Congress in the dock

The EC has been expending its energies trying to put an end to the menace of ‘paid news’ during elections. They needn’t worry any longer. The AICC has come up with a perfect way out, which it claims is not only legal but operates by appointment to the owners of the Congress party.

Congress in the dock

If the old Chinese saying about the finger pointing to the moon and the idiot pointing to the finger ever needed validation, it was provided by the Indian political class, cutting across parties. Last Thursday, the Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy held a press conference about certain curious developments involving the Congress Party, the Associated Journals Limited which once published the now-defunct National Herald, and a newly-formed not-for-profit company Young Indians controlled by members of the Gandhi family. Swamy levelled potentially serious allegations of illegality against all three entities. A functionary in Rahul Gandhi’s ‘office’ dismissed the charges as bogus and threatened Swamy with legal action (presumably defamation) if he persisted with his campaign. As if on cue, various Congress leaders sprang out of the woodwork and questioned Swamy’s motives and credentials. On TV, I heard Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tiwari suggest that Swamy expend his energies looking at the businesses of BJP President Nitin Gadkari who, by the way, has been alleging

a media conspiracy to discredit him and his Purti group.

For the sake of argument let us assume that Swamy is a dodgy politician who in the past has hurled many charges against Sonia Gandhi. Certainly, there are grounds to believe that Swamy has cried ‘wolf’ on too many occasions in the past. This probably explains why there was initially a hesitation both among the media and the political class to take his claims seriously. At the same time, Swamy has not been a consistent maverick. His Janata Party may well be just a letterhead but there is also no denying that it was his tenacity plus a great deal of relentless excavation of facts that led to the 2-G scandal getting the attention of the Supreme Court. Swamy has indeed miscued at times but there is no reason to believe that he has lost the right to make a serious intervention. And his intervention last Friday was indeed very serious.

It was grave enough for two things to happen. First, after a show of bravado in the late hours of Thursday, Rahul Gandhi’s so-called office quietly dropped all suggestions of slapping Swamy with a defamation case. Presumably, someone had alerted the boy scouts of the serious dangers of all three Gandhi shareholders of Young Indian, not to mention Motilal Vora and Sam Pitroda, being dragged before some Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court and subjected to insolent questioning under oath. On Friday, at the AICC briefing, party spokesman P.C. Chacko said that “If Swamy has the guts he should sue Rahul and Sonia Gandhi”.

Secondly, again presumably on legal advice, the AICC General Secretary Janardhan Dwivedi was compelled to admit that it had indeed given an interest-free loan of Rs 90 crore to Associated Journals Ltd. According to the report in Hindu, Associated Journals, he added, was “a companion organisation of the Congress, and it is the party’s duty to revive the institution and the newspapers under it.”

It is best left to the Election Commission and the judiciary to determine the legal status of a “companion organisation” and to assess the validity of the AICC claim that the Representation of People Act has “strict accounting rules about inflows but there is nothing on how you spend it.” But the Congress’ interpretation of statutes opens up fascinating possibilities. Does it, for example, mean that it would be perfectly in order for the BJP to show an equal measure of generosity towards the “social entrepreneurship” ventures of its beleaguered President? Alternatively, will the Congress nod in approval if the BJP decided to bankroll RSS initiatives like the Vanvasi Kalyan ashrams and the Saraswati Shishu Mandirs? In value terms these bodies could well qualify as “companion organisations”.

Dwivedi has suggested that there is no bar on political parties spending their income in any manner they deem fit. The AICC once chose to loan-it seems more like a donation-Rs 90 crore to the publishers of National Herald. What prevents it from extending generous loans of varying sums to other media organisations that choose to apply for “companion” status? The EC has been expending its energies trying to put an end to the menace of ‘paid news’ during elections. They needn’t worry any longer. The AICC has come up with a perfect way out, which it claims is not only legal but operates by appointment to the owners of the Congress Party.

Why restrict the potential benefits to the media? The AICC-Associated Journal-Young Indian precedent has shown the way for anyone with a measure of dirty money to whitewash it. The method is simple: pay the cash to a political party and, by arrangement, ensure the party extends a zero-interest loan (which can subsequently be written off) to a nominated individual or company. It is so simple that I don’t know why politicians bother with shell companies and fictitious addresses. The problem with Narendra Modi is that he is a rustic, out of his depth in the world of the bent and the beautiful. He did not know of the Congress’ ‘companion’ scheme whereby it takes only a Rs 50 lakh investment in a company that has had its liabilities met by the AICC to yield a commercial property on Bahadurshah Zafar Marg in Delhi many value at Rs 500 crore. As the crafty and politically correct copywriter may have said: “Congress ka haath, companion ke saath”.

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