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Hundreds of millions of voters in India will turn out for the nation's parliamentary elections in 2024. Image: Shutterstock



Investigating India: How Smaller, Independent News Outlets Are Digging into Politics in a Key Election Year

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In 2019, a retired navy man called Commodore Lokesh Batra approached the journalist Nitin Sethi with a trove of documents obtained through several Right to Information (RTI) requests that revealed large-scale wrongdoing in a new government scheme for political funding.

Simply put, the “electoral bonds” scheme, introduced in 2018, allowed individuals and corporate groups to donate anonymously to political parties. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government presented it as a key reform that would eliminate cash and root out corruption.

Sethi ended up doing a six-part series using these documents. It revealed how advice from the Reserve Bank of India had been disregarded in pushing through this controversial scheme, how bonds were sold illegally before elections, and exposed various government lies. The investigation first appeared in Huffington Post India and was published in partnership with multiple newsrooms in multiple languages, through a fledgling group called The Reporters’ Collective.

In February 2024, India’s Supreme Court struck down the scheme, and in March ordered that all transactions made through it be revealed to the public. When the first tranche of newly available data with names of donors and amounts donated emerged, newsrooms plunged into a fast and furious news cycle.

Sethi, the founder-editor of the seven-member newsroom of The Reporters’ Collective, was up with his colleagues all night, sifting through the reams of data. Over the next 48 hours, they produced more than a dozen stories that described how companies had donated sums far larger than their declared profits, and that one of the highest individual donors was linked to India’s top conglomerate. “It’s been fairly hectic, I would say, but it’s also the adrenaline rush of years of work turning into something,” Sethi says.

‘Enormous Pressure’

Reportage on political funding, in light of the electoral bond disclosures, is dominating newsrooms ahead of the country’s key parliamentary vote in 2024. Between April 19 and June 1, hundreds of millions of Indians will go to polls to decide whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party, the BJP, will remain in power for a third consecutive term.

India has nearly 21,000 registered newspaper titles and almost 400 news channels, in multiple languages. But because of widespread media capture among legacy news outlets, recently the most probing stories have emerged from small digital newsrooms. Outlets such as The Reporters’ Collective, Newslaundry, Scroll, The Quint, and The News Minute have been finding ways to do the most challenging, impactful reporting.

“Big media is under enormous government pressure because the government of India is one of their biggest advertisers,” explains Kunal Majumder, India’s representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “The business model itself is so dependent on ad money either directly through government or indirectly through corporations.” The other factor is the regulatory framework. “All the big newspapers and news channels need licenses that have to be regularly renewed,” he adds. “Digital media is less impacted because there is no such regulatory framework at this point.”

The Reporters’ Collective puts out, on average, two stories a month. “Some of the larger national dailies and legacy newspapers who have the capacities and resources have stopped holding the union government accountable,” says Sethi. “We want to focus on what we like to call holding the powerful accountable, rather than looking at only the victims of bad governance.”

As a result, it has published exposés on coal auction irregularities, environmental violations, and COVID mismanagement. In partnership with regional outlets, The Reporters’ Collective also publishes its stories in several Indian languages including Hindi, Tamil, and Odia. This ensures a larger readership while allowing regional publications access to solid reporting outside their states.

The Reporters Collective

Journalists Furquan Ameen, Shreegireesh Jalihal, and Tapasya (left to right) in The Reporters’ Collective newsroom. Image: Courtesy of The Reporters’ Collective

Collaborating for Greater Impact

Collaborations are another way that independent newsrooms are trying to punch above their weight. Most recently, Newslaundry, The News Minute, and Scroll have joined up to produce Project Electoral Bond.

“Once it became clear that the electoral bond data would soon be public, we began to prepare for it,” recalls Supriya Sharma, executive editor of Scroll. “But it struck me that not only is the volume likely to be huge and overwhelming, our small team would essentially be duplicating the work that other small teams would be doing. I thought it would be faster to look through the data if small newsrooms got together and split up the list.”

The three newsrooms came together, along with a bunch of independent journalists. So far, they have reported on how seven pharmaceutical companies that failed drug quality tests bought bonds and how one group bought Rs 600 crores (about US$72 million) worth of bonds while it was under investigation.

Even before this data came out, in February a combined investigation from Newslaundry and The News Minute revealed a troubling pattern: companies that faced action from law enforcement agencies promptly donated large sums of money to the ruling party (these agencies are controlled by the ruling party in government). According to the investigation, at least 30 companies that donated more than Rs 330 crores (about US$39.5 million) to the BJP between 2018 and 2023 faced action from central agencies over the same period. Companies that had donated previously, and then did not, donated again after they were raided. Others often bumped up their donation amounts following a raid.

Prateek Goyal reporting from the conflict-prone Naxalite area of Gadchiroli

Newslaundry journalist Prateek Goyal (right) conducting an interview. Image: Courtesy of Newslaundry

After the story was published, an opposition leader held a press conference in Delhi and other outlets started following up. “There was quite a furor about our revelations,” notes Prateek Goyal, assistant editor at Newslaundry, who led the reporting.

It took almost three months to complete the four-part series. “Of course, a single reporter can do a story like this, but it’s always better to have a team because it is very time-consuming and you are in for a long haul,” Goyal explains. “Sifting through all the documents, doing calculations, you simply cannot make any mistakes. Sometimes you go too deep into it, and need someone with a different perspective to step in.”

The investigation involved tracking when a company was raided against when they made a donation to the ruling party. “All political parties benefited, but the BJP received vastly more than any of the others,” Goyal says.

The funding data was publicly available — the Election Commission of India regularly publishes information on the donations parties receive and their expenditure reports. However, no one had really dug deep into this before. At The Reporters’ Collective too, stories often emerge like this. “There is a lot of public documentation, which I think people miss out on, both which provides you with suggestions of where to look and what questions to ask and sometimes it even provides you with complete stories,” says Sethi. He added that filing right to information requests was also part of their toolkit.

At Boom, a fact-checking-focused online outlet, one investigation was sparked by analyzing the Facebook ad library. It revealed how a shadowy pro-BJP page had spent Rs 2 crore (US$240,000) over four months on misleading and divisive ads targeting minorities and opposition leaders.

Boom journalists are working this season to unravel the knotty relationship between politics, money, technology, and social media. “This is the first time that the election is being practically fought on social media platforms. Earlier it was WhatsApp, but now it’s a lot more about YouTube and Instagram,” explains Adrija Bose, a senior editor at Boom, who also leads Decode, the section that looks at society and technology.

Boom’s Viral For Votes series has started by looking at how influencers are being roped in for election campaigning or showcasing a party’s achievements. An upcoming feature examines how a 12-year-old boy has been campaigning for a powerful regional leader. “It’s not just one political party, but every political party is doing it,” Bose says. The problem is that most creators don’t reveal these affiliations to their audiences, and tracking the money trail is tricky.

Political parties are also increasingly using artificial intelligence in their campaigns, as Boom has reported. This includes voice cloning and face swapping. “We want to capture how political parties will be using AI and how they are getting away with not labeling them [as AI],” Bose says. This also means reporting on the often opaque and inconsistent policies of tech giants.

Giving Voice to Marginalized Communities

Smaller newsrooms are also shining a light on unseen and oppressed caste perspectives. Meena Kotwal, a first-generation learner from a Dalit family, started The Mooknayak in 2021 to tell stories about marginalized groups — Dalits and Adivasis. “These voices and these stories do not find a space in the mainstream media,” says Raja, a journalist with The Mooknayak. (Raja only goes by one name.)

The 16-member team publishes in English and Hindi. “When Dalits appear in the news, it’s either as the victim of a gruesome crime or if there is some big political development.”

The Mooknayak’s coverage this year will focus on the issues of marginalized women and “reserved” constituencies — those parliamentary seats set aside for marginalized candidates. “What are the problems of the people here? How have the funds for these constituencies been used? What has happened in the past five years here since the previous election?” Raja says, reeling off a series of questions to cover. The site has also been republishing stories by Newslaundry.

The challenges of doing such work are manifold: trolling, police action, defamation cases, and more. Newslaundry was subjected to income tax “surveys” twice, while editors at The Wire and Scroll have faced First Information Reports (the start of a police investigation).

Meena Kotwal, founding editor of The Mooknayak at work in her cabin in the publication's Delhi newsroom

Meena Kotwal, founding editor of The Mooknayak, at work in the publication’s Delhi newsroom. Image: Courtesy of The Mooknayak

Reports have also emerged that the BJP government has hacked and spied on journalists. Regional parties too, have attacked journalistic freedom. Mafias or criminal gangs that find their interests threatened have also assaulted reporters.

“Investigative journalism in India is becoming nearly impossible because both state and non-state actors are growingly intolerant towards press freedom,” says Majumder of the CPJ. India slipped to 161 out of 180 countries in last year’s Press Freedom Index, down from 150 in 2022.

The more practical challenge is resources. The Mooknayak depends on crowdfunding, fellowships, and grants to fund its work. Newslaundry and The News Minute have subscription options; Scroll is free to read, but has a membership option with added features; and The Wire is largely dependent on donations.

“Investigative work takes more time and money than regular reporting,” explains Sharma, of Scroll. “This obviously makes it hard for small newsrooms that are facing financial pressures to carve out time and space for such work. But despite this, you’d see that the most hard-hitting journalism is coming out of small and independent newsrooms. If readers value journalism done in the public interest, they should pay for it.”

Bhavya Dore, independent journalistBhavya Dore is a journalist based in Hyderabad. She has written for Caravan, Quartz, Wired, the Guardian, and the BBC, and focuses on criminal and social justice. She has been a Kim Wall grantee at the IWMF. You can see the last story she reported for GIJN, on investigating the COVID-19 pandemic in India, here.  

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