After the Congress rout in Assembly polls in the four heartland states,party vice-president Rahul Gandhi spoke about reforming the party in ways that cannot be imagined.
He could well start his mission from Chhattisgarh. During the election campaign as well as in the days before votes were counted and results declared,the state unit of the Congress offered cash gifts ranging from Rs 5,000 to Rs 50,000 to about 100 journalists based in Raipur saying it was from the party election fund.
The Indian Express reporter was among those offered the cash,on December 6,two days before the results.
The novel,if not unprecedented,move was not a clandestine operation but one that was apparently fully approved by the party.
It was handled by a new media cell set up just before the elections to manage journalists,at a time the media,the Election Commission and political parties have been grappling with the problem of paid news.
The cell,headed by state Congress general secretary and ex-MLA Ramesh Warlyani,made a list of Raipur-based journalists and earmarked amounts for each of them. Warlyani,who is said to be close to AICC treasurer Moti Lal Vora,is believed to have got funds from the party and offered it to the journalists.
The list,a copy of which is with The Indian Express,has names of about 100 journalists,cameramen,photographers of almost all newspapers,TV channels and news agencies,Hindi and English,regional and national,operating in Raipur.
The six-page list has Warlyanis signature on each page. It also mentions an amount against each name Rs 15,000,Rs 25,000 and Rs 50,000 for reporters and Rs 5,000 for cameramen and totals it to Rs 20 lakh. Warlyanis signature appears just below the total amount.
The Indian Express reporter figures in the list under the heading national press.
Warlyani called this reporter on December 6 to discuss the electoral situation and fixed a meeting at the Coffee House where he offered a gift on behalf of the Congress election fund. This reporter refused and walked out. He later met Warlyani at his office and took serious objection to his offer.
Warlyani apologised and said,I did not intend to hurt your sentiments. I apologise.
The Indian Express,after securing a copy of the list,sought the comments of state Congress chief Charan Das Mahant and the AICC leader in charge of the state,B K Hariprasad. They refused to speak on the subject on record.
Subsequently though,Warlyani denied offering money to any journalist or preparing any list.
Warlyani,incidentally,is on the board of directors of State Bank of India as a member of the local board (Bhopal region). He is also the vice-chairperson of the National Council of Promotion of Sindhi Language,a premier institution to promote Sindhi literature under the HRD ministry.
Some other journalists who were offered money were also outraged. While they had rejected the gift,the Congress leaders withdrew the money and claimed the journalists had been paid,they alleged.
Even in the case of The Indian Express,the list mentioned Rs 50,000 against the name of the reporter but the reporter was offered Rs 25,000.
Our reporters did not take any money,but we have learnt that the leader concerned has withdrawn the amount from the Congress fund, said Sunil Kumar,the editor of evening newspaper Chhattisgarh. I have complained to senior leaders and asked them to probe the matter. Ive received similar complaints from other newspapers also.
Even in the 2008 elections,there were reports that money was withdrawn from the Congress fund for journalists. Many of them had refused,but they later learnt that their names were still mentioned in the party accounts and the money was shown as paid to them, Kumar said.