Recommendations include creating a short promotional film every 15 days, highlighting the achievements of the Centre, and giving selected journalists “exclusive” news stories.
New Delhi: According to media reports, a clasp of recommendations has been mooted by an ‘informal’ group of ministers (GoM) to the central government to increase the visibility of its achievements in the states.
The recommendations – aimed at achieving the goal by primarily highlighting centrally sponsored schemes – reportedly have four components. One of them is the suggestion to have ‘PM’ or the names of nationalist leaders prefixed on all central schemes. To ensure that state governments do not take credit for these schemes, the GoM said they should be inaugurated in the presence of union ministers and members of parliament (MPs).
No matter how much the Narendra Modi government attempts to set itself apart from the Congress regime, if it assents to this recommendation it will be the same as its rival, at least in the approach towards naming central schemes.
However, a ‘difference’ of approach did surface in the GoM’s second recommendation – creating a new short promotional film every 15 days, featuring an achievement of the Centre. It also recommends making animation clips on what the Centre wants to project as its successes, stressing the “difference between the past and the present” in a “humourous way”.
An internal note circulated at the GoM meeting, chaired by Union Parliamentary Affairs Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu, too said that the union information and broadcasting ministry would be roped in to show these films “mandatorily” at the theatre halls before the screening of every movie.
“The government will have to take both the film fraternity and viewers’ interests into account before taking such a decision,” said Delhi-based film trade analyst S.K. Pankaj. He said, “Any short film made to feature the government’s achievements will anyway never be less than four to five minutes. Add to it the other mandatory screening of public interest advertisements like the anti-tobacco films. The single screen theatres, which shows only four shows a day, might not be affected by yet another mandatory short film but a multiplex, which screens 25 to 40 shows a day, will be. The multiplexes will then have to forego at least one show, which will certainly not be welcome.”
Although “top government sources” denied such a plan to The Times of India soon after the news spread, Pankaj added, “The government should think even before suggesting such a recommendation because it can go either way. People come to watch a film to get away from the everyday rut. So most may not want to see what the government is up to. Already, films like the anti-tobacco ads are very unpopular with most of the audience. So, if these short films end up as boring sagas of one scheme or the other, they will find it difficult to get public acceptability.”
The GoM’s third recommendation, of which there was no reference in the government’s denial to The Times of India, was to stress the publishing of “exclusive news”, which should be “selectively given out to a few journalists” as “making them exclusive stories will ensure better coverage.” Additionally, the GoM suggested a minimum of two interviews per week by each central minister with national broadcasters Doordarshan and All India Radio.
Veteran journalist H.K. Dua said, “It seems the government is worried that its rating is going low and the media is influencing the public opinion. My suggestion to the government will be to stop its practice of giving one-way information in the form of statements and be open to media questioning it. It should take up questions from the media seeking explanations about one thing or the other because media has the right to ask questions to the government.”
Modi has not addressed a single press conference within the country since becoming prime minister. “Even former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh didn’t address the media much but whenever he did, he was open to questions. By not interacting with the media, the PM is certainly sending out the message that he doesn’t trust the media,” said Dua, formerly the editor of Hindustan Times, The Tribune and The Indian Express.
Responding to the idea of the government “selectively” giving out “exclusive news” to “a few journalists”, Dua cautioned the fraternity. “Ideally, media should stay away from such exclusives. An ‘exclusive’ that comes from the government is usually a plant, unlike one got by a reporter’s own effort. During all my editorship, I was wary of any story that didn’t have two-three sources.”
On May 26, the Modi government will complete two years in power. Media observer and The Hoot editor Sevanti Ninan felt the GoM’s approach towards the media, as reported in the newspapers, seemed similar to the one the government adopted while completing one year in office. She doesn’t see it as a regular practice.
The media approach may well be short-term but the GoM’s fourth recommendation, if accepted by the government, will certainly bring in long-term changes. The internal note circulated in the meeting called for MPs to be given the constitutional authority to conduct checks on the execution of central schemes. It says that instead of the current practice of district magistrates and superintendents of police heading the monitoring committees in every district, MPs should be made their heads.
“If such a recommendation is accepted by the government, it will be doing (so in) violation of the Constitution,” said P.D.T. Acharya, former secretary general of the Lok Sabha Secretariat. The Constitutional expert clarified, “No executive power has been vested on the MPs and the MLAs (members of legislative assembly) by the Constitution. They are the legislators, the people’s representatives, and are not part of the government machinery. Under the federal structure, the state government has to implement central schemes. Even the MPLADS (members of parliament local area development scheme) is implemented by state governments through district authorities. An MP can suggest work but can’t implement the scheme. So, if the government tries to give constitutional authority to the MPs, it will certainly disturb the federal structure of the country.”
Poor ownership of centrally sponsored schemes by the states has been a concern for successive governments. Two expert committee reports have suggested restructuring the centrally sponsored schemes for their effective implementation. While the 2006 Varma Committee report suggested measures like setting a fixed time period for their execution and funds to be routed through state budgets, the BK Chaturvedi Committee report in 2011 felt the state governments should be allowed to modify the schemes to suit local needs.
Last November, after a sub-committee of chief ministers, headed by Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, submitted a report to the Niti Aayog, the Modi government reduced the number of central schemes from 66 to 27. While 10 of them are fully funded by the Centre, the other 17 follow the 60:40 fund ratio between the Centre and the states.
None of the three reports suggested changing the Constitution to give executive powers to the MPs for better implementation of the schemes.