Indian government agency spent millions promoting BJP election slogans

The Central Bureau of Communication is meant to promote government plans. Its ads instead carried Modi’s party’s catchphrases as the agency became the top pre-election spender on Google ads.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters carry portraits of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they attend a public rally addressed by Modi in Hyderabad, India, Friday, May 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.)
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters carry portraits of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they attend a public rally addressed by Modi in Hyderabad, India, Friday, May 10, 2024 [Mahesh Kumar A/AP]

Mumbai, India — In November, as India’s election campaign was beginning to take shape, a catchphrase coined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) started gaining traction.

“Modi ki guarantee” (Modi’s guarantee) was positioned by the governing party as the personal promise of the vastly popular prime minister to Indian voters, as the BJP tried to draw a contrast with the seemingly hodgepodge coalition of opposition parties railing against it. The BJP launched advertisements on Google with that tagline in the third week of November.

But around the same time, another organisation started pumping in millions of rupees into an almost identical-sounding campaign: “Modi sarkar ki guarantee” (Modi government’s guarantee). The videos in that campaign, which would continue for months, often referred simply to “Modi’s guarantee”.

In one such advertisement, aired on February 23, an actor portraying a young entrepreneur reassures a father apprehensive about his son’s career choice by telling him, “Papa, there is Modi’s guarantee. Modi ji has promised that he will make India one of the places with the most unicorn startups.” Towards the end, he confidently asserts that “thanks to Modi’s guarantee, every startup will start in India”.

Only these advertisements were not from the BJP. They were paid for by the Indian taxpayer and were part of a campaign rolled out by the Indian government’s advertising agency, the Central Bureau of Communication (CBC). At least one other campaign, with multiple advertisements unveiled in March, also echoed the wording and look of the BJP’s election slogans.

On March 22, the country’s largest opposition party, the Indian National Congress, filed a complaint with the Election Commission of India (ECI) – the constitutional body overseeing the country’s elections – alleging that these CBC advertisements violated election rules by misusing public funds for the governing party’s campaign.

Now, an Al Jazeera investigation reveals the scale of the CBC’s spending on government advertisements that appear to mimic the BJP’s campaign messages and that, according to critics, raise questions about the ability of non-partisan institutions to ensure a level playing field in the election.

The government’s communication agency spent nearly 387 million rupees ($4.65m) on Google advertisements in just under four months, from when it first started advertising regularly on the online platform in November, until March 15, when it last launched an advertisement. India’s national elections were formally announced on March 15. From that point on, government agencies are barred from any advertisements.

In fact, in these 113 days, the CBC was India’s largest spender on political advertisements on Google, while the BJP stood in second place with 314 million rupees ($3.7m). The CBC spending in this period was 41 percent more than the 275 million rupees ($3.3m) that the primary opposition Congress party had spent in almost six years– between June 2018 and March 15, 2024 – according to Google Ads Transparency data in this period.

And many of the CBC advertisements were part of the campaigns with slogans that independent election transparency activists and the opposition say were too close to the BJP’s promotional messages.

Opposition parties have long accused the BJP, under Modi, of turning supposedly neutral government agencies into extensions of their machinery – a charge the BJP has denied.

To Akshay Marathe, a spokesperson for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which rules in the capital New Delhi and is a part of the Congress-led opposition INDIA alliance, the controversial advertisement spending of the CBC is one with that pattern.

“Modi ensures that he and he alone will exercise any power in India,” Marathe said.

Al Jazeera sought responses from the CBC’s director-general, Dhirendra Ojha, and two additional director-generals, Rajesh Kumar Jha and Ajay Agrawal, to the allegations against the organisation, on May 10. They have not responded.

‘Taking misuse to new heights’

In early March, Lalu Prasad Yadav, a veteran opposition leader, mocked the Indian prime minister for not having a family: Modi left his wife when he was younger and has no children.

In response, BJP leaders changed their social media profiles, adding “Modi ka parivar” (Modi’s family) next to their names.

As with “Modi ki guarantee”, the CBC released advertisements with similar themes on YouTube and Google Ads, promoting the “Modi ka parivar” campaign. These advertisements are some of the agency’s most expensive individual advertisements to date.

In an advertisement published on March 9, Modi is seen celebrating the festival of Diwali with the armed forces. The family members of a soldier missing – who miss their son, husband and father – say Modi celebrates Diwali with soldiers because he is part of their family. They announce, “We are all Modi’s family”. For the advertisement, which ran for five days to reach between 6 and 7 million people, the government agency spent about 550 thousand rupees ($6,600), one of its most expensive individual advertisements.

In its complaint to the Election Commission, the Congress also accused the Modi government of politicising the country’s armed forces.

Then, in April, a week before the first phase of India’s mammoth election, the BJP released its campaign manifesto, featuring a photo of Modi, the party’s saffron colours and the slogan “Modi ki guarantee”, all elements used in the CBC’s publicly funded advertisements.

To be clear, transparency experts and former election officials say that parties in power have long tried to use public infrastructure for their campaigning. In June 1975, India’s then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was disqualified from office after a court found her guilty of using government machinery for her campaign.

“This government has not invented the misuse of public funds for self-promotional advertisements,” said Vipul Mudgal, the chief executive of Common Cause, a New Delhi-based watchdog civil society organisation, whose petition with the Supreme Court also led to the scrapping of the Modi government’s controversial electoral bonds scheme in February 2024.

Abdulla Kutty, the BJP’s national vice president, told Al Jazeera that “government advertisements promoting their work, schemes and programmes have been a common practice since independence”.

In 2003 and then again in 2022, Common Cause filed petitions with the Supreme Court seeking stricter regulation over government advertising that tips over into promotional campaigning for the governing party.

In 2015, the Supreme Court established guidelines stating that government advertising should not promote political interests and must be related to the government’s responsibilities.

But nearly a decade later, the challenge has only grown, say transparency activists.

SY Quraishi, a former chief election commissioner who oversaw Indian elections between 2010 and 2012, said that the Election Commission has long been demanding that government advertisements with “political connotations” be made “illegal for at least six months before the elections to maintain the level playing field”.

“However, government after government ignored the proposal,” Quraishi said.

And Mudgal of Common Cause said that while all political parties in power had exploited government resources for campaigning, “this government is responsible for expanding the game, taking the misuse to new heights”.

More money, more freedom to advertise

In May 2023, nearly a year before the start of India’s 2024 elections, an executive order by the Modi government increased the budget of the CBC by 275 percent, from 2 billion rupees ($24 million) to about 7.5 billion rupees ($90 million).

This order required ministries and government departments to allocate 40 percent of their advertising and publicity budgets to the CBC, significantly expanding the agency’s resources in an election year.

On social media platform X, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh criticised the budget increase and said that like other government agencies, the CBC would “be the spearhead of the Modi Govt’s election campaign for 2024”.

But the BJP’s Kutty said the increase in the government’s promotional budget was only in keeping with the country’s economic growth. “India is a developing country and the sixth-largest economy globally. India’s budget allocations are expected to increase naturally,” he said. “These allegations are baseless.”

Still, that budget needed one more rule tweak to enable the CBC’s online spending.

That change came in November 2023, when the government adopted a new Digital Advertisement Policy, which allowed the CBC – which until then could only advertise via traditional mediums such as newspapers, TV, radio and outdoor advertisements – to post advertisements on digital platforms like Google. Within days, the organisation began to swamp Google with the “Modi Sarkar ki guarantee” advertisements.

While the CBC’s $4.65 million spending on Google advertisements pales in comparison with its total advertisement spend of 30 billion rupees ($360m) across mediums in the four years between 2018-2019 and 2022-2023, it reflects a broader surge in digital political spending in the 2024 election.

Before the 2019 general election in India, between November 1, 2018, and March 15, 2019, the total spending on political Google advertisements was 11.77 million rupees ($140,000), of which more than 99 percent was spent by the BJP.

In the same period before the current elections, between November 1, 2023, and 15, March 2024, the total political advertisement spend amounted to nearly 1.3 billion rupees ($15.9 million) — more than 100 times the 2019 figure.

The 2023 Google News Initiative and Kantar survey showed that 93 percent of Indian language users access news via YouTube. About 80 percent of Indian internet users who are eligible to vote consume content via YouTube, making it one of the most influential media platforms in India. More than 90 percent of the CBC’s advertisement spend on Google was on videos.

The surge in spending on Google promotions also exposes weaknesses in India’s regulatory mechanism to oversee political advertisement spending by the government, say experts.

Perils of a ‘brute majority’

The 2015 Supreme Court order barring overt political partisanship in government advertisements led to the creation of the Committee on Content Regulation of Government Advertisements (CCRGA), which was tasked with watching over all publicly-funded advertisements.

But the committee’s members are appointed by the very government whose advertisements it is meant to scrutinise. And it only has the power to recommend suggestions on advertisements to India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting – to which the CBC reports.

Since it was set up in 2016, the CCRGA’s actions have primarily targeted the Aam Aadmi Party’s government in New Delhi, which has also been criticised by the Supreme Court for a bloated advertising budget.

Meanwhile, once elections are announced, the Election Commission is in charge of ensuring that campaign rules are followed. Opposition parties have repeatedly criticised the poll panel, accusing it of bias in favour of the BJP. Marathe, the AAP spokesperson, and senior Congress leader Prithviraj Chavan told Al Jazeera they had little hope that the Electoral Commission would act on the complaints against the CBC.

Quraishi, the former election commission boss, said that while the Electoral Commission ought to act against all complaints, its mandate on election spending kicked in only on March 15, when the dates for the seven-phase vote were announced. The CBC has not advertised since March 15.

The BJP has consistently pushed back against opposition allegations that India’s election machinery – from institutions like the Electoral Commission to the electronic voting machines – are biased or doctored to help Modi’s party win. India’s governing party points out that the opposition has won multiple state legislature elections under the same mechanism.

Still, said Niranjan Sahoo, an expert on political funding reforms at the Observer Research Foundation, institutions tasked with accountability in India’s parliamentary setup typically do better “when the ruling government lacks a brute majority and must rely on coalition partners”.

The Modi government enjoys the biggest majority of any government in 35 years.

Source: Al Jazeera