Remember that Aam Aadmi Party ad on TV where a Delhi homemaker was seen peeling a lauki (bottle gourd) with vicious abandon?
Residents in Delhi must be going through that lauki feeling right now, of being skinned off their hard-earned cash so that the self-proclaimed messiah Arvind Kejriwal can splurge it on a nationwide advertisement blitzkrieg.
In a yet-to-tabled report, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India has rapped the AAP government for spending crores of Delhi taxpayers' money to fund a sustained publicity campaign in media outside the NCR.
Simply put, without their even realising it, Delhiites have been sponsoring Kejriwal so that their elected Chief Minister can leave for greener pastures and fulfill his national ambitions. After all, who wants to remain a glorified mayor when all powers are with Najeeb Jung?
According to TimesNow, which quotes the CAG India report on Social Sector (Non-Public Sector Undertakings), Delhi government has incurred an expenditure of Rs 24.29 crore on advertisements and publicity campaigns that were not in conformity with the accepted principles.
The CAG report further states that 85 percent of the amount of Rs 33.40 crore was incurred in the publicity campaign pertaining to advertisements released outside the National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi.
“Delhi government is answerable to the taxpayer of Delhi and should target the people of Delhi through advertisements. Advertisements all over India show imprudent expenditure of the Delhi taxpayer money,” says CAG on the expenditure of Rs 18.47 crore — Rs 11.93 crore for city editions of national newspapers and Rs 6.54 crore for regional ones.
The following is a break-up of Kejriwal government's publicity budget as reported by the channel:
Rs 18.47cr on nationwide advertisement to mark AAP's first anniversary
Rs 14.5cr on advertisement in 26 national newspapers in February
Rs 2.5cr on Delhi editions and Rs 12cr for other cities
Rs 6.5cr on advertorials in regional newspapers
Rs 33.52 lakh on Hindi advertisements in English newspapers
These "irregular" and "unjustified" expenses go against the "basic financial tenets of public expenditure", said the auditor general in a scathing indictment of the Kejriwal government.
Some additional points have also been made. There was "no prior exercise conducted to identify the target audiences". Economising expenditure on advertisements was not achieved. There was no assurance of the accuracy of expenditure incurred and the liabilities created on advertisements and publicity and finally, instructions relating to the inclusion of cost estimates in proposals for release of advertisement and publicity campaigns while seeking approval of the competent authority were not adhered to.
Debobrat Ghose writes in Firstpost that a draft copy of the audit findings was sent to the Delhi government on 8 July and they were supposed to get back by 16 August. So far, there has been no response.
Not just the CAG, Kejriwal's penchant for blowing own trumpet at taxpayers' expense — setting aside Rs 526 crore from annual budget for publicity, for instance — has raised eyebrows in all quarters.
A three-member committee, headed by former chief election commissioner BB Tandon to see that guidelines set for government advertisements by the Supreme Court are followed, has taken a serious note of Delhi government's ad expenses.
The panel, which was constituted by the Centre following an order by the Supreme Court on 13 May, 2015, was asked to look into AAP government's alleged misuse of public funds by the Delhi High Court on 10 August. A Delhi HC bench comprising of Chief Justice G Rohini and Justice Sangita Dhingra Sehgal, while disposing of four PILs seeking action against the Kejriwal-led government for allegedly wasting taxpayers’ money in violation of Supreme Court guidelines said: “The issue of content regulation with regards to government advertising will be taken up by central government’s committee and addressed in a timely manner."
Delhi government seems to have not only abused the public exchequer in trying to increase AAP's national footprint and boost Kejriwal's image, the nature of the publicity is also interesting.
Very often, these advertisements have veered off from listing the achievements of Delhi government (which are anyway not relevant to readers in Gujarat, Goa or Punjab) to taking on AAP's political rivals and sermonising the people against voting for them.
The AAP, for instance, received a lot of stick from all political parties recently for a full-page advertisement published in various newspapers on 10 March this year condemning the violence in Haryana during the recent Jat agitation.
The ad was actually a letter, issued by Kejriwal and addressed to people of Haryana against the violence and an appeal to Haryana CM to quickly release compensation funds. Through it, Kejriwal targeted both the Congress and the BJP. Needless to say, this ad was also paid for by Delhi residents.
This follows a pattern. In July this year, in a full-page advertisement published in several newspapers, Delhi government took on the Centre over the recent "undemocratic transfers" of nine officers. Last year, in a series of posters all across Delhi, Kejriwal had asked Prime Minister Modi to "let him work", citing interference.
To be sure, carrying political messages against rivals is not a crime. The Constitution gives all political parties the right to propagate their ideas and criticize those of their rivals. But these must be done at the concerned party's expense.
An elected government cannot dip into taxpayers' money to run a publicity campaign against political rivals, much less do so across several states and various publications and in multiple languages. This flouts all norms and sets a dangerous precedent. If all political parties were to similarly indulge in exchequer-driven ad campaigns against each other, that will leave very little money to carry out the work all governments have been elected to do. Remember, these are not unaccounted-for funds but money collected through taxes.
The legitimate question to ask is, why can't the AAP carry out this publicity blitzkrieg at its own expense instead of forcing Delhi residents to foot the bill of their Chief Minister's ambition?
The AAP has an answer.
During a public rally on Monday in Goa, where the AAP has very ambitious plans of opening its account, Kejriwal said his party is broke.
"It would look odd but it is true that despite a one-and-half year of governance in Delhi, AAP does not have money to fight election. I can show you my bank account, even the party does not have money," the Delhi CM said while speaking to a group of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes members in South Goa.
The trouble is, Election Commission figures speak otherwise.
AAP is right now India's fourth-largest political party in terms of receiving contributions. In 2014-15, Kejriwal's party received contributions worth Rs 37.45 crore. As the India Today report points quoting EC data, only three parties — and all of them national ones — had received larger contributions than the AAP. The BJP (Rs 437.35 crore), Congress (Rs 141.55 crore) and the NCP (Rs 38.82 crore).
Not just that, AAP has the distinction of receiving the highest contribution among all regional parties, even those who are ruling other states.
There are two more problems with AAP's approach.
One, it completely erodes the trust between the government and the taxpayer. This mistrust leads to acts like tax evasions. A citizen of Delhi may legitimately feel cheated because her money is not being put to proper use. For a government which has failed to install CCTV cameras in public places and buses, free Wi-Fi in public places, expanding healthcare infrastructure among a host of other tall promises, how can it splurge on tax-payer funded publicity?
Finally, for a party whose shtick was clean politics and accountability in public sphere, Kejriwal's unethical and morally obnoxious acts are a bitter betrayal. Instead of a 'saviour of aam admi', Kejriwal resembles tinpot dictators in trying to further his personality cult at the expense of his "subjects." It's a fall steeper than even Lucifer.