And so we have a government in Maharashtra, almost, the loaves and fishes having been evenly shared among a swollen cabal of crorepatis. Choosing the Chief Minister was the easy part. The Congress method of picking a Chief Minister is more transparent and effective than we give it credit for. Essentially, the high command hands the elected legislators a menu and says they are free to choose any flavour so long as it is vanilla. If the going flavour at the Centre changes to strawberry, well then, it’s “See? Pink vanilla!”

Government formation has proved more complex. The Nationalist Congress Party held out for more than a slice of the cake. It sought half ownership of the bakery and seems to have got it. It has the vital jagirs of Finance, Home, Power and Rural Development. And has managed an almost equal number of portfolios as the Congress despite that party having won 20 seats more. What accounts for this? This time round, there was a marked lack of gusto among some of the Congress seniors who were most aggressive towards the NCP earlier. After all, each one of them had hoped to be Chief Minister. That didn’t happen. And so, in their view, if life gets a little tough for Ashok Chavan, so be it.

Vilasrao Deshmukh is among the saddened. He had worked hard for his party’s win and for Chief Ministership. Ever since Mr. Deshmukh became a Union Minister, it was almost as if the Indian Union had only one State in it: Maharashtra. So frequent were his visits there. Mr. Deshmukh did fairly well during his tenure as Chief Minister, even if his State did not. His assets — going by the affidavits he filed in the 2004 State elections and in 2009 (for the Rajya Sabha) — went up by over Rs. 27 million. That is, while Chief Minister, his worth increased by around Rs.5.5 million a year. Or by not much less than half-a-million a month on average.

But a Chief Minister’s duties are onerous. Which could explain why his gains were dwarfed by the re-elected MLAs in Maharashtra. Their average asset growth, according to National Election Watch (NEW), was over Rs.35 million. Even here, re-elected crorepatis fared better, says NEW. Their assets grew by well over Rs.45 million, on average, these past five years. So Mr. Deshmukh’s prosperity, or his affidavit, is quite modest by these high standards. On the surface, the MLAs in Haryana appear to have outclassed those in Maharashtra. However, they started on a much lower base. In Maharashtra for instance, MLA Suresh Jain saw his assets rise by a trifling 200 per cent. Haryana MLAs averaged 600 per cent. But Mr. Jain was already worth over Rs.260 million in 2004. That became Rs.790 million by 2009. Which means his assets grew by well over Rs.8 million a month on average in that period. Still, there is no scoffing at Haryana’s entrepreneurial spirit. Its re-elected crorepatis clocked an increase of over Rs.93 million between 2004 and 2009.

A sweet share of this money power directs itself at the media. Unless the Election Commission of India studies at least one State in depth, it will be hard to gauge the extent to which large sections of the media have sold both space and soul. “Know your candidate” was a feature quite often seen in newspapers during the Maharashtra poll campaign. On the surface, this seemed to be a service by a newspaper for its readers. In truth, it was really a hit job for rich candidates, dressing their paid-for propaganda and advertisements as “news.”

Well, thanks in part to NEW, you do know your candidate better than you might otherwise have known. Maybe it’s time to know your media. Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh would be good States for a solid study on how newspapers and TV channels made millions misleading their audiences. As the Vice President points out: “The Press Council has noted that paid news could cause double jeopardy to Indian democracy through a damaging influence on press functioning as well as on the free and fair election process.” The Council’s guidelines also state that “the press shall not accept any kind of inducement, financial or otherwise, to project a candidate/party.” But too many in the media did exactly that.

A great pity. Elections have often been the one part of India’s democracy to be proud of. That is fast eroding. Money power is well ahead of muscle power (though the latter is often merely a function of the former). It starts at elections to the students unions in colleges and universities, and gains full scale at the State and national level.

Oddly, in this grim landscape, one oasis that could be a model — and not just for universities — has had no elections for over a year now. Elections to the Students’ Union of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNUSU) have been stayed by the Supreme Court. The reason: perceived non-compliance with the recommendations of the Lyngdoh Committee. Yet that Committee’s report acknowledges the strengths of what could well be the most unique student union elections anywhere. (Disclosure: this writer was a student at JNU nearly three decades ago. And is a member of the University’s Executive Council now. And a reporter who has covered most general elections since 1984 and a large number of State polls since 1982).

For almost four decades, the students of JNU have held their elections without a trace of money or muscle power. The students set up an election commission to conduct the polls. The university authorities have no role in this. No one can remember a whisper of rigging or malpractice. Poll violence has been unknown. The worst that candidates in this campus can do is talk you to death. Seriously, though, these are polls to be proud of. More so in a society which is firmly headed in the reverse direction. Here is autonomy at work, democratic participation at its best. A live tradition that sparkles in contrast to the thuggishness of elections on so many campuses. The campaigns still run mostly on meetings, handmade posters and pamphlets.

About two-thirds of Central universities have seen no elections at all. Even though the Lyngdoh Committee called for them. That is, even though students of those age groups there can vote in the national election. Can belong to political parties or even hold a seat in Parliament. In JNU, the elections are held with great zest and vibrant debate. School and university-level general body meetings ensure that those voted in are held to account for their actions. These GBMs can last hours with packed attendance. Something that hits you when you see the Lok Sabha deserted even as Bills involving life and death issues for millions come up for discussion.

It would be a travesty if the example the students of JNU have set for the rest of us is gutted on the ground that their polls do not comply with the minutiae of a Commission’s report. (A report that, in fact, sees the JNU model as suitable for smaller universities.) It would be a thumbs down for diversity, pluralism and autonomy. (All in short supply in the public sphere today.)

But back to money power, the media and the moguls of politics. Public response to the exposure of “paid news” and coverage packages has been huge. There is anger and anguish over what the media have done and persist in doing. (There will be more on that subject. Watch this space.) Also heartening is that so many working within the media that have embraced such practices are hurt and appalled by it. But in some vital sectors, silence rules. “Convergence” has a political meaning too, when it comes to the cosy integration of the government, the media and the corporate world.

Many forget that “India Shining” was not just a stupid slogan. It was a campaign on which the then government spent thousands of millions of rupees of public money. The great gainer from this being the corporate media. New links to this chain are forged each day. You can see that in every sphere from politics to hyper-commercialised sport. You could see it in the unease of the media as a whole Parliament session focussed on almost nothing but the battles between two corporate behemoths. You can view it in the Union government, the BCCI, IPL and sections of the media that gain directly from these links and the revenues involved. That’s just a couple of instances. The chains are complex, and their links increase daily. This has a distinct meaning for the content of media.

Decades ago, columnist Murray Kempton described editorial writers as those who come down from the hills after the battle is over — and shoot the wounded. In the Maharashtra elections, they served as the Praetorian Guard of the moneyed and the mighty.

Public response to the exposure of “paid news” and coverage packages has been huge. There is anger and anguish over what the media have done and persist in doing.


Journalism for sale October 30, 2009

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