From Snakes-and-Ladders to Snakes & Scorpions

Saturday, 11 July 2015

By S. Narendra

(Former Information Adviser to PM, Principal Information Officer to
Government of India & Spokesperson)

“Narendra, the prime minister has said that he would wind up DAVP. There have been serious problems with the printing and distribution of PM’s speeches. Saving DAVP depends upon you,” said the affable secretary of I&B ministry P.Murari to me as I was sent to head DAVP as its first Director General. By upholding the official ad policy of political neutrality and non-discrimination, distancing from   media   political games and restoring DAVP’s professional credibility were few of the apparent challenges. These had to be accomplished in an election year, 1989, when official media system like DAVP come under maximum political stress. Read on for yet another interesting blast from the past.

Irrespective of the party is in power, they all misuse the official media machinery for perception management, and it tends to get worse in an election year. Luckily for The Rajiv Gandhi government, the Jawaharlal Nehru’s centenary that coincided with its penultimate year in office, offered a legitimate opportunity for opening the government media advertising. Other reasons were being invented every other week to saturate the media for trumpeting the achievements of the government.  By this time the ad revenues of Doordarshan & AIR  had swelled. The newspapers - the only private media available then - were making  lots of hay in this pre-poll sunshine. The influential sections among them were engaged in mutually destructive games for cornering bigger slices of government patronage. Openly claiming to be government-friendly, several of them – the likes of  Times of India, National Herald, Hindustan Times, Hindustan, Amrita Bazar Patrika, apart from scores of regional media businessmen -  were attempting to isolate competition in order to improve their share of the official patronage. On the other side, papers like the Indian Express, Statesman were feeding the opposition with complaints that they were being denied official Ads. Even while I was navigating this cross-fire, PMO had given me a select list of newspapers to be given priority in Ad space as well as in effecting payments. A senior PMO official was monitoring the implementation of this instruction.
Parliament to Rescue: Suddenly, Parliament took up this controversy in its questions hour. A very worried I&B minister, H.K.L.Bhagat, also the parliamentary affairs minister, called me for a briefing. He also enquired about the complaints against me. I seized this opportunity, and submitted that he can turn the tables on the opposition by   fully disclosing the share of government Ads going to different newspapers. Despite the pulls and pressures, we had struggled to maintain some balance in Ads allocation and this helped us to disprove the complaints by a section of the disgruntled media. The fear of Ad matters   coming before Parliament came in handy in resisting further government pressures to increasingly favour government-friendly media.
From April onwards I had scaled down DAVP activities like printing and storing of publicity material  and film production, as I did not want to mount inventories. This precaution was taken mainly because there were hints that the government could opt for early elections, and such inventories relating to outgoing regime would not go down well with any successor government, particularly if it happened to of a different political hue. By August , I had spent most of the funds allocated and I definitely had no intention of asking for more funds for new communication activities. I reckoned that not having funds would help me to ward off government pressure to launch new ‘achievement’ projecting campaigns close to elections.
The Rationale: Let me explain the rationale behind the government communication policy. It can be broadly divided into following  categories - all clubbed under public service advertising  (PSA).
  • The first category relates to awareness building and empowerment campaigns (especially in a poor, developing country) in support of development programmes (Like MNREGA, HIV/Aids prevention, Mother  & Child Development schemes like ICDS,  Janani Suraksha Yojana, Swasthya Bima Yojana). These have now acquired  the title BCC or behaviour change (desired behaviour)  communication.
  • The second category belongs to easing policy and programme implementation and compliance ( e.g.GST, IT, Ease of Doing Business).
  • Third, somewhat controversial field is the government’s legitimate duty and need to put information  in public space about its performance in relation to its poll commitments (e.g.100 days achievements, annual reviews, new schemes, rallying  calls). This is a grey area where performance accountability clashes with partisan   publicity using public funds for political gains.
  • Parties criticising this from opposition benches revel in exploiting this avenue when they are in power. Governments are prone to overload this function of PSA when their electoral mandate   nears the end.
  • Another category   is the public advocacy of certain policy options. For example, Rajiv Gandhi government was keen to push through legislation for giving constitutional status to Panchayat raj (local self governments)   institutions and making elections to them mandatory. Such communication again is controversial as there would be  no political consensus on their goals and benefits.   

Early Christmas Turkey! The Rajiv Gandhi government was in the midst of a rough monsoon Parliament session, when there were hints that it could seek early poll, after announcing a slew of populist measures.
Around   this time, I was asked to be present as an observer during a close-door presentation  to be made to a group of ministers by select advertising agencies. Invitees to this ministerial group were Romi Chopra, an Ad guru of those days, Sam Pitroda, (and Jairam Ramesh who was assisting Rajiv him). Apparently, this ministerial group had been asked to come up with an election campaign. Presentations from top guns of first tier Ad and PR agencies continued for from mid-September Monday to Thursday. This was to be followed by a final presentation to be made the next Thursday before the PM by the selected one or two agencies. We were unclear over the kind of brief to be given to the agencies. It had been made clear that I was to be present only with a watching brief.  
By Thursday evening it became clear to the ministers that none of the agencies had come up with an acceptable campaign theme and there were no outlines of audio/video /print material scripts and there were no ‘scratch’ AV productions to be shown to PM in the following week.
The ministerial group was obviously in a panic as they had to face the PM next week and present an acceptable campaign kit.  I was summoned to a crisis management meeting  of this group. The senior minister expressed appreciation of the good work being done by DAVP (nice to hear such words once in a way), and requested me to produce a campaign kit. Until now, DAVP had been treated as a pariah and I had been told that the PM had no confidence in DAVP’s professional credentials. All professional talent was supposed to be outside the government domain! I had barely four days to prove our capacity.  Working day and night, with teams of empanelled producers and printers, we managed to put together a kit. It consisted of two 30 minute audio cassettes, four video clips, six posters, four scripts for booklets and four leaflets.  The ministerial team was much impressed by the kit and profusely thanked me. However, there was one sour note. I was informed that they would not attribute the kit to DAVP, as the PM was biased against it!,

Danger Lurks in Success: In this hour of some joy, I could not see a great danger lurking. K.Krishnakumar, the minister of state in the I&B ministry called me to inform that the PM had expressed his appreciation of  the campaign and I should attend a meeting the next morning.  At this meeting the minister’s private secretary Thomas   (IAS) handed over a paper containing the numbers of print and AV material   required to be produced. The numbers were mind boggling:  a million copies of each poster (6 versions), booklets (2 versions), leaflets (4) and some 10,000 copies of each audio and video cassettes. At 1989 prices, the cost of production was close to Rs 40 crore. All these items were to be produced in about two to three weeks, before the announcement of elections. Sam Pitroda in one of the earlier   meetings had announced that the polls could be held end-October. I had thought that once I handed over the campaign kit materials for presentation to PM, the production and distribution would be taken over by selected Ad agency and the Congress Party. But Krishnakumar said that it had been decided to entrust this work to DAVP.
Rules & Norms thrown to winds: I tried to duck for cover under several genuine reasons. DAVP had no budget for such a huge job. The minister said that PM had personally assured that such funds would be made available. I raised another problem - even if we commandeered the entire public and private production facilities in Delhi and elsewhere, such a mammoth job could not be accomplished in the given three weeks time-frame. The minister summoned a fellow Keralite businessman who was ready with a letter promising delivery of the entire lot within the schedule. I had posed one more problem: DAVP can undertake such huge job only on the basis of a requisition by a client department. Promptly, a letter making such a request to DAVP from the Directorate of Filed Publicity (DFP) was produced. This outfit had never in its existence placed a request  for print or AV material with us! The Director of DFP had not only agreed to place a request for such humongous quantity of supplies but had also promised to send bulk supplies to his over 250 field units. From the latter, the campaign material was to be lifted by the Congress party filed units.
I thought I had a last weapon to defend DAVP against this blatant misuse. I told the minister that under the official rules and procedures laid down, DAVP was mandated to go for open, pan-India tenders for procurement of services costing more than a crore of rupees. Also, a high value tender cannot be given to a single party and that too to a party without any track record. Soon, the joint secretary of the ministry was called into the meeting. This official informed the minister that he would give a letter to DAVP authorising it to make a one-time exception to the rules. The minister was very unhappy when I submitted to him that a joint secretary cannot issue such a letter without the concurrence of the ministry of finance. I was directed to meet the cabinet minister the next morning.
Another Sleepless Night: Myself and my colleagues in DAVP spent a sleepless night. The secretary of the ministry had conveniently stayed away from the ministerial meetings and refused to give me an audience for seeking his guidance. They would not even entertain my calls.
The author

The next day’s meeting with H.K.L Bhagat was destined to be a tense one. He tried his best to persuade me to sign the single tender contract with the party recommended by Krishnakumar. Bhagat told me that the government was confident of getting re-elected and I need not have to worry about any kind of post–election problems like an enquiry into the matter. Further, I was promised that I would be elevated to the next level that was anyway long overdue due to me but had been denied thus far. In response, I submitted a letter to the minister, seeking immediate leave of absence preparatory to retirement (I had a decade of service left). I politely pleaded with the minister that the ministry should grant my request and appoint an immediate replacement, so that it can go ahead with its production plans. A surprised minister, refused to accept the letter.

Foot Note: The Congress party election campaign (1989) was entrusted to Rediffusion agency, and became a landmark, notable for its snakes and scorpions campaign. A little before the Dussera festival, there was one more Ad campaign …..Watch this space.


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