Two weeks after the government launched the second phase of its Bharat Nirman ad campaign to project the UPA’s achievements of the past nine years and build momentum for the Congress, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) has claimed the “narrative of empowerment” is defeating the “narrative of despondency.” But independent observers are questioning the purpose, timing and impact of the campaign.

I&B Minister Manish Tewari told The Hindu that the response to this phase, which has cost approximately Rs. 30 crore, has been “very good.”

“It is a multi-genre campaign and all platforms — print, TV, digital, radio — are being used effectively.” The government ads emphasise its flagship schemes, and achievements in “political stability, social cohesion, internal security, economic development, and international relations.”

Officials say the ministry has been reviewing the campaign four times a week and projecting it as a success. To emphasise their “strategic communication,” officials have cited the instance of ad-spots about the Food Security Bill being telecast on all networks during the discussion on the Bill in Parliament earlier this week. “Real life situations,” they say, are being projected in ads. Doordarshan is coming up with new programmes. Nodal officers in State capitals are tracking if the plan is being implemented.

But observers are far more circumspect.

V. Krishna Ananth, media scholar and History professor at Sikkim University, said the entire exercise was a “variant of paid news.” He told The Hindu over the phone from Gangtok, “In paid news, a politician shells out his ill-gotten wealth. But in this case, taxpayer’s money is being spent to buy space and adding to the private sector’s profit.”

‘Vulgarisation of democracy’

This, he argued, was a “deliberate vulgarisation of democracy.”

“Instead of spending money to publicise the mid-day meal, how about spending money to improve the scheme?”

Asked if he felt that the campaign was shaping popular opinion, Mr. Ananth was sceptical. “Ads depicting achievement make a lesser impact than those ads which play on fear. The 1984 Congress campaign, which played on the violence in Punjab and Assam, was successful. India Shining boomeranged. People know half the claims are not true, and laugh at them.”

This view was echoed in Uttar Pradesh, a key battleground State in the next elections. Badri Narayan, professor at the G.B. Pant Institute for Social Sciences in Allahabad, said that he could not see much impact of the campaign on the “urban middle classes,” which appeared to be the “target group.”

“There is negativity in that class about the government. Inflation, corruption is the dominant narrative.” He was also unsure of its reach in rural areas.

Dilip Cherian, an image consultant who has advised the Congress in the past, says the “quality of the campaign” is a “most definite improvement.” But at a time when the economic indicators are grim, inflation is high, and the “mood of pessimism is all pervasive,” Mr. Cherian believes the government should have waited.

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