India’s elections, which in mid-2009 brought 415 million voters to the 1.18 million ballot units in 834,944 polling stations and were mostly peaceful, may be one of the wonders of the world. But it is widely understood that in 2009 the free, fair, and democratic attributes of these elections have been compromised as never before by the large-scale, illegal, and scandalous use of money power — which, to a considerable extent, involved recycled dirty money garnered through corruption in executive and legislative office. The role of the Election Commission of India in curbing booth capturing, intimidation of voters, and some other kinds of electoral fraud has won public appreciation. But as P. Sainath points out in his article, “The medium, message and the money,” published in The Hindu on October 26, 2009, “it is hard to find a single instance of rigorous or deterrent action” by the ECI in the face of such a serious danger to the democratic process. That is a large question that needs to be addressed in depth and in all its complexity by the various players in the political system.
The new shame is the extensive and brazen participation of not insignificant sections of the news media, notably large-circulation Indian language newspapers in two of India’s largest States, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, in this genre of corruption -- which a politician speaking at a Hyderabad media seminar memorably characterised as a “Cash Transfer Scheme” from politicians to journalists. Sainath’s article exposes the phenomenon of “coverage packages” exploding across India’s most industrialised State during the recent Assembly election. Candidates paid newspapers different rates for well-differentiated and streamlined packages of news coverage. Those who could not or would not pay for the packages tended to be blacked out. The Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists has, on the basis of a sample survey conducted in West Godavari district, estimated that newspapers across the State netted Rs. 350 crore to Rs. 400 crore through editorial coverage sold to candidates during the 2009 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. Some candidates even recorded the expenditure incurred in purchasing editorial coverage in their official accounts submitted to the ECI. With some senior journalists drawing its attention to this new-fangled cash transfer scheme in Andhra Pradesh, the Press Council of India has constituted a two-member committee to inquire into the matter. What to do about such a shocking breach of readers’ trust (which is unlikely to be confined to Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra) by the so-called Fourth Estate will form the subject of a follow-up editorial.