New Delhi: Indian Railways may have just wanted to say it with flowers, but an advertisement released by it on Monday has become a thorny issue.

That’s because the flowers it chose to communicate its message are the election symbol of the Trinamool Congress (TMC)—the jora ghas phul, or “twin flowers in grass".

According to Wikipedia, the twin flowers in grass were designed by party founder and leader Mamata Banerjee, who is also the current railway minister.

Artistic licence? (above) Indian Railways has sought to downplay the election symbol by using pictures of students picked at random on the petals; (left) the jora ghas phul—the election symbol of the TMC.

The CPM lost significant ground to the TMC in the recent elections to the Lok Sabha. Elections to the state assembly in West Bengal that has been ruled by the CPM for 32 years are due in 2011.

A CPM leader has already written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asking for the withdrawal of the ad.

The offending ad, which appeared in most mainstream newspapers on Monday, promises free monthly season tickets to students and features a huge jora ghas phul right in the middle.

To be sure, the railways has sought to downplay the election symbol by using pictures of students picked at random on the petals.

“It is an artistic expression. If the children are depicted as saplings, I don’t see the harm in that," said a railway official, who did not want to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Sitaram Yechury, a CPM leader and member of the Rajya Sabha, wrote to Singh saying that he was “aghast" to see the advertisement.

“Surely, you will agree that this is a brazen effort at utilizing governmental funds for promoting the political interests of a particular party which happens to be a member of the ruling coalition under your leadership," he said in the letter.

The TMC disagrees.

“Trinamool Congress has not issued any advertisement in the newspapers," said the party’s chief whip in the Lok Sabha, Sudip Bandyopadhyay, when asked to respond to the advertisement.

The advertisement has, in fact, been released by Indian Railways.

Bandyopadhyay said, “After their candidates started losing their deposit in the elections in Kolkata, the CPM leaders have lost their senses. It would be good if they restrain themselves."

Still, constitutional expert Rajiv Dhawan admitted that the advertisement by Indian Railways is a “clear violation of propriety".

Dhawan added that no party could “appropriate" the government it was part of.

The Election Commission, or EC, the constitutional body that conducts and monitors elections in India, is the agency that looks into such misuse, but it is powerless to act when there are no elections scheduled.

“Any act of a political party or leader, howsoever inappropriate it might be, is not under the domain of the Election Commission when the model code of conduct is not in operation. Even the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) case, we are examining it because we received a formal complaint about it," said S.Y. Quraishi, election commissioner.

Quraishi was referring to the notice served by EC to the BSP earlier this month for using government money to build and instal statues of the elephant—the election symbol of the party. EC’s notice came after Ravi Kant, an advocate, wrote to it saying that public money was being misused in Uttar Pradesh to place images of the election symbol of the state’s ruling party, BSP, in public places.

The BSP has responded that there is no connection between the elephant statues installed in parks and public places and the party’s symbol.

BSP general secretary Satish Chandra Mishra said in a statement that the elephant statues installed in public places in Uttar Pradesh stand “in a welcome posture", and are part of the Indian culture.

Mishra also said that when in power in Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party, BSP’s archrival in the state, had distributed bicycles—its election symbol—to girl students.

Rivals or others offended by the Indian Railways ad have no recourse, said an activist.

“Unfortunately, there is nothing to govern or control political parties even in a situation like this when there has been blatant misuse of the authority by a minister as well as public fund. As far as I am aware, there is no law which prohibits this, but certainly a grave moral offence," said Jagdeep Chhokar, founding member of the Association for Democratic Reforms. “A public interest litigation can be filed, but it is unlikely to yield any results."

Rahul Chandran contributed to this story.