Over the last 18 months, the exposure of the unethical practice of publishing or broadcasting ‘paid news' has created awareness among the people about how it corrupts the press as well as the democratic process. The Election Commission of India has risen to the occasion by tightening its vigil over the media as well as candidates, as part of its efforts to keep the on-going Assembly elections in four States and one Union Territory as clean as possible.
‘Paid news,' selling news space under the table to candidates and dishonestly presenting the paid-for advertising as news, is a relatively recent arrival on the Indian electoral scene. Besides giving the client an advantage over the rival contestants, it helps him or her hide the money spent on paid news from the mandatory electoral expenditure accounts, thereby violating electoral laws. The Hindu played a key role in taking the issue to larger sections of people. Many journalists pressed for the intervention of organisations such as the Editors' Guild, besides the Press Council of India and the Election Commission, to stigmatise and put an end to the corrupt practice and initiate action against the guilty. It is heartening that the Election Commission has taken some initial steps to end the menace.
Corrupting the election process
A front page expose, “Cash for votes a way of political life in South India,” in The Hindu (March 16, 2011), based on a report in “The India Cables,” accessed by the newspaper through WikiLeaks, highlighted the various methods adopted by South Indian politicians in the 2009 Lok Sabha election to bribe voters. In a factually rich cable sent to the State Department on May 13, 2009 under the name of Frederick J. Kaplan, Acting Principal Officer of the U.S. Consulate-General in Chennai, we have a detailed account of “the role and impact of money power in corrupting the electoral process.” Mr. Kaplan noted that the bribing of voters by political parties was “a regular feature of elections in South India.” Referring to an Assembly by-election at Thirumangalam in Madurai District in 2009, the cable mentioned how party workers resorted to ingenious ways to distribute the bribe money, hoodwinking security officials and the workers of rival political parties. At Thirumangalam the payment was Rs. 5,000 per voter, possibly the highest ever bribe paid to a voter, according to the cable. This is now known as the “Thirumangalam formula,” thanks to liberal usage of the term in Tamil periodicals.
Apart from the unprecedented rise in prices of essential commodities, the neglect of agriculture and growing unemployment, the major issues before the electorate in the current phase of the elections are the 2G-spectrum scam and the plethora of corruption scandals involving ruling party politicians at the Centre and in the States.
Although electoral malpractices and corruption in high places are not new to the people, apprehension of a possible scaling up of electoral malpractices and the violence they might result in has made the Election Commission step up its vigil in a big way. The challenge is particularly serious in Tamil Nadu and the shrill complaints and criticism heard from leaders of the parties ruling in the State and at the Centre speak to the ECI's rising to the challenge. The seizure of cash to the tune of at least Rs. 42 crore and of articles worth several crores of rupees carried by persons with no valid papers relating to the money in their possession only strengthens the case for stepped-up vigil by the Commission.
Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi has done well to face the situation head-on and refute the charge that the Election Commission has exceeded its powers in Tamil Nadu. He has emphasised that the Commission was within its constitutional mandate and any criticism was “totally unfair and we dismiss it.” He made it clear that holding free and fair elections was always the Commission's top priority and it would also seek to make the polls peaceful, transparent, and participative. His announcement that the Commission had asked officials to intensify search operations with a view to totally curbing “money power” has won much public appreciation and support.
It is encouraging to see the news media giving such wide publicity to the Election Commission's efforts to clean up the whole process. So far, so good.