08/07/2019 9:18 AM IST | Updated 08/07/2019 9:18 AM IST

How Much Did Modi Govt's Advertising Blitzkrieg Cost Taxpayers?

The Narendra Modi-led government spent far more money on advertising during its first term than it has disclosed so far, a review of written answers it gave to some parliamentarians and an RTI activist shows.

A screenshot of front page advertisements in the Delhi editions of three big English newspapers on October 31, 2018. The BJP government aggressively promoted the Statue of Unity project. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote signed editorials in all major newspapers in addition to issuing the front page advertisements. This is just one example of the government's aggressive advertising and publicity strategies. 

NEW DELHI—The Information and Broadcasting (I&B) ministry has cited two figures for the amount of taxpayer money the Narendra Modi-led government spent on advertising and publicity during its first term; suggesting that the exact sums spent are likely to be higher than publicly disclosed thus far.

On 28 June, the I&B Ministry told the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Member of Parliament from Maharashtra, Ashok Mahadeorao Nete, in the Lok Sabha that the government spent a total of Rs 3,804.07 crores in three financial years from 2016-17 till 2018-19. Eleven days prior to this, on 17 June, the ministry told Right To Information (RTI) activist Anil Galgali that the government spent Rs. 3767.2651 crores in the same period.

This discrepancy of Rs. 36.8049 crores appears to have arisen because of the way in which both drafted their questions. While the BJP MP Nete, in his parliament question, sought to know the expenditure on print, electronic, outdoor media as well as printed publicity; in his RTI application, Galgali asked for money spent on print, electronic and outdoor media but not printed publicity. But Galgali noticed an additional issue with the RTI responses of the ministry.

“These are surely not final figures,” Galgali said, comparing the figures provided to him by the I&B ministry last month and last year when the expenditure categories and their amounts were different than those cited in the latest reply. “Maybe they changed their strategy to confuse the people of India. They should publish monthly figures on their website.”

The Mumbai-based RTI activist said that the officials have probably masked the full scale of expenditure by the government on advertising and publicity through their craftily worded replies to two of his applications, which had similar questions. HuffPost India reviewed government’s responses to questions asked by other parliamentarians and found that, depending on the way the question is framed, there are variations in the total money spent on advertising due to the inclusion or exclusion of certain categories of expenditure in the replies. Thus, the total amount of expenditure incurred by all arms of the government does not appear to have been disclosed. 

Critics have often pointed out that the Modi government, in its first term, and the BJP-led governments in states, spent substantial amount of taxpayer’s money to publish advertisements that built the Prime Minister’s personal brand and, in the case of the Statue of Unity Project, helped the ruling party’s political agenda. That money, some calculations show, could have funded the setting up institutions of national importance and welfare schemes of public interest. 

Critical scrutiny of government expenditure on advertising and publicity is significant not only from the point of view of transparency and accountability on how the state spends taxpayer money, but also for its consequences on press freedom as shown by the recent example of three newspapers to whom advertisements have been discontinued by the government. 

HuffPost India tried contacting Rupa Vedi, the official in the BOC who responded to Galgali’s RTI application, to clarify these differences in numbers but she was unreachable. 

We will update this copy if Vedi responds.

Why the Modi Govt likely spent more than it has disclosed so far

Over the past one year, there have been multiple reports citing diverse figures ranging from Rs 4000 crore to Rs 5000 crore about advertising and publicity expenditure incurred by the BJP-led government for a major part of its five year tenure. 

However, none of these figures captured the expenditure carried out till March 2019—the end of the Modi government’s first tenure.

The two written responses given by the I&B Ministry to BJP MP Nete and RTI activist Galgali differ from the multiple ones which came before on this count. They are updated till March 2019. 

Further, since the reply to Nete includes the expenditure category of ‘printed publicity’ while making its overall calculations for three financial years, it reveals the possibility that the overall amount of money spent for all five financial years is likely to be greater than what has been revealed publicly by the Modi government so far. 

That is because no previous response from the ministry in parliament or to the RTI activists included the amount of expenditure incurred on ‘printed publicity’. It is also unclear if there are any additional categories of expenditure not captured in official statistics provided by the I&B ministry in parliament or while responding to RTI applications. 

In its reply dated 17 June to the questions asked through an RTI application filed by Galgali, the ministry said its Bureau of Outreach and Communication (BOC) spent Rs. 1258.32 crores in the financial year 2016-17, Rs. 1313.57 crores in 2017-18 and Rs. 1195.3751 crores in 2018-19. 

Galgali had asked details of money spent by the Modi government on print, electronic and outdoor media for the financial years from 2014-15 to 2018-19.

But in its written answer dated June 28 to an ‘unstarred question’ asked by Nete, the I&B ministry gave higher figures for the three financial years 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19 . 

For 2016-17, the written reply put the government expenditure at Rs 1280.07 crores, for 2017-18 it was Rs 1328.06 crores and for 2018-19, the amount was Rs 1195.94 crores. 

In addition to expenditure on print, electronic and outdoor media, the BJP MP Nete had also asked the ministry to include details about the money spent on printed publicity but only for the previous three financial years. 

Preliminary calculations show that, when compared with its RTI reply to activist Galgali, the I&B Ministry has shown comparatively higher expenditure in its reply to the BJP MP Nete by Rs 21.75 crores for the year 2016-17; by Rs 14.149 crores for the year 2017-18 and by Rs 0.5469 crores (Rs. 54.69 lakh) for the year 2018-19.   

In its written response to the BJP MP Nete on 28 July, the comparatively higher expenditure shown by I&B ministry on advertising and publicity across media for the last three years of the Modi government’s first term exceeded by over Rs. 36 crore. That is, barely 11 days after writing to RTI activist Galgali with a lower figure for the same period.

Essentially, in its written response to the BJP MP Nete on July 28, the comparatively higher expenditure shown by I&B ministry on advertising and publicity across media for the last three years of the Modi government’s first term exceeded by over Rs. 36 crore. That is, barely 11 days after writing to Galgali with a lower figure for the same period.

On being asked what he made about the discrepancies in numbers, Nete said he was not aware about the differences in numbers and that he didn’t pay much attention to them since it was an ‘unstarred’ question

So exactly what kinds of advertising and publicity related activities are indicated by the category of ‘printed publicity’ and what is their practical utility? In its response to Nete, the ministry explained that, “Printed materials are used by BOC for distribution through its Regional Outreach Bureaus (ROBs), Field Outreach Bureaus (FOBs) and regional offices of Press Information Bureau (PIB). The materials are distributed to the beneficiaries during exhibitions, song & drama programmes and direct & interpersonal communication programmes organised by Regional Outreach Bureaus (ROBs), Field Outreach Bureaus (FOBs) of BOC.”

It added that the BOC maintains a mailing list for distributing the printed materials. “The list includes Panchayats, Block Headquarters and District Headquarters etc., which is updated from time to time to include target groups,” the ministry said. 

(Left) Response to an RTI application received by Anil Galgali from the I&B ministry on 1 May 2018. (Right) Response to another RTI application received by Galgali from the I&B Ministry on 17 June 2019. On comparison, the total amounts spent and categories of expenditure, as cited in the two RTI replies, for the years 2015-16 and 2016-17 differ substantially.

Different categorisation as a trick for creating confusion?

Speaking with HuffPost India, RTI activist Galgali accused the I&B ministry of using different categories while responding to the basic question of government expenditure on advertising and publicity across media platforms as a means of “confusing the people of India”. 

He cited his own experience to illustrate the point. In a response dated 1 May 2018 to his RTI query about government expenditure on advertising and publicity across media platforms, the I&B ministry categorised its information according to the media platforms—print, electronic and outdoor—and years from 2014-15 till 2017-18. 

However, the latest response dated 17 June 2019 categorised the same information across the following media platforms: Display Class, Radio Spot and Outdoor publicity. The amounts of expenditure were also sub-divided into four categories: plan, non-plan, client dept and advance dep. 

“To remake their image, they are confusing the people,” said Galgali. 

Whether or not deliberate, the manner in which data was provided to Galgali has its own discrepancies. For instance, the data provided on 1 May 2018 for total expenditure on advertising and publicity across media platforms for 2016-17 adds up to Rs 1263.15 crores. But when we look at the data provided for the same financial year and expenditure category provided in the latest RTI reply on July 17, 2019, the amount drops to Rs 1258.32 crores. 

When BJP MP Nete was approached for comment about the reply he got from the I&B Ministry, he told HuffPost India that he was not focused on it so much because it is a ‘non-starred question’. This category of parliament questions is taken less seriously by the government as compared to the starred category. In the former, the government has to give a written reply once and there are, unlike in the latter category, no oral answers sought from the minister concerned and no provision for follow up questions either. 

There is, therefore, no clarity about the total amount of taxpayer’s money spent by the Modi government during its first term while trying to polish its image with voters successfully. But it is most certainly more than what we know so far.

US Election
The latest polls, breaking news and analysis on the 2020 US presidential election from HuffPost