Most media houses, from time to time, publish special supplements on a given topic,which are used as special vehicles for more targeted advertising, and may include paid content and advertorials—newspaper or magazine advertisements that give information about a product in the form of an editorial. These may range from supplements on industries, events, or specific topics, to those on government bodies. In January 2012, the Sunday Guardian—a Noida-based Sunday newspaper that was founded by MJ Akbar, an erstwhile journalist, who is now a national spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—published a special supplement on the Gujarat government, which was headed by Narendra Modi at that time.
The internal emails of Essar—an Indian conglomerate that has investments in sectors such as steel, infrastructure and energy—reveal that the newspaper had approached Essar and offered the company advertising space in the supplement. Interestingly, in its communication with potential advertisers, the newspaper also sent out a letter from the Gujarat information and broadcast department that reiterated the support of the state government to the supplement. The letter, signed by principal secretary in the information and broadcasting department stated, “Here we see an opportunity for our Industries, Government, Corporate, Private sector and Business houses to be part of this special supplement in promoting our achievements and conveying the message of Gujarat to the readers of this newspaper.”
The special issue was dated to coincide with the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas—Non-Resident Indian Day—on 8 January 2012. Its copies, according to the email exchange, were to be distributed at BM Birla Auditorium in Jaipur, where an event was being hosted to commemorate the occasion. The letter stated that the supplement would “designate” Modi as the “Economic Reformer of India, in the mould of the famous architect of economic reform of China, Paramount Leader ‘Deng Xiaoping’.” The newspaper’s chief operating officer, Kamal Shah, wrote to Essar in the supporting letter: “We will also be highlighting that Chief Minister; Mr. Narendra Modi will one day transform India into an economic superpower.” MJ Akbar also wrote a separate letter to Shashi Ruia, the chairman and co-founder of the Essar Group, asking for the group to advertise in the supplement.
In an email to Prashant Ruia—the chief executive officer and managing director of the Essar group—and Shashi Ruia on 2 January 2012, Manish Kedia, a senior vice president for corporate affairs at Essar, wrote that the corporate had “politely declined” to release an advertisement. He continued, “However we have received a call from Mr. Narendra Modi’s Secretary to support this issue.” The email ended with, “Please advise.”
It is probably not unusual for governments to ask private companies to advertise with an independent newspaper for a promotional supplement of this nature. It may not even be that rare for a chief minister’s secretary to persuade a corporate house, in this case Essar, to advertise for a special issue extolling the chief minister that would be published by the media company. It is, however, decidedly crass and perhaps, even humorous. When I contacted Essar for a comment on this issue, a spokesperson responded over email: “As regards Essar’s participation in the Supplement published by Sunday Guardian, we wish to clarify that the same was done to promote Essar’s Infrastructure business in the ordinary course of business and not at the behest of any person whomsoever.”
However, another internal email flagged a news report that had appeared in the daily newspaper DNA, titled “Has Essar’s proximity to Modi become too taxing?” The email was sent six months after the supplement, on 18 July 2012, by Parikshit Kaul, a general manager—corporate relations group at Essar Services India Limited (ESIL) to Sunil Bajaj, the Director and Head of the corporate relations group at ESIL. The newspaper stated that the Modi dispensation had distanced itself from Essar. It further reported that Modi had not taken Essar’s officials along with him on his last few foreign trips to promote the Vibrant Gujarat Summit.