Electoral bonds, pre-poll coverage from ground zero: Why is Big Media missing big stories?

For the survival of democracy, survival of independent media is imperative.

WrittenBy:Kalpana Sharma
Illustration of electoral bonds documents stacked behind a TV screen saying 'no news'.

For the Indian media, the unravelling of the electoral bond scheme is the biggest story. Yet, you would not think so if you read or watched mainstream media.

On February 15, the Supreme Court ruled that the entire scheme was “unconstitutional”. In the interest of transparency, it asked the State Bank of India to put all the information about the bonds in the public domain – who bought them and which political parties encashed them. 

Since then, the fallout of the judgement has been a rollercoaster ride, with the SBI dragging its feet, incrementally releasing the data asked for by the Supreme Court, and the media slowly waking up to the import of the revelations. 

Thanks to live-streaming of the proceedings of the Supreme Court, those interested have been able to watch the persistence of the judges and the resistance of those required to provide the information. It has been educational, to say the least. Those interested can watch the archival footage on the Supreme Court’s website.

But the ruling has been important not just for striking down what was clearly a non-transparent mechanism for political funding, dressed up as essential to curb the role of black money in electoral finance, but also for exposing where the media stands in the face of these developments.

For instance, you would have thought that an issue that involves business, finance, banking, and election funding would be of primary interest to the media, both print and broadcast, that focuses on business. There are so many questions that arise: who bought the bonds, which political parties encashed them, was there a quid pro quo, were some of them bought by shell companies, and so on. 

Yet, if you looked at the business newspapers on the morning of March 15, a day after the SBI began its slow, incremental release of data on the sale of electoral bonds, and only after constant prodding from the Supreme Court, you would not think this was such a big deal. There was minimal coverage in most business papers – a few column inches on the front page and a follow-up inside.

The story got much bigger play in the non-business newspapers, although here too there was considerable variance on the first day. In the subsequent days, some newspapers did go beyond just reporting to making connections between the donors, and the timing of the donations or investigating some of the bigger donors, such as the so-called “lottery king”, Santiago Martin.

Some newspapers did put out helpful charts that would give readers a sense of who bought bonds and how much political parties got. But the final clinching link between donors and recipients can only be established now, as the SBI has finally released all the relevant data. 

These last two weeks establish beyond doubt that the entire electoral bond controversy would never have been unearthed if not for the diligence and persistence of independent digital platforms.

For the record, it was the early stories, such as this one by Reporters’ Collective, that first raised questions about electoral bonds as far back as 2019. Their coverage contributed to the petition that the Association for Democratic Reforms filed in the Supreme Court in 2019, challenging the validity of the scheme.

It took the Supreme Court almost five years before it finally addressed the matter, which is now part of history. But even as the court gave its ruling, Reporters’ Collective and Project Electoral Bond, a joint effort by The News Minute, Newslaundry and Scroll, began the process of unspooling the data being released in a series of stories.  

Some of these stories were followed up by mainstream newspapers. However, what they carried did not add substantially to the information that had already been reported by these independent platforms.

One of the more worrying reports was this one by Tabassum B in Scroll on pharma companies that bought electoral bonds. The story revealed that of the 35 pharma firms that purchased the bonds, at least seven had been hauled up for substandard drugs. 

Many of the stories carried on these independent platforms also suggest a clear nexus. For instance, 41 of the donors are businesses that have faced questioning by either the Income Tax department, the Enforcement Directorate, or both. There is also evidence that after the electoral bonds were purchased, some companies got lucrative contracts. Even if the evidence so far is circumstantial, it is enough to raise serious questions. And that is what the media ought to be doing.

A story such as this, with so many dimensions, also makes it incumbent on the media to find ways to explain it to the ordinary reader. Some of this was done by way of charts that appeared in The Hindu and Hindustan Times. But these would not have been adequate in themselves. Explanatory stories were needed but were largely missing.

You did find such stories elsewhere. For instance, Ravish Kumar, on his YouTube channel, ran more than a dozen programmes in which he explained the entire story in a way that would be comprehensible to a layperson. Similarly, Tippani on Newslaundry by Atul Chaurasia laid out in simple language the significance of the revelations about the electoral bond scheme.

For more than five years, voters have been in the dark about this scheme for election funding. Before we head into another election, it is incumbent on voters to understand who is funding which party. There is nothing complex about that. And surely, with the resources available to mainstream media, this kind of story ought to be a cakewalk.

Yet, an under-resourced independent media has had to step in and dig out the various aspects of this developing story.

It tells us where mainstream media stands today – something we have known – and that for democracy to survive in this country, the survival of independent media is imperative. Without these platforms, we might as well resign ourselves to living in an autocracy pretending to be a democracy.

Apart from the electoral bonds story, we will have to wait and see whether the mainstream media steps up to assessing the performance of the Modi government as it sets out to seek another term. There is little evidence of this being done so far, but I could be proved wrong.

An example of the kind of reporting that is needed is this deep-dive by independent journalist Srishti Jaswal for The Wire on Narendra Modi’s constituency, Varanasi. 

Modi, like other MPs, had adopted several villages and promised them benefits under various central government schemes. Jaswal found there was a considerable gap between promise and delivery. She reports: “While Lal Dhar in Jayapur has a toilet with a broken door, he has no house. Similarly, Mohit Chauhan from Domri village does not have a house but he has a tap and a toilet. Karma Devi from Nagepur has no house, no toilet but she has a tap where water comes three times a day.” 

We need more such stories that inform us about the reality on the ground, rather than just speculative political gossip in the run-up to the elections.

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