The editor of the newspaper’s website must not be made a scapegoat for an illegal act that was committed by others more powerful than him
Many sins were committed when the owners of Dainik Jagran decided to run an exit poll on their website on February 12, 2017 claiming the BJP had a massive lead over its rivals in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections.
The publication and dissemination of the poll in the middle of a multi-phase set of elections was a violation of explicit guidelines issued by the Election Commission of India prohibiting the dissemination of any exit poll “at any time during the period starting from 48 hours before the hour fixed for closing of poll in the first phase of the election and till the poll is concluded in all the phases in all states.” By publishing the results of an exit poll right after the first phase of voting in UP but well before the last phase, Dainik Jagran wilfully violated the EC’s guidelines.
Second, the EC’s guidelines for 2017 also prohibit the conduct of such polls. When a media house in Goa recently sought a stay on this rule, the Bombay high court refused to provide relief. As such, the very act of polling voters as they came out of voting stations in western UP was also a violation of the EC’s guidelines by the agency which conducted the poll.
Third, the publication of the exit poll, which Sanjay Gupta – CEO and editor of the Dainik Jagran group – said was “carried by our advertising department” was an example of paid news. Paid news is the wilful misrepresentation of an advertisement as news in order to fool readers into believing that the information conveyed is editorially authentic and not sponsored by a vested interest.
Fourth, since we know the poll was a form of paid news, the individual or party that has paid the bill needs to disclose the amount and method of payment as part of their formal returns to the Election Commission. If they fail to do so, this would be a violation of the EC’s rules. But making such a declaration would be tantamount to an admission of violating the Representation of People Act, a serious transgression for a political party or candidate.
Editor as fall guy
Acting on a complaint by the Election Commission, the Uttar Pradesh police on Tuesday arrested the editor of the Dainik Jagran website and charged him with violating Sections 126A and 126B of the Representation of People Act, 1951 read with Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code. So far, no action has been taken against the owners and managers of the newspaper, without whose involvement an advertisement of this kind could not have been run.
Ironically, given the way Indian media houses operate, the editor is the last person in the organisation to be consulted about material that is “carried by [the] advertising department”.
Under the Press and Registration of Books Act, the editor is technically liable for all contents published in her or his newspaper, regardless of whether it is editorial content or an advertisement. But websites are not governed by the PRB Act. Thus the editor cannot automatically be held responsible for whatever is uploaded on to a website. Indeed, since the owners have admitted the exit poll was carried by the advertising department, it is evident that the decision to run the poll was a commercial and not an editorial one. Thus, charging the editor makes no sense. The EC and police run the risk of turning him into a scapegoat while the real culprits get off scot free.
But who are the true culprits here? The question the EC and police need to ask is who paid for the exit poll to be conducted in the first place. The original sin lies there.
The Dainik Jagran report, which was hastily pulled down once The Wire drew attention to the manner in which the EC’s guidelines had been violated, offers a partial clue. The poll, it said, was conducted by ‘Resource Development International’ (RDI). Accordingly, the EC indicted the organisation and the police have also registered an FIR against it. However, at least one company bearing that name has come forward to stoutly deny any involvement in the exit poll. In an email to The Wire, Rajeev Gupta, managing director of Resource Development International India (Pvt) Ltd, had this to say: “It is categorically stated that Resource Development International (I)Pvt. Ltd and anyone on its behalf is not in any manner whatsoever connect or involved with any exit poll with regard to UP assembly election.”
Given that his company deals with issues like manpower and human resource development and has no internet history trying it to election surveys, it is more than likely that Rajeev Gupta is telling the truth. So how did Dainik Jagran end up crediting ‘Resource Development International’ with the poll? This is a question the police and the EC need to ask the owner of the newspaper.
Curiously, there is another organisation with the same initials, RDI – short for ‘Research and Development Initiative’ – that not only has a history of conducting election surveys but has links to the Bharatiya Janata Party as well. This RDI is run by the psephologist Devendra Kumar. According to a 2013 story in India Today, “The BJP has as many polling agencies as it has leaders… Devendra Kumar of Research and Development Initiative works with Vasundhara Raje and Arun Jaitley.” Kumar is also a prolific commentator and columnist. His author page at the website DailyO lists some of the articles he has written. The headlines give a fair indication of where his political sympathies lie: ‘Demonetisation will re-establish the credibility of Indian State’, ‘Modi government taking serious initiative for welfare of Dalits’, ‘Congress a bunch of snakes, vendetta in its DNA’, ‘Headley’s revelation on Ishrat Jahan exposes ‘seculars”.
Though Kumar told The Wire that his organisation had not conducted the exit poll which appeared in Dainik Jagran, he is known to be working closely with the BJP in its Uttar Pradesh election campaign. Rohini Singh, a senior editor with Economic Times, spotted him at the BJP’s headquarters in Lucknow on Tuesday:
Devendra Kumar was at the BJP press conference in Lucknow today standing behind the leaders! Says he went because he felt like it https://t.co/P1LjQHgujV
— Rohini Singh (@Rohinisgh_ET) February 14, 2017
Kumar may well be telling the truth but the fact of the matter is that the Election Commission needs to investigate which ‘RDI’ conducted the illegal exit poll and – more importantly – must establish the identity of the political party (if any) that got RDI to conduct its survey. It may emerge that the poll’s publication is a conspiracy by the BJP’s opponents, who wish to discredit the party in some way. Or perhaps the poll was prompted by the BJP itself, which sought to dispel the damaging impression that it had done badly in the first round. Only a credible investigation can establish the truth.