A group of 70 retired Indian Administrative Service officers, academics and activists have opposed the Union government’s plans to depute civil servants as “rath prabharis”.

In a circular issued on October 17, the Union government asked all ministries to nominate officers of the rank of joint secretaries, director and deputy secretary till the gram panchayat level in all of the country’s 765 districts to be deployed as “district rath prabharis [special officers]” between November 20 and January 25. These officers would help “showcase/celebrate the [Bharatiya Janata Party government’s] achievements of the last nine years” through the Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra.

The defence ministry also issued detailed guidelines to all its departments to develop 822 selfie points that may contain a picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to showcase the government’s work, PTI reported.

“To showcase the growth in innovation, digital selfie points, displaying artificial intelligence techniques, may also be installed to attract the youth,” the guidelines state. “Selfie points should be set up at prominent locations, which have maximum footfall and the potential of attracting public attention.”

Addressing President Droupadi Murmu, chief ministers and parliament members, EAS Sarma, Aruna Roy, Venkatesh Athreya and Jawhar Sircar, among others, said that deploying the central government’s machinery to showcase the achievements of the National Democratic Alliance government amounts to a corrupt practice.

The civil society group has called this a highly regressive step. “This is the first time that a political leadership in power at the Centre has literally engaged its entire machinery and public resources to promote its image on the eve of elections, placing the political parties in opposition at a disadvantage,” the group said in the joint statement.

According to them, this was also “a brazen infringement of the model code of conduct” as Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram are scheduled for November.

The group also accused the government of displaying “utter contempt” for the need to uphold the integrity of electoral processes and ensuring the Election Commission’s independence.

On Saturday, former secretary to the Union government EAS Sarma wrote to the polling body, seeking its intervention and blocking of the government’s order for deploying “rath prabharis”, reported The Wire. Sarma argued that the instructions were against the model code of conduct. Former IAS officer MG Devasahayam endorsed Sarma’s letter.

In another letter on Monday, Sarma said he hoped that the election commission had taken cognisance of his complaint and stated that public servants engaging in activities that could influence voters and electoral outcomes violates the Central Civil Services Conduct Rules.

The Congress has also opposed the order. “How can civil servants be ordered to do political propaganda for a government going into elections?” Congress Spokesperson Pawan Khera said in a social media post.

Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge wrote to the prime minister on Sunday, calling the move a “gross misuse of government machinery”.

“It is a clear violation of the Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules, 1964, which directs that no government servant shall take part in any political activity,” Kharge said. “While it is acceptable for government officers to disseminate information, to make them ‘celebrate’ and ‘showcase’ achievements blatantly turns them into political workers of the ruling party.”