Cash spins it the best. If the recently concluded Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are anything to go by, the media survives on election spending by political parties. Larger media houses make a killing, enough to pad their accounts for a long period, while the smaller and fledgling variety make sufficient money to see them to the next post. And if you love paradoxes, then it is one of the better ones: the strict model code of conduct has caused this media-feeding frenzy.
It’s what Moses wrote on stone: political parties shall spend on buying votes and influencing voters through incredibly lucid spin. The buying of votes continues as millions of litres of liquor is consumed, goats sacrificed for banquets and cash doled out as if in a marriage procession. The model code may not have been enough to control this, but with the 15- day limitation on campaigning, no loud speakers after 10 pm, and everything from chai to paani and from posters to pamphlets listed as legitimate election spend, there is very little leeway for spending over the limit of Rs 16 lakh per candidate per constituency. Wall paintings, string flags and multiple election offices all went out the window long ago, and the media in its basic three forms — television, radio and newspapers — remains the only source of mass circulation. Social media is the new kid on the block, but as it’s very difficult to monitor for election spend, it has been largely left alone for the time being by the Election Commission (EC).
Media managers know this and their marketing juicers get to work unabashedly. Two of the leading Hindi newspapers in central India are supposed to have raked in over Rs 50 crore each from the leading parties, in a matter of just three months. “The idea is clear and simple,” says a former Congress media manager. “They give us the special rates for the period, which are usually three times the normal. You book according to reach, number of editions and influence of the paper.” The payment is all in advance and preferably in cash. But if you were counting the number of display ads, then you may be missing the woods for the trees. Every paper has neatly carved out editorial space for each party and it is usually equal in terms of column centimetres, so no one complains. And if any media manager thought he could give a certain newspaper a go by, then he does not know what’s coming; a negative barrage over only that crucial week before the polling could bury his candidate forever.
Paid news, did you say? It’s something the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the Press Council of India and the losing candidates can discuss at leisure with the EC. Some instances of paid news are indeed cited, noted and fines imposed. For example, three newspapers in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region were found guilty of circulating paid news and a sum of Rs 37,000 was added to the account of some candidates, but that may be all. Most newspapers know how to make paid news look legitimate. It is masked as coverage of the campaign process. But, since paid news is in discussion and no one wants to answer uncomfortable questions, the process itself has evolved into a fair editorial practice. Columns by Right-wing or “pseudo-secular” writers begin much in advance. So columns by well-known journalists and media personalities are translated and published to create the right image for the preferred party. The debates, tweets, follow-ups and feedback then all revolve around the germinal idea. The Pappu-Feku and development versus inflation debates keep the middle classes in thrall.
Television, perhaps, has the biggest say during elections, but it is relatively easier to handle. There are five main TV news channels in the two states — Sahara, ETV, IBC, Bansal and Zee Regional — besides a host of others from India News to Sadhna. “It costs anything between Rs 15-20 crore annually to run a single channel. The state government is the biggest source of revenue providing up to 80 percent of the collection. How can any channel swerve away from the government line?” asks a publicity department official in Bhopal. When a channel has been funded almost entirely by the government since its inception, it can swerve away only on two counts: one, it decides to bet on the Opposition winning; or, two, it is for some reason dissatisfied with its share of the pie.
So, here the name of the game is opinion polls, through which one chief ministerial candidate is shown so far ahead that the rest have no chance of catching up. It began with a national channel giving BJP such massive leads in both states that the Congress started crying foul. From 71 in Chhattisgarh and 160 in Madhya Pradesh in October, the figures saw a sharp decline to 46 and 120, respectively, by late November. Sources in the know claim that the said channel received a handsome amount right at the start.
Questions in the Madhya Pradesh Assembly have revealed that the state government’s budget for publicity has gone up substantially over the past five years. “The BJP has spent Rs 1,000 crore in five years on publicity alone and most of it revolves around its CM,” says NP Prajapati, chief whip of the Congress in the outgoing Assembly. While this is verified through the Budget figures, the real source of funding for the mushrooming regional channels and newspapers (Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have 1,600 registered daily newspapers and 14 24-hour news channels) is the ICE (Information, Communication, Entertainment) money that comes with Central schemes such as MGNREGS, Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission and National Rural Health Mission. Each scheme sets aside 2-10 percent of its total funding for information dissemination, which is then utilised almost exclusively by the state government for itself. This fund runs into thousands of crores annually.
How are campaigns designed and money channelled to the media? In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP recruited Nishit Sharan for the third election running after he designed the massively successful Bantadhar campaign to bring down the Digvijaya Singh government in 2003. In Chhattisgarh, party functionary Subhash Rao designed and passed all the publicity material. In contrast, former Madhya Pradesh CM Motilal Vora is the last word in campaign designs and spends in the Congress. He has his own channel of ad agencies through which money is released, most of it through cheques as he remains very particular about accounts.
It is estimated — since neither the spender nor the receiver comes on record in these matters — that both the BJP and the Congress in Chhattisgarh had a war chest of Rs 50-60 crore each just for the duration of elections. It is also estimated that the amount is around three times for Madhya Pradesh as it has three times the number of seats.
The main beneficiaries, of course, are the five leading vernacular newspapers of central India. Apart from them, the five leading news channels get most of the funds, while the rest goes to FM radio. Because of their nature and periodicity of publication, magazines are at the tail end of the gravy train. With so much money going around, it’s hardly surprising that beginning with Ganesh Puja in September, the festivals last well into the New Year for the media. At least once every five years.