Rajat Sharma

Why is Congress worried about ED probe into National Herald issue?

AKB30 The Congress and BJP had a massive face-off inside Parliament on Thursday over the National Herald issue. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi described the ED interrogation and searches as part of “intimidatory tactics” and added that the party “is not afraid of Narendra Modi”. Congress leaders alleged that the ED officials have sealed that part of Herald House in Delhi, from where the newspaper was being published, but ED sources said, only the Young Indian office has been locked since nobody from the company was present.

In Rajya Sabha, Leader of the Opposition Mallikarjun Kharge asked, ‘how can the ED issue me summons when Parliament is in session?’ He alleged that the Centre is trying to stifle the voice of opposition. Commerce Minister and Leader of the House Piyush Goyal replied that the government does not interfere in the work of law enforcement authorities. Goyal added, “maybe during their (Congress) rule, that used to happen. Now if anyone does anything wrong, the agencies will do their duty. If any leader has been summoned, he must go. Law is equal for all.”

What Kharge did not reveal in Rajya Sabha was that he was not summoned by ED for interrogation. Since he was the CEO of Young Indian Ltd., the company that owns Associated Journals Ltd., he was asked by ED to come to Herald House so that a search could be carried out.

Secondly, Young Indian office was not sealed, but was locked by ED officials when they found nobody from the company present during the search that was to begin. From Parliament, Kharge went straight to Herald House, where the lock was opened and the searches went on for nearly seven hours, after which Kharge returned. ED officials showed him the documents that they seized during the search.

Outside Parliament, Rahul Gandhi told reporters: “This is an attempt at intimidation. They think that they will silence us by putting pressure. We will continue to fight against the anti-democratic acts of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. No matter what they do, we will not be intimidated and we are not scared of Narendra Modi. Let them do what they want to do. It won’t make any difference. My work is to protect the nation, its democratic ethos and maintain communal harmony. I will continue to do so.”

Rahul Gandhi has a pet dialogue – “I am not scared of Modi, Modi cannot intimidate me”- which he delivers on almost every occasion, whatever may be the issue. But I think, the manner in which Rahul Gandhi hurriedly cut short his Karnataka visit and returned to Delhi, tells a different story. Congress leaders appear to be worried and afraid in public.

I spoke to some bureaucrats, leaders and experts in Companies Act and financial issues. I sent reporters to different cities to check about the properties owned by Young Indian company, owned by Rahul and Sonia Gandhi.

I found answers to several questions. One major question is, the newspaper National Herald belonged to Congress, the company Associated Journals Ltd belonged to Congress, the party gave loan to its own company, but what was the necessity of floating another company to recover that loan?

Another question: Was National Herald in such dire financial straits that it had to take loan, at a time when it had several prime properties worth several thousand crores in different cities? Was the National Herald really not in a situation to repay Rs 90 crore loan that it had taken from Congress party?

I sent my reporters to Lucknow, Bhopal, Mumbai and Panchkula to check the status of the properties owned by National Herald. They found that the properties were worth several thousand crores of rupees.

Our reporter Anurag Amitabh found in Bhopal, how a shopping complex came up on a plot allotted to Associated Journals Ltd in 1981 in the name of National Herald. The more than an acre of prime plot was given by MP government to AJL at Rs 1 per sq ft on 30-year lease.

In 2011 when the lease was to expire, a commercial complex came up on the plot and shops were sold. The process to cancel the lease and reoccupy the property began, but National Herald and other shopkeepers went to court, where it is still under litigation.

Publication of National Herald, Navjivan and Qaumi Awaz newspapers had stopped way back in 1992. For 30 years, no newspaper was published, but AJL company continued to occupy the property which was meant for publishing newspapers.

MP minister Kailash Sarang alleged that the Congress misguided both the state government and the people. State Urban Development Minister Bhupendra Singh said, Congress violated the conditions of lease agreement and action will be taken. The role of officials involved will also be investigated, he said.

Congress MP Vivek Tankha said, there is hardly any media house which does not rent out its property built on land leased by government. “There is nothing wrong in it. National Herald is being targeted because the government wants to unnecessarily harass Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, nothing else”, he added.

It is true that state governments lease out land to media houses, which, in turn, rent out portions of their properties. There is nothing wrong in this, because publishing newspapers for profit is not easy. The media houses cover up their losses through commercial rent. But the primary condition of any such lease agreement is that the newspaper must be published and it should reach the people. In Bhopal, all the three newspapers of National Herald group ceased publication in 1992. Then the question arises: for whose benefit was the property converted into a shopping complex and sold? Where did the money that was realized go?

In Mumbai, land was allotted to National Herald at a prime location, Bandra East, near Western Expressway, in 1983 by the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Abdul Rahman Antulay. This land today is worth more than Rs 300 crore. AJL built a building on this plot, and the entire property is now worth more than Rs 500 crore. Two floors have been rented out, while the company is looking for tenants for other floors.

Land in Bandra East was allotted in the name of National Herald newspaper, but there is no sign of the daily. On the other hand, the company is getting nearly Rs 15 lakhs per month rent. This has been calculated at the rate of Rs 5,000 per sq feet, and each floor has a carpet area of 6,500 sq. feet. AJL company hired a multinational JLL Real Estate company to find out new tenants. A billboard “To Let” was posted in front of the building, but when India TV camera team reached the spot, some persons came and removed the billboard.

What will you say about a company which has a prime property in Mumbai worth Rs 500 crore, but in order to repay Rs 90 crore, all the properties of that company were handed over to another company, in which Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi own 76 per cent shares?

In Lucknow, there is the Herald House, where a big shopping complex was built, but before the shops could be sold or rented, a controversy arose. In 1938, Jawaharlal Nehru started publication of three newspapers National Herald, Navjivan and Qaumi Awaaz from Kaiserbagh locality of Lucknow. All the three newspapers ceased publications in 1999.

For the last 23 years, these newspapers have not been published. India TV reporter Ruchi Kumar visited Herald House complex, where the local administration has stopped all work. The shopping complex is now in a dilapidated state. A beer shop has been opened in the complex along with six other shops.

Our reporter spoke to shop owners. They said, they bought the shops, way back in 2007 from AJL, when Congress treasurer Motilal Vora was the chairman of the company. The shops were registered on basis of his authority letter. A few shopkeepers, who had taken shops on rent, said, they deposit their rents directly to AJL bank account. Congress leader Pramod Tiwari said, “tell me which media house is not renting out its building commercially? Publishing newspapers is expensive business, unless there are extra sources of income.”

The three newspapers ceased publication 23 years ago, but is it justified to sell shops in a complex built for publishing newspapers? The newspapers stopped publication in 1999, and the shops were sold in 2007. Who pocketed the money?

In Haryana, when Bhupinder Singh Hooda was chief minister, 3,500 sq. metre plot was leased to Associated Journals Ltd in Sector 6, Panchkula, in 2005. It is a posh location, opposite Police HQ. Not a single newspaper is being published from this building. Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar said that the government will now carry out a probe.

Let me explain how AJL properties passed on to Young Indian, owned by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. The National Herald, launched by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1938, was run by Associated Journals Ltd. From 1999 to 2008, the publications of newspapers ceased due to heavy losses. The Congress party, which was then in power at the Centre, decided to revive it. It was then found that the Congress party had given Rs 90 crore loan to AJL, which the latter could not repay. The company then sold all its shares to Young Indian company in lieu of Rs 50 lakhs. Young Indian became the owner of more than Rs 3000 crore worth properties belonging to AJL.

When questions were asked, Congress leaders gave a simple reply. It was a transaction between AJL and Young Indian, and only Motilal Vora knew about the details. Since Motilal Vora is no more, the details of this transaction are now shrouded in mystery. Congress leaders also put forth an argument that since Young India under Section 25 of Companies Act is a not-for-profit company, both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi did not benefit a rupee from it.

The question then arose: Why did Sonia and Rahul Gandhi float a company if it was not for profit? If it was a not-for-profit company, how is it now the owner of more than Rs 3,000 crore worth properties in different cities? Why benefited from this transaction? Experts say, only those who own the shares, will have control over these properties. If the control is with Young Indian company, and since Sonia and Rahul Gandhi own 76 per cent of its shares, who will benefit? This matter needs to be investigated.

Personally, I feel that the Congress, being the main political party that led the freedom struggle, and ruled India for 60 years, should not have taken part in transactions, like purchasing a company, and giving loan. This should not be the work of a political party. Now that Motilal Vora and Oscar Fernandes are no more, many questions have arisen about Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, and the Congress will have to reply to those questions.

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