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.