The Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to hear a public interest litigation seeking to block an office memorandum issued by the Union government’s Department of Personnel and Training and the Controller General of Defence Accounts in October for deploying public servants to showcase achievements of the government, PTI reported.
Lawyer Prashant Bhushan, representing the petitioners EAS Sarma and Jagdeep S Chhokar, had submitted that it was a serious matter where the ruling party wanted to allegedly use public servants for promoting its government’s work to make electoral gains.
While the bench comprising Justices BR Gavai and Prashant Kumar Mishra said it was not inclined to hear the plea, it allowed the petitioners to move the High Court, PTI reported.
The petitioners had sought setting aside of a circular issued by the Union government on October 17 asking 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]” as part of the Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra 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 Controller General of Defence Accounts, who reports to the defence ministry, had also reportedly issued guidelines to all its departments to develop “selfie points” to showcase the government’s work.
The petitioners contended that the Controller General of Defence Accounts’ letter “may be read in conjunction with a Ministry of Defence’s order, which directed soldiers on annual leave to spend time on promoting government schemes, making them ‘soldier-ambassadors’”.
The plea also sought a declaration that no ruling party at the Centre or at state level can directly or indirectly use public servants for campaigns or promotions from which it intends to benefit, PTI reported.
On October 25, a group of 70 retired Indian Administrative Service officers, academics and activists opposed the Centre’s plans. Addressing President Droupadi Murmu, chief ministers and Parliament members, they said that deploying the Central government’s machinery to showcase the achievements of the National Democratic Alliance government amounts to a corrupt practice.
According to them, this was also “a brazen infringement of the model code of conduct” as Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Rajasthan and Telangana were 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.
The Congress had also opposed the order. “How can civil servants be ordered to do political propaganda for a government going into elections?” Congress Spokesperson Pawan Khera had said in a social media post on October 21.
On October 27, the Election Commission directed the Centre to not undertake any activities involving its senior bureaucrats in the yatra in the five poll-bound states during the election period.
The directives came after the Union government said that the yatra will not enter the poll-bound-states until after the model code of conduct is withdrawn. The code is a set of guidelines issued by the election commission that political parties have to follow while campaigning.
The Centre notified the bureaucrats as prabharis or nodal officers, instead of rath prabharis.