Dainik Jagran, the mammoth Hindi daily which claims that its “markets control the political destiny of the largest democracy in the world”, is in trouble. Shortly after Uttar Pradesh went into the first phase of Assembly elections on Saturday, the media outlet published an exit poll showing the Bharatiya Janata Party as the front-runner for the polls.

It brought on the wrath of the Election Commission, which pointed out that the publication of opinion polls at this stage went against its guidelines and ordered that First Information Reports be filed. The media company now faces charges under Section 126A of the Representation of the People Act (which prohibits the publication of “election matter”, or material which could shape the course of the polls, during the time period specified by the Election Commission). It has also been booked under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code (disobeying the orders of a public servant).

On Monday, the Uttar Pradesh police raided the houses of several senior editors and arrested Shekhar Tripathi, editor of Jagran.com, the daily’s English language website. Tripathi was later granted bail.

In its defence, the media group has said that the poll did not appear in the print edition, that it was carried by the advertising department on the website, that the mistake was soon corrected and the content taken off.

In the investigations that follow, it may be asked how responsibility was apportioned within the company, and how content was shared between the web and print editions. Why, for instance, do the lines of responsibility stop with the web editors instead of reaching the top management? And were there enough markers to distinguish the purported advertorial from editorial content?

This is not the first time, however, that Dainik Jagran has been accused of acting for or against political interests. It is a charge that few newspapers operating in the political hothouse of UP have been able to escape.

‘Free voice of the people’

The first edition of Dainik Jagran was published in Jhansi in 1942. According to the company website, the paper was formed in the crucible of the Quit India movement. Founder and freedom fighter Puran Chandra Gupta wanted to “create a newspaper that would reflect the free voice of the people”. Sevanthi Ninan, in her book, Headlines From the Heartland: Reinventing the Hindi Public Sphere, notes, “Jagran had from its inception been associated with the right-wing, pro-Hindutva ideology.”

Jagran was very much a paper of the heartland. From its first edition in Jhansi, the paper expanded to Kanpur in 1947, and then to Rewa and Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh the 1950s. But Uttar Pradesh remained a stronghold, as the newspaper went on to launch editions in Gorakhpur, Varanasi, Allahabad and Lucknow, then Meerut, Agra and Bareilly before reaching Delhi in 1990. It then branched into the smaller towns of Uttar Pradesh as well as neighbouring states.

In the last 20 years or so, the paper has become a major presence in the Hindi media landscape, regularly topping the charts for circulation. It was a period in which the Hindi media grew intensely localised, spreading into villages and mohallas. It also coincided with major political changes in the heartland.

The 1990s saw the consolidation of the Hindu vote under the aegis of the Bharatiya Janata Party. It also saw the rise of caste-based mobilisation and the rise of new political elites from the Other Backward Classes and Dalits. Ninan notes how this new breed of politicians clashed with the old guard of journalists, mostly drawn from Hindu upper castes. Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati, for instance, lashed out against “manuwadi” journalists in UP.

After initial clashes between newspapers and the new parties, the Hindi print media seems to have adapted, forging links with the fresh crop of political masters. Political scientists have noted how mass-produced newspapers with vast commercial interests to protect will conform more closely to the reigning state ideology and power structures. Jagran seemed to fit the pattern.

Political Jagran

In the 1990s, Narendra Mohan Gupta, who had taken over from his father, Puran Chandra Gupta, was a member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha, nominated by the BJP and apparently drawn into politics by party veteran LK Advani.

During this time, the newspaper was involved in conflicts with the emerging parties. In 1994, Dainik Jagran and Amar Ujala became the target of the “Halla Bol (raise your voice)” campaign, led by the Samajwadi Party, then ruling the state. While party workers went on rallies, the Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav called for a boycott of the two papers for their allegedly anti-reservation stance.

The next year, the paper came into conflict with the Bahujan Samaj Party. On December 7, 1995, the Dainik Jagran published an interview with a former party member who claimed Mayawati was the mother of a 12-year-old child born out of wedlock. Once again, party workers mobbed the newspaper offices in Lucknow.

Members of the Editors’ Guild recall that it had sent a team to investigate charges that the paper had violated journalistic norms and published scurrilous material. Before the team could reach, however, the matter had already ended in an out of court settlement.

In 2004, Mayawati planned legal action against Dainik Jagran once again for publishing “derogatory and casteist” headlines. Members of her party had reportedly filed FIRs against the editor in chief and other employees under the Schedule Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Then, too, the paper had pleaded accidental error.

The Dainik Jagran travelled a long way in the course of a decade, however, and by 2006, it had made common cause with the powerful Samajwadi Party, which had established its presence in the political landscape of UP. The next chairman, Mahendra Mohan Gupta was a Rajya Sabha MP from the Samajwadi Party.

Mixing business with business

But the party never lost its saffron associations. Veteran journalist Govind Pant Raju points out that one of the first interviews that Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave after coming to power went to Dainik Jagran. Some media watchers have also pointed out that the paper downplayed the Dadri beef lynching of September 2015, in which BJP workers were implicated.

According to Raju, the company’s business interests had spread from newspapers to cement and real estate, among other things. To protect its empire, the Jagran group had warmed to the Samajwadi Party and then found it could profit more with the BJP, Raju said.

But most dailies in Uttar Pradesh have been accused of mixing business with business. Before the UP elections of 2012, the Election Commission had disqualified a member of the legislative assembly from the Rashtriya Parivartan Dal for getting paid news published in two Hindi dailies – Dainik Jagran and Amar Ujala. Indeed, that year, the election watchdog confirmed 97 cases of paid news in UP.

This year, too, Raju says, various newspapers have made their political leanings clear through editorials and news favouring one party or the other. The opinion poll is only the most egregious manifestation of a sickly political economy in the heartland, where media houses can no longer keep a distance from parties.