By publishing the contents of an exit poll for the first phase of elections in Uttar Pradesh – which says the BJP is likely to repeat its 2014 Lok Sabha performance – Dainik Jagran, the largest read newspaper in India, has predictably kicked up a political storm. What could be the motivation for Jagran owners to take such a huge risk as to violate the written law, which makes them liable to criminal prosecution, as stated by former chief election commissioner N. Gopalaswami?
The answer to this question must necessarily be in the realm of speculation at present but it may still be worth attempting it. One thing is very clear – the owners of Dainik Jagran have taken this risk fully cognisant of the legal consequences. They have possibly consulted the best lawyers and are probably waiting for the election commission to initiate action.
What is also apparent is Dainik Jagran – known to be unabashedly pro-Modi – has greatly helped the BJP by publishing the exit poll for western UP illegally and prematurely, thus creating a positive ‘hawa’ for Narendra Modi in the remaining phases of the election in central and eastern UP. One must bear in mind that the newspaper has the largest readership – over 45 million – and much of it is concentrated in eastern and central UP. So Dainik Jagran in many ways is best placed to influence the remaining phases of polling in UP. Also, the exit poll comes the wake of an emerging consensus that the BJP is fighting with its back to the wall in UP, with its traditional voters such as Jats and Banias deserting it to a significant extent.
Is the exit poll a favour to Amit Shah and Modi at a critical juncture? Most political observers believe that the parties that gain momentum in the initial phase of polling get an advantage in the subsequent phases, as seen in Bihar. By publishing the exit poll, was Dainik Jagran attempting to neutralise the possible momentum UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav or Mayawati may get from the western UP sentiment, which seemed to be clearly going against the BJP? These are all imponderables which the Election Commission (EC), national opposition parties and the media will examine in the days and weeks ahead.
It is also clear that Dainik Jagran has not taken such a big risk for just a few extra crores that it may have been offered. The owners are possibly playing for bigger stakes. It is more for power, than money. The newspaper group has clearly aligned with Modi’s agenda over the last three years. Of course, this is not unusual as newspapers are known to endorse the ruling party or the opposition agenda from time to time. Additionally, the Jagran owners have had a bitter feud with Yadav in recent years. In 2014, the newspaper published a tendentious report accusing Yadav of spending over Rs 750 crore during the annual festival organised by the Yadav family in their village in Saifai. Yadav hit back in an open press conference, charging the Jagran owners with launching motivated attacks against his government simply because one of the Jagran patriarchs, Mahender Mohan Gupta, did not get an extension of his Rajya Sabha membership granted under the Samajwadi Party quota. It was also established later that the total money spent by the Yadav family would have been only a fraction of what Dainik Jagran had accused it of having spent. Common sense would have suggested that however extravagant you are in a village mahotsav, it is near impossible to spend Rs 750 crore. Evidently, the motivation behind publishing the story was something else.
Similarly, the motivation behind publishing the exit poll can also be traced to the complex power games that are played by powerful newspaper owners in politically influential states like UP. The stakes become even higher when the elections in the state come to have a decisive bearing on how the Modi government will survive until 2019. Indeed, the UP elections will have a bearing on how Modi and Shah wield power within the BJP. It will also decide who gets to appoint India’s next president later this year, for which UP delivers the maximum electoral college votes. If you understand these dynamics, you would also begin to understand why the owners of Dainik Jagran have consciously chosen to violate the law of the land and have opened themselves to criminal prosecution by the EC.
Postscript: The poll results were taken down from the Dainik Jagran website as of 11:30 am. But a violation once committed cannot be undone. Withdrawing now is a clever ploy as the word is out and that is the primary aim to influence voters.
—As published in The Wire