Did advertising agencies hired by the BJP deceive newspapers during the 2019 elections?

Between September 2019 and February 2020, employees from three newspapers told me that the advertisement release orders, or ROs, they received from the BJP-employed agencies had glaring discrepancies. Dhiraj Singh / Bloomberg / Getty Images
12 February, 2020

In 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party hired several advertising agencies for media buying during the Lok Sabha election season. The tasks of the agencies included buying space in small and medium newspapers—classified according to circulation—to publish the BJP’s advertisements. Between September 2019 and February 2020, employees from three newspapers told me that the advertisement release orders, or ROs, they received from the BJP-employed agencies had glaring discrepancies. According to the employees, these agencies were Madison Communications Private Limited, Dot Communication and Hindustan Samachar Feature Sewa Limited.

A junior employee of a Madhya Pradesh-based newspaper and a senior employee of a Rajasthan-based newspaper said that the payable amount in the ROs issued to their organisations was pegged at zero. A senior employee of a newspaper that circulates in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh told me that the payable amount in the RO issued to his organisation just said “as agreed.” According to the employees, the agencies had informally agreed to pay an amount that was acceptable to the newspapers. But the agencies avoided holding up their end of the informal agreements. 

I spoke to several advertisement executives in newspaper organisations, senior and junior employees as well as a couple of freelance agents who negotiate with advertisement agencies on behalf of news publications on a commission basis. Most of them estimated that the advertisement agencies had conducted similar business dealings with over hundred newspapers. All of them chose to remain anonymous. The senior employee of the newspaper in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh said, “You know the situation of the market. We are not in a position to spoil our relationship with the regime because of any confrontation.” He told me that he “requested an old friend in the party. And that worked.”

The Caravan has access to one of the ROs that Madison Communications Private Limited issued to the Madhya Pradesh-based newspaper. It shows the “Rate. per sqc.”—rate per square column—as zero for two advertisements that were to be published in the second week of May 2019. The gross amount, net amount and total amount payable to the publication were also zero. 

Underneath the figures, the RO mentioned an “Important” point, “No ads of the BJP should be published along with competitor(s) on the same page unless approved by BJP.” Below it, there were more terms and conditions, including, “In case the rates, positions or other terms and conditions mentioned in this Release Order are not acceptable, Please do not carry the ad without getting a written confirmation from our end.” Another point said, “Please check the above rate and notify us immediately if incorrect.” Despite these conditions, the newspapers accepted the ROs.

The senior employee of newspaper that circulates in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh said the HSFSL, a news and advertisement agency, had issued ROs to the publication which said that the payable amount was “as agreed.” The Caravan has a copy of one such RO that HSFSL had issued. “After the election, the agency asked us to take only 10 percent of the amount of agency had agreed to pay. Then I requested to a few BJP leaders, following which the agency paid 60 percent of the total bill.” He added, “It was a bad experience.” I emailed HSFSL for a comment but did not get a response. 

The senior employee of the Rajasthan-based newspaper said that they had dealt with Dot Communication, an advertising agency, for publishing BJP’s advertisements. The ROs issued to them had “zero” as the payable amount, according to the senior employee. “We had to fight hard to get our bill cleared,” the senior employee said. “After the election, the agency said it would pay only 50 percent of the actual bill. We refused to accept it. I filed an official complaint against the agency to INS,” the senior employee said, referring to the Indian Newspaper Society, an independent body that aims to safeguard the interests of its member media organisations. “After that, the agency agreed to pay the dues, but it took us seven months,” the senior employee said. I tried to cross check this complaint with the INS, but its deputy secretary, Yogesh Pawaskar, told me that the society cannot reveal details of complaints to anyone but the concerned parties.

I spoke to Suresh Kumar, the media director of Madison Communications Private Limited, who denied all allegations. “At least from Madison’s end, every RO that went out carried the rate and was paid through banks,” he said. Nagender Tiwari, the proprietor of Dot Communications also gave a similar response. “We have not done injustice to anyone,” he said. “We released the amount that was mentioned in the RO and clients were agreed on. Also, this is not true that we had issued RO without putting rates on it,” Tiwari added. 

I asked Rituraj Sinha, a BJP leader who was handling the party’s distribution of advertisements during the Lok Sabha elections, about the ROs and the rates paid to newspapers. He dropped me a text which said, “I can confirm that all print ads were released at /above DAVP rates.” The central government’s Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity sets the rate for government advertisements in newspapers. 

Notably, the approach of the advertising agencies in dealing with national newspapers differed. An advertising executive at one of the most widely circulated newspapers in the country said, “They can’t adopt such methods for national papers … There are so many issues like tax, GST”—the Goods and Services Tax. According to him, the newspaper charged the concerned advertising agency a cheaper amount than their benchmark prices. “We were not able to offer the rates that the BJP guys were asking, yet, they managed somehow. You know these guys.” 

Some newspapers refused to compromise on their advertising rates. An advertising agency had asked Thanthi, a leading daily in Tamil Nadu, to publish advertisements at a cheap rate. But the publication refused, according to a senior employee of the newspaper. 

The Centre for Media Studies, a think tank based in Delhi, released a report in June 2019 on the poll expenditure in the general and assembly elections held that year. It estimated the total expenditure to be greater than fifty-five thousand crore rupees. Of this amount, according to CMS, the BJP spent between 45 and 55 percent of the total estimated expenditure.