Even as the world at large holds on to their jobs for dear life, The Times of India very strangely has been going rah-rah over the last few days. Bearing the brunt of this feel-good onslaught are readers like your hapless columnist. Every morning as I sip my morning cuppa, I am subjected to gangbuster gung-ho journalese. That India is facing a downturn is now a reality and the government, which was in denial mode for ever so long, has also begun to come to terms with this fact. Industrial production and exports are taking a massive hit and people are being laid off. Yet, only a day after the interim budget turned out to be a flop show, TOI decided to talk up sentiment, reminiscent of former finance minister P Chidambaram, who was busy talking up the markets during the adversity of a foreign institutional pullout, leading to a flight of capital from this country.
On February 18, TOI pulled out all stops, grasping at straws from the vote on account. Coming, it screamed, Rs 6,000 crore stimulus – Elections will ensure flow of money right down to the grassroots. This was supported by a graphic, which broke down for the readers the whys and wherefores of the Rs 6,000 crore spend. It also gave a laundry list of the beneficiaries of this poll largesse. Riding shotgun on the stagecoach was a business page story, which provided details of political parties rushing to ad agencies for campaigns.
February 20 saw a banner headline on page 1. Key Industries show signs of turnaround – Rural demand shoring up economy: Govt, said one side of the feel-good phalanx. The other provided details from a survey, which went on to suggest that India would see the highest salary hikes by an average 8.2 per cent in Asia Pacific. The first story quoted Cabinet Secretary KM Chandrasekhar, the second was attributed to HR consultancy firm Hewitt.
The circle was completed on February 21, when TOI asked readers the question: Slowdown? New phone users surge 15 million in January. The story said, “In another indicator that the economic gloom may be lifting in India, the telecom sector registered its sharpest monthly growth ever in terms of number of new subscribers added. Fact? Yes, as far as the numbers are concerned. But does one swallow a summer make? No.
The reality is that this unprecedented net accretive growth has come on the back of Reliance Communications launching its GSM service. Reliance Communications has reportedly added five million subscribers in January, thanks to its aggressive talk time worth Rs 900 for 90 days offer. This, in turn, meant that Reliance GSM was offering Rs 10 free talk time to subscribers per day for 90 days. Further, there was aggressive pricing on STD rates as well. So, while we have been logging excellent numbers in the vicinity of 8-10 million every month in the recent past, the Reliance Communication 90-day offer has obviously gained traction and boosted the numbers. Such numbers will definitely last three months because of the length of the trial period. It is only after that we will get to know how many new customers are added and how many of these were acquired from rival telcos? Ergo – 15 million minus 10 million equals 5 million, the same as the previous month. When Reliance launched its CDMA service, it offered attractive pricing and changed the telecom landscape in the country.
Just when you thought – hey, what is going on here? Has TOI become the official spokesperson of the Government of India? It delivered a tour de force. ‘CAG indicts government’s flagship programmes’ was the lead penned by Pradeep Thakur and it blew to smithereens the UPA Government’s claims. This was a delectable twist in the tale. The CAG report blasted the Government’s tall claims that over Rs 51,000 crore was allocated for welfare schemes in 2007-08. This amount, according to CAG, was transferred to NGOs and autonomous bodies, and the Government had no clue about the expenditure. Rival political parties made capital of this disclosure with the BJP and the Left going to town. My faith in TOI as a news organisation was restored somewhat with this story after their trumpeting the UPA’s poll bugle for a week.
Just as the CAG had railed against the NREGA sometime ago, the timing of this leak could not have come at a more inopportune moment for the UPA. Meanwhile, election largesse from the UPA Government continues. And the beneficiaries are media entities like The Times of India. On Tuesday, there was a half-page colour advertisement from the Delhi State Department of Education, another half-page colour advert from the Department of Power and Non-Conventional Energy Sources, Government of West Bengal, a full-page from the Union Ministry of Steel, 30x5 colour ad from the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, half-page colour advert from Bharat Nirman, another half-page from the Ministry of Tourism celebrating Incredible India, yet another full-page from the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, a large colour advert from the Ministry of HRD, another 20x6 black and white from Ministry of Textiles, another half-page from the HRD Ministry, one more full-page from Mayawati on her achievements in the power sector, a full-page from the National Disaster Management Authority, full-page from DAVP on Central Excise Day, and finally, a full-page from the Ministry of Coal. Wow, what a line-up! Clearly providing sustenance to beleaguered media companies.
In column space terms, Tuesday’s Delhi edition of TOI had nine and a half pages of advertising solely from the Union and State Governments. That is 9.5 pages out of the 32-page main edition. All in a day’s work. Nature, they say, abhors a vacuum. And with corporate sector advertising facing an acute crunch, who better than the Government to pump prime media company margins.
My only contention is that I hope there was no connection between TOI’s rah-rah stories and the Government’s largesse. Hope not!
(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist who started his career with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi - with The Indian Express, Illustrated Weekly, Sunday Observer, Dalal Street Journal, Plus Channel where he ran India's first morning business show on Doordarshan, The Times of India Group, Business India, Hindustan Times and Reliance Big Entertainment. Starting his career as a cricket writer, he graduated to becoming a man for all seasons under Pritish Nandy, who he considers as the premier influence on his career. Since he studied economics at Calcutta University, Bamzai decided in 1993 to branch out into business and financial journalism. Familiar with all three media, he is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir. The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not necessarily those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)