New Delhi: Immediately after coming to power in Punjab, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in the state spent Rs 37.36 crore on advertisements in news channels, radio and newspapers, according to a Right to Information (RTI) reply received by a Punjab-based social activist.
Some beneficiaries of this cater primarily to Gujarati audiences, but they also include Republic TV and Sudarshan News. AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal has prohibited his party colleagues from giving these two channels news bytes and appearing in their panel discussions, according to a source in the party.
The AAP, which rode to power in Punjab with a thumping majority on 10 March, is now gearing up to contest the assembly polls in Gujarat, slated for later this year.
According to the RTI response received by activist Manik Goyal, who is based in Mansa district, the list of publications that received ads from the AAP government in Punjab features many Gujarat-based regional newspapers including Divya Bhaskar, Kutchmitra, Sandesh and Phulchhab.
Similarly, on the list of TV news channels that received advertisements from the AAP government in Punjab during the same period are TV9 Gujarati, Zee 24 Kalak, Sandesh News, ABP Asmita, News18 Gujarati, VTV-Gujarati and Janta TV.
Sonali Giri, director of the Punjab government’s information and public relations department, told ThePrint that placing advertisements in channels and publications that cater to audiences outside the state is a “routine affair”, adding that past governments had also done it.
“Not just that, even other state governments publish their advertisements in Punjabi channels and newspapers. Over the last few months, Punjab newspapers have had advertisements of Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana governments, among others.
“For getting the ads, the concerned channel or publication has to be registered with the DAVP (Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity). Also, the Punjab government pays for advertisements only at DAVP rates,” Giri said.
Of the Rs 37.36 crore the AAP government in Punjab spent on advertisements between 11 March and 10 May, Rs 20.15 crore went to TV and radio channels, while the remaining Rs 17.21 crore went to newspapers.
Opposition demands answers
Citing the same RTI documents, Punjab Congress chief Amarinder Singh Raja Warring targeted Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann by calling the advertisements “shameful wastage of public money”.
“This government has no money to bailout Punjabi University, does not even have money to improve power infra but has surplus to spend on its own advertisement,” he wrote on Twitter.
Warring’s party colleague Pargat Singh, a former state education and sports minister, also took to Twitter to accuse the AAP government of “using [the] money of Punjab’s taxpayers for its electoral gains in states outside Punjab”.
“This is (a) betrayal of Punjab and its people,” Pargat Singh said.
Dismissing the criticism, the AAP’s chief spokesperson in Punjab, Malvinder Singh Kang, told ThePrint: “The AAP follows a model of development and welfare-based governance. The party believes that people across the country should know about it. The best way to spread our message is through the media.”
“What is the harm in giving ads across papers and channels so that more people across states learn about our model and the work done by our governments in Delhi and Punjab? Such accusations from other parties are baseless. They are incapable of constructive criticism,” he said.
“As far as the amount spent is concerned, our critics should also highlight the many ways in which the AAP government has been increasing Punjab’s revenue and reducing unnecessary expenses,” Kang added.
A senior Delhi-based AAP leader, who did not wish to be identified, said that in a similar fashion, the Arvind Kejriwal government in Delhi had been spending on advertisements in Punjabi channels and newspapers since 2016, when the party — in power only in Delhi at the time — was preparing for the 2017 Punjab polls. which it eventually lost.
“This is very basic. I don’t see any conflict here. How else do we expand our footprint? Several other state governments do that. We are not alone,” he said.
The senior AAP functionary further added that the AAP has been giving advertisements to TV news channel Republic TV and its Hindi counterpart, Republic TV Bharat, since late 2020.
“But the advertisements in Sudarshan News happened later, maybe late 2021. The fundamental idea is to reach out to more people, irrespective of the kind of politics they align with. However, there is a strict order from the boss (Kejriwal) that no party functionary can either attend the so-called debates and panel discussions on these channels or entertain them with news bytes. The order still applies,” he added.
Reacting to criticism of the Punjab government over its ad spending, Suresh Chavhanke, chief managing director and editor in chief of Sudarshan News, wrote on Twitter: “We get into legal battle with governments which do not give us advertisements. Even Congress-led state governments should also give us advertisements.”
“We are a channel registered in DAVP. When we have a large and significant viewership base, how come those who refuse to give us advertisements claim to be democratic,” he asked.
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)