Of the Prime Minister, His Photograph and Paytm

While the president’s office has been quick to clamp down on any unauthorised usage of images, the prime minister’s office has stonewalled RTIs while refusing to take remedial action against Reliance Jio or Paytm.

While the president’s office has been quick to clamp down on any unauthorised usage of images, the prime minister’s office has stonewalled RTIs while refusing to take action against Reliance Jio or Paytm.

A screenshot of the Paytm-Modi advertisement that appeared a day after demonetisation was announced.

A screenshot of the Paytm-Modi advertisement that appeared a day after demonetisation was announced.

New Delhi: As post-demonetisation politics kicks in, and as a number of states head into assembly elections, symbols, images and pictures are dominating Indian headlines. While in Uttar Pradesh son fought father over which faction would get to use the party’s bicycle symbol, in Tamil Nadu protestors and the Supreme Court disagree over whether the bull represents the state’s future or the past.

Most recently, a calendar containing the pictures of prominent Indian leaders was the source of much controversy.

Where there is much less doubt, however, are in the offices of President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi; both of which present two different approaches to the misuse and misappropriation of photographs.

On Friday, the Ludhiana unit of the Congress Party reportedly put up election posters that featured the image of Mukherjee, who before becoming president was a senior Congress leader. The posters coincided with the visit of the president’s daughter, Sharmistha Mukherjee, who was in town to campaign for the party before the Punjab state elections.

Unfortunately, any usage of the president’s photograph is clearly against Election Commission regulations. Head of Congress in Ludhiana district, Gurpreet Gogi, quickly issued a statement saying that “they did not intend to use the name and photo of the president in the election campaign”. Instead, Gogi claimed, it was just a welcome poster for the president’s daughter and a way of honouring her.

Mukherjee’s office however clearly disagreed with Gogi. In a series of tweets put out on Saturday evening, the president sharply noted that his secretary, Omita Paul, had written to the Election Commission over this issue.

“Neither his [Pranab Mukherjee] photo nor anything related to him in capacity as president can or should be used for any political purposes,” one tweet said.

In a final tweet, the president’s office warned that “necessary steps may be taken to ensure this neutrality of the office of the President of India is not breached in any manner”.

Jio, Paytm ads

In the last few months, the prime minister Narendra Modi’s image has also been used, to great effect, by two major corporations (Reliance Jio and Paytm). At the time, The Wire had reported on the improper nature of the advertisements; Reliance Jio had put out a front-page advertisement with the prime minister’s photo after the launch of its ambitious telecom venture, while Paytm took out a similar one congratulating the Modi government’s November 8 demonetisation decision.

Ever since both photographs and advertisements appeared, the prime minister’s office (PMO) has delayed in answering right to information (RTI) requests over whether permission was taken by Reliance Jio and Paytm before they printed their advertisements.

This question of permission is crucial only because there have been confusing precedents. Does one get punished for using Modi’s picture without permission? In April 2016, a Pune-based real estate developer was pulled up after using advertisements containing pictures of Modi and Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. On the other hand, in the case of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission calendar, the government has professed innocence without rushing to state whether it was wrong or right.

RTI requests filed by lawyer-activist  Hemant Kumar, seeking to understand whether permission was granted to Reliance Jio and Paytm, show that the PMO was reluctant to answer. In the case of the Reliance Jio RTI, although the first appellate authority in the PMO has assured Kumar of a response, it  has languished without reply for two and a half months. The RTI regarding Paytm permission was filed slightly later, but has yielded no response even though the mandated period for replies is now over.


Response from the PMO to the RTI filed by Hemant Kumar. Credit: Hemant Kumar

In the second week of December 2017, however, in response to a question raised in Parliament, I&B junior minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore noted that no permission was granted to Reliance Jio. At the time, The Wire noted that there was no evidence that the PMO was rushing to take remedial action against Reliance Jio for the unauthorised usage of Modi’s photograph.

Rathore appeared to indicate that the ball was now in the ministry of consumer affairs’ court. The ministry administers the Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act 1950, which envisages a fine of Rs 500 for illegal use of official names or images, as in the case of Reliance Jio and Paytm.

There are two issues of impropriety here. Firstly, is it acceptable to use the prime minister’s photograph in an unauthorised manner and what are the consequences of doing so?

Secondly, is it kosher for giant corporations to use the prime minister’s image as they cash in on major decisions taken by the government? This becomes particularly applicable in the case of Reliance Jio and Paytm, both of which have legitimately benefited from major policy decisions.

The public spotlight on Paytm after November 8 has definitely increased: the company’s advertisements, the ill-advised decisions of several municipal bodies that favoured Paytm and even the speech that the company’s founder gave at a  New Year’s office party.

There is also little doubt that both Reliance Jio and Paytm spend an enormous amount of money on advertising; some could call it a crucial component of their business model, similar to the role that advertising plays in the e-commerce industry. Paytm for instance spent Rs 500 crore on advertising in 2015-16 while booking revenues of Rs 336 crore in the same year. In 2016-17, it spent a whopping Rs 600 crore. Last year alone it had to spend Rs 203 crore on securing the sponsorship rights for all Indian cricket for the next four years.

Reliance Jio, on similar lines, had an advertising budget of up to Rs 300 crore over the last year.

When Reliance Jio and Paytm advertisements are omnipresent, coming as they do after demonetisation and questionable turmoil in the telecom sector, the question of whether they should be fined or censured appropriately for the unauthorised usage of the prime minister’s photograph becomes crucial.