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 colour, 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.’