On October 4, 2013, Vijay Darda, a Congress Member of Parliament in Rajya Sabha and chairman of the Lokmat Media Private Limited – which publishes Maharashtra’s highest-circulating newspaper, Lokmat, and runs multiple other news ventures – wrote a “personal & confidential” letter to Jyotiraditya Scindia, the then Minister of State for Power.
Darda complained in his letter to Scindia that despite giving “good and positive coverage” to the power ministry, the Lokmat group had not been given enough advertisements by the ministry. Darda has earlier held the post of chairman of Audit Bureau of Circulations (2010-11) and received many journalism awards over the last three decades.To make his point in this letter, Darda cited the example of the Gandhi Jayanti advertisements, which, he claimed, were released in the many English, Hindi, Marathi newspapers of Maharashtra but “not a single edition of Lokmat group had been selected despite the group’s proven merits of being the largest circulated daily in the state”.
Darda added: “It pains me to see many English and vernacular newspapers, that project you and your leadership in bad light, are always flooded with Display advertisements, Tenders, Appointment, Chairman Speech, UFR/AFR’s from the ministry as well as its PSU’s and Lokmat Group inspite of giving good and positive coverage of your Ministry, is left out [sic].”
Darda concluded his letter requesting Scindia to “give your utmost attention to the above scenario and advice [sic] the concerned officials to release all Display advertisements, tenders, appointment, Chairman, Speech, UFR/AFR’s of ministry and its associated PSU’s in Lokmat Group of publications.”
The emotional pitch apparently worked. Less than a month later, on November 1, Scindia’s power ministry forwarded Darda’s request to the Chairmen and Managing Directors (CMDs) of all of their PSUs.
This letter, with the subject line “VIP Reference – Request for publication of advertisement of Ministry of Power in Lokmat Group of Publications – Ref. From Shri Vijay Darda, Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha)”, requested the CMDs to take “necessary action” and apprise the ministry of the action taken.
But this was not the only time Darda used his official position to further his business interests. The RTI documents procured by Newslaundry reveal that Darda had, on at least two earlier occasions, written to PSUs exhorting them to give ads to the Lokmat group.
On October 1, 2012, Darda had written to the CMDs of National Thermal Power Corporation Limited (NTPC) and National Highway Authority of India (NHAI). Both the letters read: “I am forwarding herewith a letter from Lokmat Group of Newspapers for doing the needful at your end. I will be greatly obliged if suitable action is taken as required.”
On another occasion Anu Berry, “AVP (North & Central India)” of Lokmat group, wrote to the NHAI Chairman R P Singh: on August 29, 2013, Berry wrote a letter to Singh with the subject “Diwali Special Issues”, listing the virtues of placing ads in Lokmat group publications – “cost-effective”, “long shelf value” – and urged him to place a “colour double spread advertisement in all the four Diwali issues of the Lokmat group (Deepotsav, Deep Bhava, Lokmat and Lokmat Samachar) at a special rate of Rs 3,00,000.
While it’s common for a newspaper proprietor to lobby for ads for his/her publication, the fact that Darda used his official position to do so points towards a clear overlapping of his roles as a businessman and a public office holder. What is more disconcerting, however, is Darda admitting that the Lokmat group gave “good and positive” coverage to a certain ministry, expecting ads in return. Incidentally, in 2009 the Lokmat group was accused of indulging in paid news over a report on Ashok Chavan.
We sent the following questions to Darda asking on his conduct as an MP:
a) We have received letters under the RTI that reveal that you, between 2012-2013, requested Minister of Power Jyotiraditya Scindia and two PSU heads to place ads in publications belonging to the Lokmat group. Would you like to confirm or deny?
b) Do you see a conflict of interest – in your responsibilities as a media proprietor and a public office holder? Do you think it amounts to using your official position to further your business interests?
We also sent an email to Scindia: we asked if he thought Darda’s letter to him admitted to the “positive coverage” being paid news, since Darda was seeking advertisements in lieu of it. Our emails went unanswered; when we called Scindia on his phone, we were told he is abroad.
The story will be updated if and when Darda and Scindia respond.
Additional reporting: Manisha Pande and Arunabh Saikia
The first of the five-part RTI investigation series reveals how politicians across parties get PSUs to fund boat races, magazines for Brahmins, and more. Part 3 will detail letters from ministers in the Modi Cabinet and the former UPA government asking PSUs for funds.