Last week, India's Election Commission (EC) warned the country's media houses against telecasting or publishing exit polls "by showing them as opinion polls".

The announcement came after English-language channel NDTV aired a survey showing nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies grabbing more than 272 of the 543 parliamentary seats in India's nine-phase national elections. The elections will end on May 12.

"In order to maintain level playing field and to ensure free and fair elections, the Commission advises all print and electronic media not to resort to the type of practise as mentioned... which for all practical purpose mean publication of exit poll while claiming that the same is only an opinion poll," the EC said in its statement.

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NDTV's survey was preceded by an interview with BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi on a Hindi channel, India TV. The interview drew the ire of critics, who claimed that India TV was biased in favour of the BJP. The TV station's director of news resigned the following day.

India's ruling Congress party has sought stern action against what it alleged was "paid news" and a violation of the Election Commission's guidelines.

"The phenomenon of paid news, without hyperbole, has resulted in an insidious subversion of the most fundamental of democratic ideals: the purity of the vote," Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a journalist and author, told Al Jazeera. 

"The autonomy of the media is meant to facilitate greater accountability of public personalities and reduce corruption. But when the media itself indulges in corrupt practises, especially during election campaigns, it seriously undermines the processes and structures that are meant to uphold and strengthen democracy," he said.

Costliest polls

According to various estimates, political parties in the world's largest democracy are pumping about $5bn into vigorous campaigns to lure 814 million voters - a sum second only to the 2012 US presidential polls, in which more than $6bn was spent.

According to the New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies, which follows the election spending, a whopping $4.9bn (Rs 30,000 crore) is being spent on the elections, making it by far the most expensive electoral exercise in India's history.

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Advertising and media groups, the consumer goods sector and manufacturers of party flags and other campaign paraphernalia are benefiting from the huge spending, which is boosting India's struggling economy.

In addition to proposing that "paid news" be made an electoral offence, the Election Commission has also monitored candidates' expenditures. There are caps on how much candidates can spend on campaigning, and the election body has also made it mandatory for political parties and individual candidates to track their expenses on advertising in social media, which will be accounted for in the candidates' total expenditure.

Thakurta argues that much of paid news is, however, far less overt.

"Subtle and not-so-subtle attempts are made to 'commission' journalists to write articles that favour a particular candidate or discredit his opponent. In the absence of real investigative powers with the Press Council of India (PCI), including powers to conduct search and seizure operations, it is extremely difficult (and often impossible) to track illegal transactions in cash or kind," said Thakurta, who was one of the members of a sub-committee formed by the PCI in 2009 to examine the paid news phenomenon.

Media benefits

Campaign advertisements in TV, print, radio, and on the internet could see $800m pumped into the advertising sector during India's election season, according to a report by the country's largest local media agency, Madison Media.

"One of the major reason for 17 percent growth [in advertising sector] is [ongoing] Lok Sabha elections followed by five state elections [later]," said Sam Balsara, the chairman and managing director of Madison Media, which has been working with the BJP to help the party with media planning and buying for their campaign.

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"Besides, advertisement campaign on television will fuel rate hike, regional dailies will continue to grow, and phase three roll out of [FM] radio is expected to attract new local advertisers," added Balsara.

The Communist Party of India (CPI) recently wrote to the Chief Election Commissioner to ban opinion polls, which it called "paid news", after an undercover operation conducted by a news channel exposed the manipulation of numbers by opinion poll firms.

In the past few years, there have been numerous cases involving politicians and corporations spending big money for favourable press coverage.

Election guidelines allow candidates to spend up to $116,102 (Rs 70 lakh) on campaigns, but the actual cost is thought to be much higher than the approved sum. To assure voters' support, Indian politicians often bribe voters with cash payouts rolled in newspapers, mobile phone recharges or sometimes alcohol.

Election authorities have reportedly seized about $32m from politicians in the past three years during election-related raids.

Last month, Election Commissioner HS Brahma said the big money involved in polls is creating an uneven playing field. "The biggest challenge to all of us today is the nexus between the politicians and crime - and secondly, the money power," he said.

Corporate donations to politicians is not a new phenomenon. "This is a common practice. It is a quid pro quo deal," said Anil Verma of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), which monitors election-related activities.

In the past eight years, businesses have donated a total of $62m (Rs 378 crore), constituting 87 percent of political parties' contributions from known sources, according to an ADR report.

"Also for contributions below $332 (Rs 20,000), the source does not have to be disclosed to tax authorities," Verma said. "This limit should be reduced so that source of any contribution is reflected in the candidate's affidavit to the election commission."

He said corporate funding to politicians is a common practice around the world. "But what we are saying is it should be transparent. If it's opaque, there will be obviously doubts."

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Source: Al Jazeera