C Ram Pandit can now resume his weekly column. Dr. Pandit (name changed) had long been writing for a well-known Indian language newspaper in Maharashtra. On the last day for the withdrawal of nominations to the recent State Assembly elections, he found himself sidelined. An editor at the paper apologised to him saying: "Panditji, your columns will resume after October 13. Till then, every page in this paper is sold." The editor, himself an honest man, was simply speaking the truth.

In the financial orgy that marked the Maharashtra elections, the media were never far behind the moneybags. Not all sections of the media were in this mode, but quite a few. Not just small local outlets, but powerful newspapers and television channels, too. Many candidates complained of "extortion" but were not willing to make an issue of it for fear of drawing media fire.

Some senior journalists and editors found themselves profoundly embarrassed by their managements. "The media have been the biggest winners in these polls," says one ruefully. "In this period alone," says another, "they've more than bounced back from the blows of the 'slowdown' and done so in style." Their poll-period take is estimated to be in hundreds of millions of rupees. Quite a bit of this did not come as direct advertising but in packaging a candidate's propaganda as "news."

The Assembly elections saw the culture of "coverage packages" explode across the State. In many cases, a candidate just had to pay for almost any coverage at all. Issues didn't come into it. No money, no news. This effectively shut out smaller parties and independent voices with low assets and resources. It also misled viewers and readers by denying them any mention of the real issues some of these smaller forces raised. The Hindu reported on this (April 7, 2009) during the Lok Sabha elections, where sections of the media were offering low-end "coverage packages" for Rs.15 lakh to Rs.20 lakh. "High-end" ones cost a lot more. The State polls saw this go much further.

None of this, as some editors point out, is new. However, the scale is new and stunning. The brazenness of it (both ways) quite alarming. And the game has moved from the petty personal corruption of a handful of journalists to the structured extraction of huge sums of money by media outfits. One rebel candidate in western Maharashtra, calculates that an editor from that region, spent Rs.1 crore "on just local media alone." And, points out the editor, "he won, defeating the official candidate of his party."

The deals were many and varied. A candidate had to pay different rates for 'profiles,' interviews, a list of 'achievements,' or even a trashing of his rival in some cases. (With the channels, it was "live" coverage, a 'special focus,' or even a team tracking you for hours in a day.) Let alone bad-mouthing your rival, this "pay-per" culture also ensures that the paper or channel will not tell its audiences that you have a criminal record. Over 50 per cent of the MLAs just elected in Maharashtra have criminal charges pending against them. Some of them featured in adulatory "news items" which made no mention of this while tracing their track record.

The Election Commission's interventions have curbed rigging, booth capturing and ballot stuffing. On the money power front, though, it is hard to find a single significant instance of rigorous or deterrent action. (Picture credit: IANS)

 •  Big money, aam aadmi
 •  Door open on negative votes
 •  Can't vote, can vet

At the top end of the spectrum, "special supplements" cost a bomb. One put out by one of the State's most important politicians - celebrating his "era" - cost an estimated Rs.1.5 crore. That is, just this single media insertion cost 15 times what he is totally allowed to spend as a candidate. He has won more than the election, by the way.

One common low-end package: Your profile and "four news items of your choice" to be carried for between Rs.4 lakh or more depending on which page you seek. There is something chilling about those words "news items of your choice." Here is news on order. Paid for. (Throw in a little extra and a writer from the paper will help you draft your material.)

It also lent a curious appearance to some newspaper pages. For instance, you could find several "news items" of exactly the same size in the same newspaper on the same day, saying very different things. Because they were really paid-for propaganda or disguised advertisements. A typical size was four columns by ten centimetres. When a pro-saffron alliance paper carries "news items" of this size extolling the Congress-NCP, you know strange things are happening. (And, oh yes, if you bought "four news items of your choice" many times, a fifth one might be thrown in gratis.)

There were a few significant exceptions to the rule. A couple of editors tried hard to bring balance to their coverage and even ran a "news audit" to ensure that. And journalists who, as one of them put it, "simply stopped meeting top contacts in embarrassment." Because, often, journalists with access to politicians were expected to make the approach. That information came from a reporter whose paper sent out an email detailing "targets" for each branch and edition during the elections. The bright exceptions were drowned in the flood of lucre. And the huge sums pulled in by that paper have not stopped it from sacking droves of staffers. Even from editions that met their 'targets.'

There are the standard arguments in defence of the whole process. Advertising packages are the bread and butter of the industry. What's wrong with that? "We have packages for the festive season. Diwali packages, or for the Ganesh puja days." Only, the falsehoods often disguised as "news" affect an exercise central to India's electoral democracy. And are outrageously unfair to candidates with less or no money. They also amount to exerting undue influence on the electorate.

There is another poorly assessed - media-related - dimension to this. Many celebrities may have come out in May to exhort people to vote. This time, several of them appear to have been hired by campaign managers to drum up crowds for their candidate. Rates unknown.

The rise of money power

All of this goes hand in hand with the stunning rise of money power among candidates. More so among those who made it the last time and have amassed huge amounts of wealth since 2004. With the media and money power wrapped like two peas in a pod, this completely shuts out smaller, or less expensive, voices. It just prices the aam aadmi out of the polls. Never mind they are contested in his name.

Your chances of winning an election to the Maharashtra Assembly, if you are worth over Rs.100 million, are 48 times greater than if you were worth just Rs.1 million or less. Far greater still, if that other person is worth only half-a-million rupees or less. Just six out of 288 MLAs in Maharashtra who won their seats declared assets of less than half-a-million rupees. Nor should challenges from garden variety multi-millionaires (those worth between Rs.1 million-10 million) worry you much. Your chances of winning are six times greater than theirs, says the National Election Watch (NEW).

The number of 'crorepati' MLAs (those in the Rs.10 million-plus category) in the State Assembly has gone up by over 70 per cent in the just concluded elections. There were 108 elected in 2004. This time, there are 184. Nearly two-thirds of the MLAs just elected in Maharashtra and close to three-fourths of those in Haryana, are crorepatis. These and other startling facts fill the reports put out by NEW, a coalition of over 1,200 civil society groups across the country that also brought out excellent reports on these issues during the Lok Sabha polls in April-May. Its effort to inform the voting public is spearheaded by the NGO, Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR).

Each MLA in Maharashtra, on average, is worth over Rs.40 million. That is, if we treat their own poll affidavit declarations as genuine. That average is boosted by Congress and BJP MLAs who seem richer than the others, being well above that mark. The NCP and the Shiv Sena MLAs are not too far behind, though, the average worth of each of their legislators being in the Rs.30 million-plus bracket.

Each time a giant poll exercise is gone through in this most complex of electoral democracies, we congratulate the Election Commission on a fine job. Rightly so, in most cases. For, many times, its interventions and activism have curbed rigging, booth capturing and ballot stuffing. On the money power front, though - and the media's packaging of big money interests as "news" - it is hard to find a single significant instance of rigorous or deterrent action. These too, after all, are serious threats. More structured, much more insidious than crude ballot stuffing. Far more threatening to the basics of not just elections, but democracy itself.