New Delhi: The ruling Congress may be borrowing a tactic used by the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when it was in power.
India’s highways are soon to be lined by billboards featuring Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and party president Sonia Gandhi every 25km.
In a 5 November letter, a copy of which was reviewed by Mint, the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) directed that the “display boards as per the approved design would be put up at the cost of the concessionaires/contractors”.
The Congress party had decried a similar initiative that was undertaken by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) administration, headed by then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and highways minister B.C. Khanduri, before the 2004 elections, which the NDA lost.
Picture perfect: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Jay Mallin / Bloomberg
While Mint could not immediately ascertain how many national highways would be covered by the billboards, one NHAI official, who did not want to be named, said they would cover the 7,000km of highway renovation completed by the United Progressive Alliance administration so far and potentially another 10,000km under progress.
Officials said the hoardings measuring 20ft x 10ft could cost as much as Rs6 lakh each. “It could be very controversial if you have the contractors incur a cost of Rs25 lakh for every 100km,” said the official. “And then there is the cost of covering it up during election time.”
Executives with highway development companies said the developers would have no option, but to comply if the government asked them to build the boards. “These don’t cost much anyway,” said an executive with a highway developer, who did not want to be named. The executive added that the developer was responsible for all highway signage in any case.
The BJP criticized the government, calling the proposed move a blatant misuse of power for propaganda.
Highways are national assets and cannot be used to fulfil a political agenda, said Prakash Javadekar, BJP spokesperson.
Roads minister Kamal Nath should concentrate on his commitment to build 20km a day rather than raising a billboard every 25km. “If the proposal is executed, we will raise the issue on the appropriate platforms,” he said.
The billboards will also have details of the project and the builder, according to the NHAI letter.