Politics

From Paid News to PR Minister, the Rise and Fall of BJP Leader Narottam Mishra

The Madhya Pradesh minister has been disqualified as a legislator for using paid news in his election campaign and not furnishing proper accounts of poll expenses.

Madhya Pradesh minister Narottam Mishra. Credit: PTI

Madhya Pradesh minister Narottam Mishra. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: As members of the parliament and legislators across the country voted on Monday to choose the next president of the country, Madhya Pradesh minister Narottam Mishra could not participate in the exercise as he has been barred by the Delhi high court following the Election Commission’s order  disqualifying him from holding the post and being an MLA for violations related to paid news and non-furnishing of proper election expenditure.

The issues surrounding Mishra, who has been held liable for misconduct during his election from Datia in Madhya Pradesh in 2008, assumes significance as he was allowed by the BJP to continue as a minister even after allegations of non-disclosure of expenditure were levelled against him by another candidate and former Congress MLA Rajendra Bharti and the Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee in 2009.

Despite allegations of “paid news” surfacing against him in 2012, he was allowed to contest the 2013 polls and made a minister.

HC struck down his plea against EC order

Mishra, who holds the water resources, public relations and parliamentary affairs departments in Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s government, had moved the Delhi high court challenging the EC order in which he had been found guilty of paid news and because of which he had been charged and disqualified as an MLA for three years.

However, on July 16, a division bench of the high court dismissed his stay application and the matter has been listed for hearing by a regular bench in August. On July 14, the high court had also disqualified Mishra from voting in the presidential polls.

In its 69-page judgement on June 23, a bench of the EC comprising then chief election commissioner Nasim Zaidi and election commissioners O.P. Rawat and A.K. Joti, had held that “Narottam Mishra should be disqualified under Section 10 A of the Representative of People’s Act 1951.”

The bench declared that “Narottam Mishra stands disqualified for three years from the date of this order for the failure to lodge his account of election expenses in the manner required by the law and for having no good reason or justification for such failure”.

Giving the reasons, the order had stated: “The respondent’s reported account, whether it breaches the permissible limit or not; the fact remains that the respondent has not only knowingly submitted a false account of expenses but also attempted to circumvent the legally prescribed limit on expenditure. Such an attempt needs to be curbed with strong measures and visited with exemplary sanctions to restore the balance in the electoral playing field.”

Debarred from voting in presidential poll

Though Mishra still has the final remedy of approaching the Supreme Court against the EC’s order, he declared that he was “consulting with the legal authorities regarding this”.

Mishra’s conviction is also expected to cause the BJP a lot of embarrassment in parliament, where the monsoon session began today. The opposition parties are expected to raise the issue since it pertains to three serious offences – his involvement in paid news, issuing of appeals on the day of polling and not filing proper accounts.

Forty-two paid news items in five Hindi dailies flagged by the EC

The most grave charge against Mishra pertains to paid news, as it is alleged that 42 items were published in his favour in various publications.

The EC accepted the report of a committee it set up which concluded that 42 news items appearing in favour of Mishra  constituted “paid news” or advertisements. The EC said the first issue was “whether the news articles, ‘appeals’ with photograph of the respondent, advertisements etc. in various newspapers namely, Dainik Bhaskar, Nai Duniya, Dainik Datia Prakash, Acharan Gwalior and BPN Times, published during the election process in Datia constituency, amount to “paid news”/advertisements in connection with the election of the respondent?”

While a direct appeal, titled ‘Vinamra Agrah’ was published in Dainik Bhaskar on November 27, 2008 with a photograph of Mishra and Chouhan appearing along with BJP’s party symbol, a slogan written at its bottom read ‘Datia say uthi aawaz – abki Narottam phir Shivraj (The voice from Datia says Narottam this time, then Shivraj)’.

Dainik Datia Prakash published an appeal to the electors, titled ‘Matdata bandhuon say namra nivedan (An honest appeal to the voters)’, along with Mishra’s photograph and party symbol, which left nothing to the imagination on whom it intended to favour and why.

The EC report also includes a list of the stories that appeared in these papers – with headlines that sound unlike any news report should. Here’s a sample: ‘Kshetra ke vikas ke liye Narottam Mishra ki jeet zaroori (Narottam Mishra’s victory is necessary for the development of the region)’, ‘Datia ka vikas Narottam ke haath (The progress of Datia is in Narottam’s hands)’; ‘Rozgar ka sapna pura karenge Narottam (Narottam will fulfil our livelihood dreams)’; ‘Sabke dil par chaa gaye Narottam (Narottam has won everyone’s hearts)’; the list goes on. Even stranger, the EC report goes on to document how identical reports with the identical headlines were published in multiple of the big newspapers.

It said, looking into these alleged news items published during the campaigning period for the 2008 elections of the Madhya Pradesh assembly, the national level committee on paid news had conclusively held in its meeting that all the alleged 42 news items fall in the category of paid news.

“Since no scanning or reporting was done at the district or state level with respect to the alleged paid news by the respondent, the commission’s committee on paid news functioned at the highest level in its enquiry into the matter,” the EC said.

Paid news committee evaluated various aspects

It further noted that “the paid news committee commenced its meetings after the respondent filed the original copies of the alleged newspaper publications with his complaint of May 28, 2012”. Moreover, it said the panel arrived at its conclusions on the basis of the “timing of the publications, content specifically carried in the publications, the repetition of content from one newspaper to another on successive dates of publication, headliners of the news items which heavily promoted the respondent in particular, and most importantly, publication of the item with the mention of any reporter’s name.”

Thus, the EC said, “These observations made by the committee support the conclusion that the said news items were indeed “paid news”.

The commission further held that “all 42 paid news items are extremely biased in favour of the respondent. Many of these are printed “impact features” which are typically paid for on pre-negotiated terms according to the prevailing advertorial policy of the concerned newspaper.”

It added that all the items “identify strongly with the illustrations contained in the commission’s compendium on paid news.”

The EC had also found “not tenable”, Mishra’s plea that news agencies like the Press Trust of India had reported the articles as they have correspondents all over the country and that these just got “picked up” by the newspapers. The commission did not find merit in this argument as neither did the articles carry the credit line of any news agency, nor did they carry the name of any reporter.

Mishra violated RPI Act too by issuing “direct appeals” on day of polling

The commission also held Mishra guilty of an offence under Section 171H of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 for issuing “direct appeals” which appeared in his name, containing his photograph, which were published on the day of the poll, November 27, 2008. It also stated that in his account of election expenses, Mishra had left the column on “campaign through electronic/print media” blank and accordingly held that he had knowledge of and impliedly authorised publication of the “impugned advertisements” within the meaning of section 77 of the Representation of People Act, 1951.

Mishra was also found by the commission to not have disclosed all his expenditures properly. It said “the guidelines for maintenance of day to day accounts of election expenditure clearly stipulate that goods or services received in kind like vehicles, posters, pamphlets, media advertisement, helicopters, aircrafts etc from party or any person/body/association” must be detailed in Part A of the accounts. Therefore the commission said even if it were to accept Mishra’s argument that he did not pay for the alleged advertisements that supported his candidature, “he clearly derived benefit from the same and was thus obliged to have included a notional estimate of such expenditure in his day to day accounts register, but has failed to do so.”