Sandeep Sahu

On the day the Supreme Court rejected the State Bank of India (SBI) plea seeking an extension of the deadline to submit the details of the electoral bond scheme to the Election Commission of India (ECI) till June 30, I got a call from a local television channel in the evening for a ‘phono’ on the release of the rules under the Citizens’ (Amendment) Act (CAA), of all things! As a hard-nosed hack in his fourth decade in journalism, I could immediately make out that the Narendra Modi government had suddenly dusted off the long-forgotten file on CAA in a scarcely-veiled diversionary tactic to shift the attention away from the Big Story of the day {maybe even the month!): the landmark SC ruling on the electoral bond issue. I even teased the man who had called, asking him; “Why don’t you take a phono on the electoral bond instead?” The man just smiled demurely and I chose not to embarrass him any further by pressing the point.

But if the ‘coverage’ – the near-absence of it, to be more precise – of the issue in the mainstream media in the days and weeks since then (March 11) is anything to go by, it seems the Modi government need not have gone to such great lengths to ensure that the issue did not stay in the spotlight. The ‘mainstream’ media would have done what it wanted anyway! Had it not been for a bunch of enterprising journalists – mostly operating in the online space – we would still be groping in the dark and wracking our brains trying to join the dots, follow the money trail and establishing the quid pro quo.

Years of servility has clearly eaten into the vitals of the so-called ‘mainstream’ media. Here was a huge story with far-reaching ramifications – perhaps as big as the 2G scam that had rocked the nation in the second term of the UPA regime – that the Supreme Court had offered the media on a platter. It was all there in black and white and there was precious little for the media to dig out. All it had to do was to study the figures – both of the donors and the donees – and find a pattern to the inflow into party coffers. But no one was willing to strain a sinew in analyzing the data uploaded on the ECI website in due course. The coverage - if it can be called that – was perfunctory, short-lived, half-hearted and marked by a desire to hide more than reveal.

Perhaps taking a cue from the ‘national’ media, the local media also gave short shrift to the issue. A leading Odia daily did the utterly laughable by choosing to omit the name of the BJD in the list of recipients of the electoral bond provided in an agency copy! This, despite the fact that the ruling party in the state is the fifth largest beneficiary of donations under the scheme at Rs 944 crores. The local edition of a leading English daily went one up by blacking out the main story – the biggest recipients and the amounts they received – altogether and focusing solely on the exploits of Santiago Martin, the ‘Lottery Man’, presumably because everyone had a finger in his pie!

Conventional wisdom suggested that it should have been a massive electoral issue waiting to be exploited by parties, coming as it did barely days ahead of the announcement of the election season. But there has been a deafening silence instead – and it is not rocket science to understand why. After all, every party is party to what eminent economist Parakala Prabhakar, who happens to be the husband of Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, described as the ‘biggest scam in the world’. Raking up the issue on the eve of the general elections, the parties were quick to realise, would be nothing short of suicidal because it would open up a Pandora’s box that would grievously hurt everyone. As they say in Hindi: “Is Hamam Mein Sab Nange Hain”.

While the silence of the political parties is eminently understandable – if not defensible – it is hard to understand what prevents the media from speaking up. On second thoughts, maybe it is not so difficult to understand, after all. Most, if not all, ‘mainstream’ media houses have now become mere extensions of political parties; their corporate communications department, if you please. No wonder no one is willing to ask the hard questions. Media houses are too busy covering the all-important issues like ‘who left whom to join whom’ to bother about such a ‘non-issue’. Thus, a Santrupt Mishra, when asked about the connection between the Rs 250 crores his erstwhile company (Aditya Birla group) paid to the BJD via electoral bonds and his premature retirement and subsequent nomination as the party’s candidate from the Cuttack Lok Sabha constituency, can nonchalantly get away by claiming that it was ‘unfair’ to ask him about it since he was no more with the company! And leaders of the three major contenders for power, instead of facing a barrage of questions on the receipts under the schemes and the benefits given to the donors in return, are busy answering questions on ‘mergers and acquisitions’ instead.

Parakala Prabhakar may have indulged in a bit of hyperbole when he dubbed it ‘the biggest scam in the world’. But there is little doubt that it’s an issue big enough that should have cast its shadow over the entire election this time. And it’s the media that has failed resoundingly in its primary duty to raise – and demand answers to – the issue big time.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)