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Unnecessary judicial overreach

The apex court on Wednesday issued a slew of guidelines on public advertisements and said that they can carry pictures of only certain dignitaries like the President, Prime Minister and Chief Justice of India. A Supreme Court bench, headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi, had also asked the central government to constitute a three-member committee to regulate the issue of public advertisements.

The Centre, represented by Attorney General Mukul Rohtagi, was clear in its stance that the judiciary should not tread into the territory of policy decisions. The courts, it argued, can step in if there is no policy or law in place. Although the use of taxpayer 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  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. Such a matter clearly falls into the domain of the executive. The judiciary’s job is to interpret the law and not decide how the government should use taxpayer money.

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 get to decide how their money is <g data-gr-id="47">used,</g> unless the government has broken a law regarding the same. In this case, the Supreme Court set up its own expert committee and coerced the executive into accepting said recommendations. If the judiciary was to decide how public money is to be used, why do we have an executive at all? The people of India have elected their representatives in Parliament to precisely decide how their tax money is used for the larger common good. 

The judiciary must not interfere with the workings of the executive. By passing a judgement of this nature, the judiciary has, according to a leading political commentator, “become both a law-making body and its executing authority”. In addition to judicial overreach, there exists a small question of proportion. With the arrival of the Modi-led government, expenditure on public advertisements has come done significantly to Rs 132.7 crore across print, television and radio, according to figures released last year. Compared to the government’s overall budget of Rs 17,77,477 crore for this year, expenditure on public interest advertisements seems miniscule.

One thing that the honourable court seems to have also forgotten is that India is a federal nation, and all government business is not necessarily run through the Centre. Members of the State executive, especially the Chief Minister and Governor, also play a significant role in running large portions of this country. There is a reason why issues pertaining to law and order, for example, are subjects that come under the State government’s discretion. It is excessive on the apex court’s part to not allow a chief minister’s pictures in public advertisements for State government-sponsored schemes. By unnecessarily interfering with the executive’s duties, 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 money. The irony, unfortunately, will not be lost on anyone.
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