The Congress’s parliamentary candidate in Idukki, Kerala, faces 203 criminal cases, 193 of them for calling a strike in protest against the murder of two Youth Congress workers in February. Dean Kuriakose is required by a 2018 Supreme Court ruling to publicise these cases through newspaper and TV advertisements that must run on at least three days.

Had he put the ad in a leading Malayalam newspaper, he would have had to cough up over Rs one crore, going by today’s rates. That would have resulted in his disqualification for exceeding the election expenditure limit of Rs 70 lakh.

Luckily for Kuriakose, his party owns a newspaper called Veekshanam as well as the Jaihind TV channel which reportedly charged him a grand total of Rs 2.4 lakh for the ads.

“We published the ad, running into eight pages, on April 17, 18 and 19 in our Idukki edition,” said Anil George, head of the newspaper’s advertisement department. “We had to give him a heavy discount as he is our party candidate. We will know the full amount after preparing the bill. It will take time.”

Kuriakose also advertised, again at a heavy discount, in Chandrika newspaper, owned by the Indian Union Muslim League, an ally of the Congress party, and Suprabhatham, considered favourable to the Muslim League.

Kuriakose is far from alone. Many candidates in Kerala have similarly benefited from using party mouthpieces to declare their criminal records. Almost all of the state’s political groups either own Malayalam newspapers or TV channels, or can rely on “supportive” media platforms.

K Surendran, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate in Pathanamthitta who has been arraigned in 242 cases, took out a four-page ad in the party organ Janmabhoomi on April 18, 19 and 20, and telecast a 60-second ad on Janam TV channel, known for its proximity to the Sangh Parivar.

“Going by our standard rate, the cost of the ads would have been around Rs 40 lakh,” said Sarath Chandran, head of the newspaper’s advertisement division. “But we have not prepared the receipt yet. We will take a call after discussing the matter with the party leadership.”

A Janam official said the channel will not give Surendran a discount since the bill is just Rs 36,000. “It is too small an amount,” said the official who would only speak on the condition of anonymity. “He doesn’t need discount on that.”

Most of Surendran’s 242 cases are related to last year’s violent agitation by the Sangh Parivar against the Supreme Court’s order allowing menstruating-age women to pray inside the Sabarimala temple.

The ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) ran a two-page ad in its mouthpiece Deshabhimani on April 19, 20 and 21, detailing the criminal records of eight of its candidates. “The ads was issued by the state committee of the party,” said a senior executive at the paper’s advertisement department who asked not to be identified. “We have not prepared the receipt yet. We will do it only after the polls.”

Advertising professionals said some of Kerala’s candidates required to declare their criminal records would have found it difficult to keep to the Rs 70 lakh expenditure cap if not for their party mouthpieces.

“If not for Veekshanam and Janmabhoomi, Kuriakose and Surendran would have had to spend more than Rs 70 lakh each on the ads given the market rates,” said a leading advertising executive who wished to remain anonymous. “They would have exceeded the expenditure cap, resulting in their disqualification.”

No relief

Political parties had been asking for the cost of ads declaring a candidate’s criminal record to be excluded from their poll expenses and instead added to the party’s expenditure account, which has no limit. But the Election Commission of India recently turned down the proposal.

The commission has been implementing the Supreme Court’s ruling, delivered in September 2018, since late last year’s Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram.

Currently, the expenditure cap for an Assembly candidate is Rs 28 lakh and for a Lok Sabha candidate Rs 70 lakh.

Any candidate found violating the guidelines and their parties could be charged with contempt of court.

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