Social media has been a revelation last week. After the list of electoral bonds bought by big and small business groups in India, some, in the backdrop of Enforcement Directorate (ED) raids, some of the finest number-crunchers, cartoonists, meme-creators, and graphic artists expressed their meticulous research and immense talent in a manner reminiscent of dark humour in classical literature and cinema.

Memes, cryptic graphs, visually arresting illustrations with easy-to-understand statistical tables, brief and comprehensible, mobster film-poster adaptations: dark and sinister, colour and black-and-white, little clips, catchy tell-all slogans, spoofy, metaphorical, between-the-lines political haikus, sharp caricatures and cartoons. They were all in full flow like a nation celebrating a predictable catharsis.

Among other factors, most of these expressed certain complex but clear facts: first and foremost, that ED raids were largely and directly linked to massive donations to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in many thousand crores, out of fear, threat, or the promise of a potential lucrative project. Or simply, the assurance that a shady company can still operate under the protective umbrella of the State apparatus, once they have donated a huge sum of money to the BJP.

Electoral Bonds - The Media Double Take

‘007 James Bond’, in his many Indian avatars, with a blooming lotus adorning the backdrop, has found many new creative caricatures, with the Prime Minister Mr M, starring in all of them. The captions in bold are reasonably amusing: My name is Bond, Crook Bond, My name is Bond, Electoral Bond 056 (implying a 56 inch chest!), among others.

There were sharp two-line catchy slogans in simple posters with no visuals: “‘Swarn kaal mein rashtra dharm – Chanda do, dhanda lo, loot lo… Desh bhakti – safedposh bond dakaito se desh bachao… Basti basti, dhani dhani, shor hain, Alibaba chor hai, among others, punning on Na khaoonga, na khane doonga’” as well.

In other words, the electoral bond list has exposed an unprecedented operation in the ‘largest democracy’. This was allegedly undertaken under the umbrella of a public sector bank, with massive financial stakes across many dimensions of the Indian political economy, patronised and protected directly by the ruling regime in Delhi.

In local language this is called ‘hafta’ – or, in other words, a huge, organised, camouflaged, extortion racket, with the top brass of the BJP-led government in Delhi apparently supervising and presiding over the sinister operations.

The other factor, exposed in the media, is, of course, the glaring contradiction between little-known business groups with a pathetic corpus, donating huge amounts to the BJP. Were they indeed operating like shell companies of big business, who would be the final beneficiary. Or else, how did they generate such huge sums as electoral bonds for the BJP?

Besides, there are uncanny stories: despite the BJP government warning state governments about certain dubious characters, like a particular lottery king with branches across a few states, and then choosing to take a huge donation worth almost Rs 1,350 plus crores from his company!

The quid pro quo is crudely transparent and the social media and a small section of the print media has graphically presented that fact, even while many new sleazeball stories are gradually emerging.

In contrast, the print media has been rather staid and subdued. Largely, And predictably so. Barring rare exceptions.

According to Vistasp Hodiwala, an entrepreneur based in Mumbai, and a keen observer of daily newspapers, “I observed today (March 15, 2024) the following across four mainline dailies here in Mumbai. The only one which has acquitted itself honourably is the ‘Indian Express’ which prominently covered the electoral bond issue on the front pages as well as inside rather extensively.

“‘The Hindu’ left it to the digital team. But the worst offenders here were ‘The Times of India’ and ‘Hindustan Times’. So, not surprising, though. ‘The Express’ is still unpredictable. I think every few days they suffer from a severe guilt complex and then they cover one out of three stories very prominently.

“However, it's nowhere close to the paper of old. Especially after that embarrassing whitewash of a story on Judge Loya, which one still cannot get over.”

Newspaper coverage: Image from Social Media

The Delhi edition of the Indian Express on the same day (March 15, 2024) had the lead story with an eight-column headline with three slugs and an eight-column shoulder in capital and bold: Who paid the parties (without question mark). The shoulder said: “Infrastructure, construction, mining, pharma companies dominate donor list.”

In a departure from the usual layout, the date line is preceded by an introduction in four lines in a bigger point-size in the lead story: First veil of secrecy is lifted; top 20 donors account for just under half of the total of Rs 12,156 crore purchased through electoral bonds 2019-24.

The second lead story had a double-decker headline in four columns with a slug in red and a shoulder: 3 of top 5 donors bought bonds with ED and IT knocking on their door. The shoulder says: 5 days after ED attached Rs 409-crore assets, Future Gaming bought bonds worth Rs 100 crore. Ironically, the ad running below the masthead of ‘Indian Express-Journalism of Courage’, had a picture of Modi with the slogan: “Modi Sarkar ki Guarantee: Solar energy for every home…”

The front page had a prominent and neat graphic in the fold giving micro details. There is a story on Trinamool Congress at No 2, with Rs 1,609 crore, its bond redemption surging after the Assembly win in West Bengal.

And a profile on the life and times of Santiago Martin, “Bond Buyer No.1, labourer turned ‘Lottery King’”. Plus, a one column story with a six-line headline: “Mining, steel majors spent Rs 825 crore, among them firms awaiting a green nod.”

Another interesting two-column story on the ‘Express’ front page, below the fold, talks of how ‘facing the GST heat’, there is a telling pattern in pharma industries, whereby different firms buy bonds on the same days.

Page 6 of the paper was also a revelation, and a pleasant reminder of its old-fashioned journalism. The entire page was devoted to the EB story under a banner headline in big point-size, bold, and in capital letters: “Who Bought Bonds”. The lead story had a six-column headline: “BJP encashed Rs 1,700 cr before 2019 LS polls, Rs 202 cr ahead of this year’s,” with a telling shoulder: “Redemptions high in November last year during polls in four states”, thereby directly linking the bonds with big-time money ‘used’ in the elections.

The story had a simple graph in the middle listing the bonds encashed by the BJP and Congress between April 2019 to January 2024. The second lead is now the stuff of many follow-ups in the print media as well as in social media: “Megha Engg brought bonds worth Rs 140 crore a month before getting Maharashtra project (the Rs 14,400 crore Thane-Borivali twin tunnel project”. Another story was “ Among top 100 donors, many unknown entities”.

Predictably, ‘The Times of India’ had three full pages of advertisements before the half-front page with a lead story, on, guess what? “Panel for simultaneous polls in 2 states, with cut-off date”, with a box full of pointers and small one-column picture of Ramnath Kovind and Draupadi Murmu.

The second lead? “Didi suffers concussion after fall at home, taken to hops, gets 4 stitches”. The anchor in three columns? “Belgium’s Euro ’24 is a tribute to Herge & his iconic creation Tintin”.

The second page under the TOI masthead, had the top ad, same as ‘Indian Express’, and the entire bottom half, again an ad with a picture of the PM; an Indian Oil ad: “Annadata will be urjadata, Modi’s Government’s guarantee.”

The lead story on the ‘next’ front page had a graph on the list of donors with a double-decker headline: “EB bumper: ‘Lottery king’ Santiago No.1 bond buyer”.

The second lead was on the appointment of two new election commissioners. Full of ads, the 28-page Delhi edition thereby had taken the editorial decision not to carry even one more important story on the electoral bonds bombshell..

‘The Hindu’, Delhi edition, on the same day, had as a lead story with a three-column headline: “Poll bonds: 22 firms donated over 100 crore, BJP got highest share”. It had a small graph of the top recipients with the BJP topping the list.

There was no other story on the subject in the front page. On page 15 is a story on the EC asking the apex court to return sealed documents on the bonds. No other story.

The lead editorial was on Haryana. The second edit was on American polls. Surprisingly, one of its pages preceding the front page, under its masthead, had a full page Congress ad with small pictures of Mallikarjun Kharge, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi: “Yuva Nyay Guarantee”.

Among the ‘pink papers’, the Delhi edition of ‘Business Standard’ had the lead story in with a double-decker headline: EC declares electoral bond data: Top 10n donors are a 3rd of total. The shoulder: Future Gaming & Hotel tops the list at Rs 1,368, Megha Engineering next at Rs 966 crore. There is another story in the top-half with graphic (Deep pockets): Firms dominate list of 1,320 unique donors.”

Analysing the newspapers in Kerala, Binu Mathew, editor of web portal, said: “The release of the tranche of data on the buyers of electoral bonds was a news story of a lifetime. In the morning paper I read, in ‘Malayala Manorama’, Kochi edition, which boasts of a sale of over two million copies, it was a four-column news below the fold as an anchor story.

“The editors didn't find it worthy of being the lead story of the day. The paper carried two lead stories. One was the reduction of the price of petrol/diesel, which to any child's understanding was an election soap, and the other was the Ramnath Kovind led committee's recommendation on ‘one nation, one election’ which was only a recommendation and has to go through a number of steps to be implemented. Both didn't have to be a lead story if the editor hadn't other intentions…”

Malayalam newspaper coverage: Image from Social Media

Mathew added: “Why did the editors choose not to use the electoral bond story as the lead headline? From my journalistic experience, it is basically the fact that they wanted to downplay it. They didn't want the readers to pay too much attention to the story.

“The intention was made crystal-clear when I received the front page of ‘Manorama's’ Malappuram edition. The sub-editor, who did the page, took the editor's intention to its logical conclusion.

“It was a single-column story, below the fold, with a headline, which, in journalistic parlance, is known as a 'label headline'. The headline simply said, ‘Electoral Bond Information on Commission Website’. This is how editors 'kill' a story and ‘Manorama’ did it with the electoral bond story! Indeed, it was a perfect kill!”

According to A. K. Shiburaj, an independent journalist based in Thrissur:, “If we investigate why the Malayalam media (except for a very few), who celebrated the inauguration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, did not publish the information shared by the Election Commission with the importance it deserves, we will be convinced that the Malayalam media organisations face a serious problem of degeneration of news-sense.

“The collusion of the media houses with the power structures has been intensified in recent years. There are many reasons why the media industry suffers from this decline in quality despite having the human resource capacity and technology to deliver reports of a very high quality.”

Shiburaj added, “One of the major reasons is that the mainstream Malayalam media landscape has been under the control of the upper/middle class for a long time. People from a backward/Dalit/adivasi community cannot be seen in the ‘Kerala model’ which proclaims much progress and development.

“That is why they are bringing the news to the people that tickle the upper class. Therefore, they are not interested in fundamentally questioning the ideas of Hindutva that threaten the very idea of India.

“They want to collaborate with the authorities and maintain the status quo. This is why the people who occupy the top positions in different media houses produce stereotypes reflecting the tone of a monoculture in substance.”

He continued: “If you analyse the Malayalam media intervention in the last ten years, you will understand that they are willing to collude easily without doing much to challenge a fascist government, so as to retain power and money, and, thereby, become propagandists of the establishment.

“Compared to other states in India, Kerala has a higher average readership. However, it is doubtful whether the media organisations value the time and money of these readers. Much of the content that is published in the name of news that finds space between advertisements does not have the essence of news. Either the previous day's television and other online media reports are published by the print media, or, things that lack news value and importance.

“This is not a crisis caused by the promotion of visual media and social media. Rather, it is the result of mismanagement, complacency and unpardonable negligence in the field of journalism. Print and visual media can only do their job effectively if they are engaged imaginatively and responsibly.

“That is why, despite the news that has the potential to shake Indian politics, they are unable to publish it with the importance it deserves.”

According to seasoned Hindi journalist and author, Ramsharan Joshi, who has covered the Hindi heartland for many years: “The sanatan psyche of the Indian masses looks at their king or ruler above all vices and misdeeds, since Ram Rajya’s mythical ‘Treta Yug’.

“However, it is ironic, that the electoral bond issue has severely bombed the moral, cultural and political edifice of BJP’s much harped ‘Kalyugi Ramraj’ carved out by its two top leaders wielding unimaginable power in the last ten years.

“The series of exposures of the bonds’ scam has de-robed the PM aka ‘chowkidar’ of equally mythical ideals and who has been surviving on the boastful slogans of ‘Na khaunga, na khane dunga’, ‘zero tolerance’, black money will be returned from the Swiss Banks within 100 days’ and ‘15 lakh in every bank account’.

“In my view, the consequences of the bonds tsunami is bound to dent the image of the BJP-RSS in the short and long-run, since the PM’s original entity is known as an RSS pracharak…”

Joshi explains the contradictions: “Look at the dark, stark irony! The RSS is considered by its diehard, fanatic followers as an epitome of discipline, highest moral values, transparent honesty and a simple life with high ideals. But the PM’s unilateral style of governance turns out to be contrary to the value-system alleged to be practised by the organisation since its birth in 1925. This paradoxical relationship will undoubtedly erode the reputation of the mother organisation, and, along with that, of the BJP.

“Indeed, the India alliance must not leave any stone unturned to sensitise the rural and semi-urban masses, who are traditionally wedded to the ‘praja psyche’, more so in the Hindi heartland. Surely, a set of idioms, symbols, metaphors, especially those which touch the heart and soul, needs to be developed by the opposition communicators at all levels.”

The catch is that the BJP as a homogenous party, protected by the holier-than-thou RSS, has shown exemplary evidence during its current one-dimensional rule that it cares little for public opinion, conventional protocol, or the norms and rules of electoral and daily politics. Mostly, it does what it deems fit.

Besides, other big exposes, like Pegasus, seem to have gone dry earlier, with the big media, especially most mainline television channels based in Delhi, toeing the ruling party line with a certain mindless and loyalist zeal, unprecedented in the history of Indian media and democracy. So much so, all doctrines of media ethics have been routinely dumped.

Witness how the explosive Hindenburg Report has been so methodically buried, with a particular Gujarati industrialist, a close buddy of the PM, still calling the shots.

Will this gigantic mafia-like financial operation undertaken by the top brass of the BJP meet the same fate? With the grandiose hyperbole of the Ram mandir ‘pran pratishtha’, with full 24x7 backing of the stooge media having not achieved the results, will the brazen big money electoral bond scam running into multi-crores, affecting every dimension of the Indian political economy and business establishment, and its constitutional structure, change the course of the 2024 polls?

That is the final and uncanny question which will stalk Indian democracy, now reeling under repeated and vicious attacks on its very soul and essence, in the days to come.