While the NHAI officials have denied any knowledge of the money found in media kits, the incident is being viewed as BJP’s attempt to unethically influence the political narrative in the state.
New Delhi: The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) found itself at the centre of a controversy when, on July 21, journalists attending a press conference, organised by the nodal body for road constructions and maintenance, alleged that they found a 500 rupee currency note in the press kits distributed to them at the event.
Organised in Angul, Odisha, under the pretext of a foundation ceremony or bhumi poojan of the four national highway projects (Angul-Sambalpur, Tileibani-Sambalpur, Balasore-Jharpokharia and Baharagora-Singhara strecthes), the media meet was attended by the union minister for road transport and highways, who had flown in to the state for the event.
Laid the foundation stone for various NH projects including new 6 Lane Bridge over River Brahmani at Rourkela & Angul, Odisha pic.twitter.com/FdovCqVuFL
— Nitin Gadkari (@nitin_gadkari) July 21, 2017
Union ministers Dharmendra Pradhan and Nitin Gadkari laid foundation stone of 3 National Highway four lane projects in Angul(Odisha) pic.twitter.com/6wymqFO8hg
— ANI (@ANI_news) July 21, 2017
The alleged attempt to bribe the scribes was first reported by ommcomnews.com, an online news portal edited by senior journalist Jajati Karan, who until recently used to head the Odisha bureau of CNN-IBN. The news portal published videos which showed protesting scribes displaying the currency notes found in the press kits.
Immediately after the allegation surfaced, the media community unequivocally condemned the incident, which they viewed as a brazen attempt to bribe the journalists.
Responding to the chaos that followed during the event, the NHAI officials present at the venue claimed that they had no information about the currency notes and promised to further enquire into the matter.
“We’re ignorant of it [envelope carrying Rs 500]. We had been entrusted only to provide booklet in the holder leaf. Hence, we distributed only booklet of the occasion. I’m absolutely ignorant of such a development,” Shivendra Singh Pathihar, an NHAI official, was quoted as saying immediately after journalists created a hue and cry.
However, NHAI’s general manager for Odisha, A.K. Ray, appeared to be washing his hands off the incident. “I did not organise the event, so I am not aware of any such allegation,” Ray told The Wire.
A beleaguered BJP, cornered by its rivals over the issue, has chosen to put the onus on the NHAI.
Odisha BJP spokesperson Lekhasree Samantsinghar told ommcomnews.com, “Probe should be made into it. As the NHAI was shouldering the responsibility, it’s their duty to see who distributed the money. If it’s a fact, it’s definitely condemnable. NHAI can solely be answerable. Who is behind the scene? Who has instructed to do so? It’s not the culture and tradition of BJP. Never has it done it in past.”
Instead, she drew attention to a similar controversy in 2014, when journalists were paid two 100 rupee notes at a press conference held by BJD MP from Puri, Pinaki Misra. “…it is well known that a BJD MP had convened a press meet in Puri and had distributed Rs 200 each to the invited journalist in envelopes. BJP never believes in bribing the journalists,” she said.
However, since the alleged attempt to bribe journalists happened at a meet which was presided over by a union minister and top BJP leader, the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) has trained its guns at the BJP.
“It’s being said that NHAI has given it. NHAI is whose? It’s an organisation of the central government. Somebody would have asked them to distribute. Does media management mean giving money like this,” cooperation minister and BJD vice president Surya Narayan Patro was quoted as saying to ommcomnews.com.
Contextualising the incident, Lok Sabha member from Angul, Tathagata Satpathy, told The Wire that such attempts to bribe journalists show BJP’s desperation to unethically influence the political narrative in Odisha, especially at a time when it is poorly placed in state’s polity.
“Two incidents have happened in quick succession. First, the BJP recently finished a distant third in the recent Zila Parishad by-poll in Nuapada district, which borders Chhattisgarh. The BJD won with a whopping majority with Congress finishing at the second position. This happened despite the fact that BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh workers from Chhattisgarh had been extraordinarily active in the region in the last few months,” Satpathy said.
“And then, NHAI at the behest of BJP, tried to bribe journalists. Instead of responding to such developments, the party is now trying to distract attention by creating a fictitious story against BJD. A particular English news channel, known for its biased reporting, suddenly came up with a concocted story of some peon donating one crore rupees to BJD. I want to say that the BJP ought to rework its strategy for Odisha, otherwise people will start to laugh at it,” he added.
In the past, many sections of civil society have alleged that the BJP has been trying to win over media houses by extending various favours to it in an attempt to control the political narrative in the country. While the truth behind it is subject to speculation, the allegation of bribing the Odisha scribes may damage the party’s reputation further.