Ashok Chavan is the chief minister of the state of Maharashtra, whose prime city is Mumbai. He was reelected to that very powerful post in India’s state polls in October. Chief Minister Chavan received choice coverage in the days before the election. But any reader energetic enough to study Maharashtra’s newspapers would have noticed something curious and troubling. The same story on Ashok Chavan appeared in three rival dailies word for word (only the headline differed in one). It was bylined in Pudhari, attributed to “Special Correspodent” in Lokmat, and went without a byline in the Maharashtra Times. Nowhere did the word advertisement figure alongside these ‘news’ stories.

“Young dynamic leadership: Ashokrao Chavan,” read the headline of a prominent news item in the Marathi daily Lokmat (October 10). That was 72 hours before the people of Maharashtra went to vote in the State Assembly polls. The item was attributed to the newspaper’s “Special Correspondent,” making it clear this was a news story. The story showered praise on the Chief Minister of Maharashtra for having achieved so much for so many in so few months. The same story also appeared word for word the same day in the Maharashtra Times, a leading and rival Marathi daily. Two minds with but a single thought? Two hearts that beat as one?

A cute and comforting thought. Except that the very same story (again word for word, only with a different headline) had appeared three days earlier in the Marathi daily Pudhari (October 7). In that case, with a reporter’s name at the bottom of the item.

In the Maharashtra Times, the piece ran without a byline. But again, as a news story. There is no mention of the word advertisement or sponsored feature next to the item in any of the newspapers. And unless the bylined reporter of Pudhari moonlights as” Special Correspondent” for Lokmat, while also being a ghost-writer for the Maharashtra Times, the appearance of the same piece verbatim in the three rival newspapers does seem odd. But maybe not so odd? Mr. Chavan seems to have gained greatly from what is now called ‘package journalism’ or ‘coverage packages.’

A limited check by The Hindu turned up around 47 full pages of ‘news’ (quite a few of them in colour) centered on Mr. Chavan and his fine qualities as a leader. These mostly appeared between October 1 and 12 in more than one paper but mainly in multiple editions of Lokmat. (These 47 pages are barely a third of those actually published in that period.) The pattern seems to have been set with a launch on September 12 of a four-page colour supplement titled Ashok parv (The Era of Ashok). And then followed up with a full page almost every day in October till voting day (October 13) titled “Vikas parv” or The Era of Development. The Vikas parv pages, too, are centred on Mr. Chavan. And, of course, the achievements of Maharashtra under the Congress.

This flood of ‘news’ did not harm Mr. Chavan’s prospects. He won the Bhokar Assembly seat of Maharashtra’s Nanded district by defeating independent candidate Madhavrao Kinhalkar by a margin of over one lakh (120,849 against 13,346) votes. [In India 1 lakh = 100,000; 1 crore = 10 million. The current exchange rate is $1= 46.38 rupees.]

In strict terms, the unprecedented coverage the Chief Minister received during the poll campaign cannot be called advertising. None of those full pages bears that word. And his “day to day accounts of election expenditures” do not reflect any real spending on ads. All candidates are required by law to submit their campaign expenses accounts to the district election officer within 30 days of the declaration of results. Mr. Chavan’s accounts, which are in The Hindu’s possession thanks to an RTI application to which the appropriate authorities responded with commendable speed, claim a total expenditure of just Rs. 11,379 on advertising.

Indeed, he had a mere six advertisements in print and these cost a trifling Rs. 5,379. (The rest was spent on slots on cable television.) Moreover, all his print ads went to a single newspaper, Satyaprabha. That is a small daily in the district of Nanded. Yet Mr. Chavan was the focus of scores of full pages in very major dailies. If those had been ads, they would have cost crores of rupees. More so given the large newspapers they featured in.

Lokmat is a very popular Marathi daily newspaper. It ranks as the 4th largest circulated daily in India while being numero uno in Maharashtra, with more than ten million readers (NRS 2006). The Maharashtra Times is no small-town sheet either. It too has millions of readers and is part of India’s largest newspaper group. (Our limited check turned up ‘news’ of this kind in many other dailies. However, in some we were able to get through most of the issues between Oct. 1 and 12. Piles of the rest, from 18 other newspapers across the state, lie with us for scrutiny.) If Indian-language papers ran most of such ‘news,’ that was mainly because they were the preferred platform to reach voters during election time.

At market rates, say industry insiders, placing a four-page colour supplement in all 13 editions of a newspaper like Lokmat could cost an advertiser between Rs. 1.5 crore and 2 crore. “Also,” says an executive who has worked in this field, “this was election time. It comes once in five years. Forget about discounts, the rates climb higher in a seller’s market.” But never mind the supplements. The pages titled Vikas parv ran very frequently in Lokmat in October till almost voting day. (We have 35 such pages that ran between Oct. 1 and 12).

The cost of these alone, if they were advertising, would have been hugely above the election expenditure limit. Of course there could have been, as the executive concedes, special deals struck between the advertiser and the newspaper. (Incidentally, a member of the family owning Lokmat, Congress MLA Rajendra Darda, has joined the Ashok Chavan Ministry with full cabinet rank. He was a Minister of State in the earlier government. His website describes him as Vice Chairman & Joint Managing Director. It also calls him “a driving force behind Lokmat’s success for the last 35 years.”)

Two enterprising dailies handled their ‘paid news’ differently. They required each ‘advertiser’ to buy thousands of copies of the paper. That way, they made their money, while showing higher sale numbers. Crucially, not a single newspaper carrying this kind of material runs the word advertisement with such ‘news’ items.

The post-poll period has seen some debate in the State over what is now called the ‘paid news’ industry. Many believe that this time the news media went further than ever before in passing off advertising as news. And that the practice has moved from petty corruption of a few journalists to a media-run game worth hundreds of millions of rupees.

Govind Talwalkar, a distinguished leader of Marathi journalism, now retired, is amongst those deeply upset. He wrote in anguish from the United States to The Hindu saying “this is a perfect case for a CBI inquiry…Never in such a long career have I found journalism reduced to such a degrading and reprehensible state.” Mr. Talwalkar was active in the profession for over 50 years. For 27 of those, he served as editor of the Maharashtra Times.

Many others are disturbed. “But will those running the new ‘industry’ give it a name upfront?” asks one editor. How do we calculate in ad rates the value of what is nowhere marked as advertising? Even if a 30-40 per cent premium was tagged on for elections? When countless other ‘news stories’ like these often appear besides genuine news reports? This reporter, aided by journalists from different parts of Maharashtra, has acquired an impressive collection of such ‘news items.’ Besides, poll-time ‘coverage packages’ now include multiple exposure in print, on television — and online.

What can be done about this fairly new trend in electoral campaigning and media coverage of candidates?

The constitutional jurisdiction of the Election Commission, which has been elaborated in several judicial decisions, is the “superintendence, direction and control” of elections. This means its authority to act directly on the rights and wrongs of an election ceases once the results are declared. However, during the election process, it could do much more than it has done so far. It can be at least as tough on big time overspending, which makes a mockery of legal spending limits, as it is on relatively minor things, for instance wall writing, graffiti, and pamphlets. The ECI knows better than anyone else that the overwhelming majority of submitted expense accounts are false.

The ECI can of course conduct a study of, or hold a workshop on, the misuse of media in various States during the 2009 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. So can the Press Council of India.

But under the electoral law, an election can be “called in question” only by an election petition filed by a candidate or elector in a High Court within 45 days of the election of the returned candidate. Section 123(6) of The Representation of the People Act, 1951 makes it clear that “the incurring or authorising of expenditure in contravention of section 77” is a corrupt practice, which can form the matter of an election petition. If that happens, with the necessary evidence on the alleged corrupt practice, things could get rough. Mr. Chavan and several newspaper and television groups could find themselves between a rock and a very hard place. No matter which way you cut it.

If it was advertising, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra is in a spot. Pleas of ‘well-wishers’ fêting their hero in print won’t wash. The Rs. 10-lakh-expenditure limit stands breached. If the defense were that the party did this on the Chief Minister’s behalf, it would mean the Congress party in the State would have to own up to faking advertising as news to mislead voters. If the ‘coverage packages’ were sponsored, it would still leave open the question of who paid how much to whom.

Was it ‘news,’ then? If it was ‘news,’ the reports we have compiled must rank amongst the most remarkable ‘news’ judgments ever. With different papers publishing the same stuff with differing bylines. With the content reeking of sycophancy.

If this was advertising, many candidates — not only Mr. Chavan — would be found way beyond the election expense limit. If it was not advertising, then it was ‘paid news,’ a term now firmly embedded in the media lexicon. If it was advertising, why was it not clearly marked as such? That’s a question media owners and journalists would have to answer. For dressing it up it as news was to bring wrongful and undue influence to bear on the voters. If it was advertising, were the ‘advertisers’ properly billed for their ads? If not, we could be looking at illegal cash transactions and tax evasion that runs to millions of rupees. If it was ’paid news,’ then both media outlets and politicians are guilty of much more than financial wrongdoing. They would have to answer for the profound damage done to the democratic process.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan spent a mere Rs. 5,379 on newspaper advertisements during the recent State Assembly election, by his own claim. And he spent another Rs.6,000 on cable television ads. These figures are clearly at odds with the unprecedented media coverage the Chief Minister got during the election campaign. The Hindu has gathered 47 full newspaper pages, many of them in color, focused exclusively on Mr. Chavan, his leadership, his party and government. These appeared in large newspapers, including one ranking amongst India’s highest circulation dailies. However, they were not marked as advertisements.

By his own account, candidate Chavan spent less than Rs. 7 lakh on his election campaign overall during the Assembly polls. The spending limit imposed on contestants is Rs. 10 lakh. Section 77 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 stipulates that candidates must submit their campaign expenses accounts to the district election officer within 30 days of the declaration of results. Apart from a signed statement and summary, the candidate must submit the accounts in the format of “Register for Maintenance of Day to Day Accounts of Election Expenditures by Contesting Candidates.”

The Chief Minister won the Bhokar Assembly seat of Maharashtra’s Nanded district against an independent candidate by a margin of over one lakh votes.

The Hindu has a copy of Mr. Chavan’s account. Two RTI applications were filed by the newspaper’s correspondents in Delhi and Mumbai. Two more were filed by Mr. Shivaji Gaikwad of the Kisan Sabha in Bhokar (Mr. Chavan’s constituency) and by Mr. Gangadhar Gaikwad of the DYFI in Nanded. The Nanded district election officer responded most promptly and Mr. Gangadhar Gaikwad received the statement on Thursday. This is a significant step. Unlike the affidavits declaring their assets, the expenditure sheets of candidates do not mandatorily appear on the ECI’s website.

Perhaps they should. Mr. Chavan received astonishing media coverage during the campaign. The newspapers carrying those many full pages on him nowhere marked them as advertising. In other words, this material ran as ‘news.’ Had it been advertising, it would have cost crores of rupees.

Mr. Chavan states that he placed six newspaper advertisements with that Rs. 5,379. All these were in a minor Marathi daily, Satyaprabha, in Nanded district. However, the flood of full pages on Mr. Chavan and his party, hailing this as the “Era of Ashok,” and the “Era of Development,” ran in Marathi newspapers like Lokmat. If advertising, this would have cost lakhs of rupees. Lokmat is the fourth largest daily in the country and the top-circulated one in Maharashtra (NRS 2006).

The huge mismatch between the account’s stated Rs. 5,379 and the dozens of full pages of ‘news’ in The Hindu’s possession will surely re-stoke the debate over what has now come to be called ‘paid news.’

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu where these stories appear today and are already shaking the political and journalistic establishments.  He  is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. A regular contributor to CounterPunch,  he can be reached at psainath@vsnl.com.

More articles by:

P Sainath is the founder and editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought.’ You can contact the author here: @PSainath_org

September 18, 2019
Kenneth Surin
An Excellent Study Of The Manufactured Labour “Antisemitism Crisis”
Patrick Cockburn
The Saudi Crown Prince Plans to Make Us Forget About the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi Before the US Election
W. T. Whitney
Political Struggle and Fixing Cuba’s Economy
Ron Jacobs
Support the Climate Strike, Not a Military Strike
John Kendall Hawkins
Slouching Toward “Bethlehem”
Ted Rall
Once Again in Afghanistan, the U.S. Proves It Can’t Be Trusted
William Astore
The Ultra-Costly, Underwhelming F-35 Fighter
Dave Lindorff
Why on Earth Would the US Go to War with Iran over an Attack on Saudi Oil Refineries?
Binoy Kampmark
Doctored Admissions: the University Admissions Scandal as a Global Problem
Jeremy Corbyn
Creating a Society of Hope and Inclusion: Speech to the TUC
Zhivko Illeieff
Why You Should Care About #ShutDownDC and the Global Climate Strike  
Catherine Tumber
Land Without Bread: the Green New Deal Forsakes America’s Countryside
Liam Kennedy
Boris Johnson: Elitist Defender of Britain’s Big Banks
September 17, 2019
Mario Barrera
The Southern Strategy and Donald Trump
Robert Jensen
The Danger of Inspiration in a Time of Ecological Crisis
Dean Baker
Health Care: Premiums and Taxes
Dave Lindorff
Recalling the Hundreds of Thousands of Civilian Victims of America’s Endless ‘War on Terror’
Binoy Kampmark
Oiling for War: The Houthi Attack on Abqaiq
Susie Day
You Say You Want a Revolution: a Prison Letter to Yoko Ono
Rich Gibson
Seize Solidarity House
Laura Flanders
From Voice of America to NPR: New CEO Lansing’s Glass House
Don Fitz
What is Energy Denial?
Dan Bacher
Governor Newsom Says He Will Veto Bill Blocking Trump Rollback of Endangered Fish Species Protections
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: Time to Stop Pretending and Start Over
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Inside the Syrian Peace Talks
Elliot Sperber
Mickey Mouse Networks
September 16, 2019
Sam Husseini
Biden Taking Iraq Lies to the Max
Paul Street
Joe Biden’s Answer to Slavery’s Legacy: Phonographs for the Poor
Paul Atwood
Why Mattis is No Hero
Jonathan Cook
Brexit Reveals Jeremy Corbyn to be the True Moderate
Jeff Mackler
Trump, Trade and China
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima’s Radioactive Water Crisis
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Democrats and the Climate Crisis
Michael Doliner
Hot Stuff on the Afghan Peace Deal Snafu
Nyla Ali Khan
Spectacles of the Demolition of the Babri Masjid in Uttar Pradesh and the Revocation of the Autonomous Status of Kashmir
Stansfield Smith
Celebrating 50 Years of Venceremos Brigade solidarity with the Cuban Revolution
Tim Butterworth
Socialism Made America Great
Nick Licata
Profiles in Courage: the Tories Have It, the Republicans Don’t
Abel Prieto
Cubanness and Cuban Identity: the Importance of Fernando Ortiz
Robert Koehler
Altruists of the World Unite!
Mel Gurtov
Farewell, John Bolton
Weekend Edition
September 13, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
The Age of Constitutional Coups
Rob Urie
Bernie Sanders and the Realignment of the American Left
Anthony DiMaggio
Teaching the “War on Terror”: Lessons for Contemporary Politics
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: They Are the Walrus