The Bluff, The Bluster & The Lies

Even IT Dept has valued AJL properties at approx Rs 350 cr, an order under challenge! But power of propaganda is such that imaginary & false figure of Rs 2000 cr is stuck irrevocably in public memory

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi outside ED office on Monday
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi outside ED office on Monday
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Zafar Agha

The Government, a section of the media and central agencies have been making a series of allegations involving National Herald, its publisher The Associated Journals Ltd. and the holding company Young Indian. The allegations are repeated so brazenly, so often and with such confidence by BJP spokespersons on TV channels that one wonders if an investigation is even necessary.

Indeed, the Government of India has all the facts, all the annual filings and financial statements of both AJL and Young Indian. It tracks or at least can potentially track all transactions. But despite the allegations, curiously, there is no FIR against anyone yet–not against AJL, not against Young Indian, not against Sonia Gandhi and not against Rahul Gandhi or any other shareholder or director of AJL or Young Indian either.

Selective leaks from the Government and central agencies this week in the media sought to malign Congress leaders Sonia and Rahul Gandhi on three baseless points. Even as Congress MP Rahul Gandhi was summoned by the Enforcement Directorate to answer questions, BJP spokespersons and the BJP-friendly media worked overtime to allege the following:

1. Young Indian, a charitable company, has somehow taken over the properties of The Associated Journals Limited, founded in 1937

2. That Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi, all of them shareholders of Young Indian (there are others), now own AJL properties worth Rs 2000 crores

3. ED is investigating illegal transfer of funds from AJL to Young Indian and probable money laundering.

Sufficient confusion was also created on the surrender of the original registration for Income Tax exemption in 2016 by Young Indian, subsequent to amendments in the Income Tax Act brought in specifically by the BJP Government in 2015. Young Indian surrendered the registration because it did not have significant surpluses at the time to do any charity.

The massive security arrangements in Delhi, denying permission to Congress workers to take out a peaceful procession, restraining and arresting Congress leaders, manhandling them etc. culminating in the police storming into the Congress Headquarters on Wednesday, were clearly orchestrated to create a hype over the controversy.

It is therefore imperative to state categorically that

1. The Associated Journals Ltd continues to be in possession of all its properties. Young Indian neither owns nor controls AJL’s properties.

2. Contrary to the fake narrative being spread deliberately by BJP that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is a shareholder/director of Young Indian, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is neither a shareholder nor a director in Young Indian or The Associated Journals Limited.

3. No shareholder or director of Young Indian has taken a paisa from AJL or Young Indian by way of salary, rent, expenses, allowances, sitting fees, dividend, transfer of immovable property or any other mode at any time between its inception in 2010 and now.

4. Young Indian, being a Section 25 charitable not-for-profit company, cannot even upon closure or winding up transfer any immovable property or share to individuals or company other than another Section 25 charitable not-for-profit company. It cannot also declare any dividend.

Since there has been no monetary transaction between AJL and Young Indian and since no dividend or any other payment was made to shareholders and directors of Young Indian, the question of any money laundering does not arise.

As former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram explained, “there has to be money before it can be laundered”. To allege, therefore, that Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have “fraudulently acquired property worth Rs. 2,000 crore” is false, baseless and defamatory.

It is true Indian National Congress gave Rs 90 crore to AJL as loan in 100 different tranches by cheque between 2001-02 and 2010-11.

Almost two-thirds of the loan was used to pay Salary, PF, Gratuity, VRS and other statutory dues of journalists and non-journalists working for AJL over several years. The loan was also utilised to pay off taxes, electricity dues and other arrears that AJL had not been able to pay till 2008 when mounting losses forced the company to temporarily suspend publication.

Congress advanced the loan because AJL was founded before Independence by freedom fighters and Congress stalwarts like Jawaharlal Nehru, Kailash Nath Katju, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, Acharya Narendra Dev, Purushottam Das Tandon and others-was making significant losses, was unable to pay salaries to employees and journalists, was financially severely distressed and in the absence of these loans would have faced imminent closure.

Indeed, the Memorandum of Association of the AJL clearly states since the founding of AJL in 1937 that any publication, magazine or periodical etc. issued by AJL would conform to the principles and policies of the INC.

Veteran Congress leader Shri Motilal Vora had become the Chairman of AJL in 2001-2002. By the time publications were temporarily suspended in 2008, it was clear that AJL was in no position to pay back the loans after having cleared all its dues. Efforts had begun in the early 2000s to take steps to restructure AJL and revive the company.

Shareholders of The Associated Journals Ltd. (AJL) met in January 2011 and unanimously approved the issue of shares to charitable ‘not-for-profit Section 25 company Young Indian. That decision taken in the Extraordinary General Body Meeting of AJL is now the subject matter of a disinformation campaign by the BJP and the Sangh Parivar.

Pursuant to the allotment of AJL shares in February 2011 to Young Indian, the Rs 90 crores debt was converted into equity and the loan was extinguished in the books of the AJL.

This routine corporate restructuring achieved multiple objectives. The Associated Journals Ltd. came out of the red and the ground was prepared for revival of the newspapers and digital platforms; debts were converted into equity and AJL for the first time in years had a healthy balance sheet. The charitable not-for-profit company ensured that no shareholder or director of either AJL or Young Indian could personally benefit.

This also helped successfully revive the publications and AJL today publishes seven editions of two weekly newspapers in two different languages, i.e. English and Hindi, from New Delhi, Panchkula and Mumbai with approximately 20,000 print subscribers and operates three news websites in English, Hindi and Urdu (nationalheraldindia.com, navjivanindia.com and Qaumiawaz.com) which reach 18 million unique users with over 80 million page views each year.

AJL continues to be the owner of all the properties. In fact, the BJP Government’s Income Tax department itself values these properties at approximately Rs. 350 crores, a far cry from Dr. Swamy’s 2,000 crores. What it earns is reflected in the books of AJL and utilised entirely for running its newspapers and digital media business. General Body meetings adopt/approve the annual financials audited by Independent Auditors and regulatory filings are made accordingly. Today, even AJL’s Memorandum & Articles of Association prohibit any dividend and profit and AJL too is, therefore, run in the public interest and not for profit motive.

Starting with National Herald in 1937, newspapers brought out by AJL played a stirring role in the freedom struggle and after Independence. Edited by stalwarts like K. Rama Rau, Chalapathi Rau and Khushwant Singh among others, they also groomed a galaxy of journalists.

National Herald was the first English newspaper in the country to have kept its editorial space blank. When censors insisted on vetting the headlines, the newspaper opted to do away with headlines. For some time, the newspaper was also brought out by employees who set up a community kitchen, lived in the office and took voluntary wage cuts.

Indeed, the Memorandum of Association of the AJL clearly mentioned that “the policy of any newspaper, periodical, magazine or journal issued by the company shall generally be in accordance with the policy and principles of the Indian National Congress.”

Jawaharlal Nehru once offered to sell off his ancestral house Anand Bhavan in Allahabad to prevent National Herald from closing down. Aware of its role in freedom struggle and awake to the emotional attachment that Nehru and Congress leaders had for National Herald, the party supported the media house all along.

So, what is the fuss all about?

(The writer is Group Editor-in-Chief, National Herald)

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    Published: 16 Jun 2022, 9:37 PM