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Where is the level playing field?

Where is the level playing field?

Author: A Surya Prakash
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: March 26, 2009
URL: http://dailypioneer.com/165233/Where-is-the-level-playing-field.html

Such is the obsession of the Congress Party with three members of the Nehru-Gandhi family that even the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi has been virtually forgotten. The Congress Party's contempt for Mahatma Gandhi is best explained by the fact that just one central scheme - the Mahatma Gandhi Backward Region Development Fund - has been named after him. Even this tokenism has come as an after thought only in 2007, almost 60 years after the Mahatma's assassination. On the other hand, schemes to promote rural electrification, drinking water, crèche for children and micro and small industries in rural areas (each of which was close to the heart of the Mahatma) are all named after Rajiv Gandhi. Again, the scheme to build houses for the rural poor (something that would have made the Mahatma proud) is named after Indira Gandhi, as also the national old age pension scheme. Yet another programme which ought to have been named after the Mahatma - the greatest Indian of the 20th Century - is the Rozgar Yojana which guarantees 100 days of work for the rural unemployed all over the country. Even this programme was initially named after Jawaharlal Nehru as also the Urban Renewal Mission (annual budgetary allocation of over Rs 10,000 crore).

Equally glaring is the omission of many other eminent Indians, including Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, India's first Deputy Prime Minister who undertook the arduous task of integrating 563 princely states into a single nation and BR Ambedkar, who presided over the committee that drafted our Constitution and embedded basic values of democracy and social justice. No central programmes have been named after them. Such is the Congress Party's determination to name every scheme after members of the Nehru-Gandhi family that even the National Fellowship Scheme for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students is named after Rajiv Gandhi and not .Ambedkar, the man who waged a relentless battle to better the lot of the Dalits in India. There are hundreds of other leaders belonging to various political shades who have made an invaluable contribution to the building of India, but not a single Central Government programme is named after any of them. The list of those ignored is a pretty long one. They include Rabindranath Tagore, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bal Gandadhar Tilak, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Sarojini Naidu, Jayaprakash Narayan, Acharya Vinoba Bhave, C Rajagopalachari, Rajendra Prasad and every other stalwart of the freedom movement. Also ignored are great saints like Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda; social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Mahatma Phule; great scientists like CV Raman, Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai and Narlekar and great patriots like Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekar Azad.

While there are many examples of this kind in the States as well, the most glaring example, which raises a question is with regard to free and fair election is the blatant advertisement of the Congress Party on the ambulances that provide emergency medical help all over Andhra Pradesh. These ambulances, which reach every village in the State in quick time, provide efficient integrated emergency services that cover medical emergencies, police and fire. The capital expenditure on each ambulance is Rs 10 lakh to Rs 16 lakh and the running cost per ambulance is Rs 1.25 lakh per month. All this expenditure is borne out of public funds drawn from the Union and State accounts. Yet, it is made out as if these ambulances are a gift from the Congress Party to the people of the State because every ambulance carries a portrait of Rajiv Gandhi on both sides of the vehicle with the legend "Rajiv Arogyasri". The Congress Party is drawing undue electoral advantage out of this programme, which is being made to look like a programme of a political party or a private donor. Gujarat too has ensured full coverage of all its 18080 villages by these ambulances. But it does not advertise these ambulances as some kind of largesse from the ruling party.

Many years ago, when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was in power at the Centre, it launched the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana. This nomenclature, as is obvious, is politically neutral. Several schemes launched by the present Government in Madhya Pradesh also carry politically neutral names and are called Mukhya Mantri Yojanas. The Election Commission ought to commend this model to all Governments in the larger interests of democracy and to ensure fair and objective conditions for all political players.

Part VII of the Model Code of Conduct drafted by the Election Commission says "the party in power whether at the Centre or in the State shall ensure that no cause is given for any complaint that it has used its official position for the purposes of its election campaign". It prohibits Ministers from misusing official machinery "in furtherance of the interest of the party in power". They are not to issue advertisements at the cost of the public exchequer or do anything "which may have the effect of influencing the voters in favour of the party in power". In other words, the Code prohibits a party in power from using its "official position" for its election campaign and this includes anything associated with Government - vehicles, personnel, propaganda. The key injunction is that nothing should be done which would amount to "influencing the voters in favour of the party in power". If this be so, how can the commission possibly allow the ruling Congress Party to name schemes worth over Rs one lakh crore after just three members of a single family who are icons of that political party?

It is surprising how such a glaring misuse of Government machinery and public funds for partisan political purposes has not caught the attention of the Election Commission which has always displayed alacrity in disciplining political parties. Given the commission's rigid and inflexible approach to even minor violations by other parties, should it not take immediate steps to correct the imbalance that the Congress Party has brought about through this Machiavellian device of naming all schemes and programmes after its icons?

In fact, the commission has specifically stressed the importance of "a level playing field" among all political parties in several of its orders and decisions. It said so when a complaint was made against Union Minister Arjun Singh in April 2006. It said the Government should not disturb "the level playing field among the political parties in the election arena". It said persons in power should not only uphold the Code of Conduct "but should also be perceived to be doing so". The question that now arises is that if every other Government scheme or project is named only after icons of the Congress Party, how can the public "perceive" the ruling party to be upholding the Code?

In yet another case involving the distribution of tourism department material in a New Delhi Assembly constituency in November 2003, the commission had pulled up Union Tourism Minister Jagmohan for "misusing" Government publicity materials.

Equally relevant is the commission's instructions dated November 21, 2007, in which it directed all Governments to strictly ensure that all references to politicians and Ministers on the official website of the Government should be deleted during the period of General Elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Legislative Assemblies. It said individuals associated with a party should not eulogise Government achievements "as personal achievements". If that is so, how can thousands of crores of public money spent on Government schemes be palmed off as gifts from a single party or worse, a single family, to the people?

It would, therefore, be in the fitness of things if the commission issues a direction to the Union Government and all Governments in the States to ensure that the nomenclature of all schemes and programmes is politically neutral and to delete the names of members of the Nehru-Gandhi family from these schemes immediately because of the unfair advantage that this offers to the Congress Party in the election arena. Since the schedule for the Lok Sabha election has already been announced, the commission will have to issue this direction immediately and with the same alacrity it displayed in respect of other cases in the past.

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