhile, the Centre, represented by Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, requested the court to overturn its previous judgment in the case and sought the publication of photos of other ministers, besides the Prime Minister, in public advertisements. Rohatgi minced no words and termed the apex court verdict on public advertisements as “akin to censorship imposed by the court”. A Minister is responsible for the work was done by his/her Ministry and should be allowed to inform the people about the tasks performed, he argued. The Minister’s prospects in the next election could suffer without the requisite dissemination of such information to the public, he added.
Back when the apex court passed its order, the Centre was clear in its position that the Judiciary should not tread into the Executive’s territory of policy-related decisions. The courts, it argued, can step in if there is no policy or law in place. Although the use of taxpayer’s money to build “personality cults” should be condemned, the issue of “gross wastage of public funds” is an issue that does not fall within the purview of the Judiciary. Questions surrounding the use of public funds fall into the domain of statutory auditors like the Comptroller Auditor General, the Executive, Parliament and finally the voter. It should be incumbent upon various civil society groups and rival political entities to convert this apparent “wastage of resources” into important electoral issues. Suffice to say, the matter clearly falls within the Executive’s domain. “The Judiciary’s job is to essentially interpret the law and not decide how the government should use taxpayer money and what laws can be brought in to determine the same,” this newspaper had argued in an earlier column. “In a parliamentary democracy, there exists a clear demarcation between the roles performed by the Executive and Judiciary. This demarcation is sacrosanct. Judges, who are unaccountable to the voting populace, should not decide how public money is used unless the government has broken a law regarding the same.”
Before it passed the judgment, the Supreme Court had set up its own expert committee to look into the matter. The court accepted most of the suggestion made by the committee and pushed the Executive into accepting these recommendations. “If the Judiciary was to decide how public money is to be used, why do we have an Executive? The people of India have elected their representatives in the Parliament to precisely decide how their tax money is used for the larger public good. The Judiciary must not interfere with the workings of the Executive. By passing a judgment of this nature, the Judiciary has become both a law-making body and an executing authority,” wrote this newspaper in another column. One thing that the honourable court seems to have also overlooked is that India is a federal nation, and all government business is not necessarily run by the Centre. Members of the State Executive, especially the Chief Minister and Governor, also play a significant role in governing large areas of this country. There is a reason why matters pertaining to law and order, for example, are subjects that come under the State government’s jurisdiction. “It is absurd on the apex court’s part that it will not allow the Chief Minister’s pictures in public advertisements for State government-sponsored schemes,” the column went on to argue. “In unnecessarily interfering with the Executive’s functions, the apex court has created further cause for litigation since many State governments are bound to challenge this order. This move will entail further litigation on the Judiciary’s part, which will mean further wastage of taxpayer’s money. The irony, unfortunately, will not be lost on anyone.”