reportage

Our Man in the Studio

Rajat Sharma’s path to becoming India’s most powerful editor-entrepreneur

By ATUL DEV AND PRAVEEN DONTHI | 1 December 2016

{ONE}

THE BHARATIYA JANATA PARTY GATHERED for its twenty-fifth national executive meeting in the very last days of 2005, at Mumbai’s Bandra Reclamation Ground—the very place where the party was launched a quarter-century ago. To mark the jubilee, three days of grand celebrations were planned to follow the two-day meeting.

Yet an air of gloom hung over the run-up to the event. The BJP had lost national power after a shock defeat to the Congress in the previous year’s general election, and, more recently, it had performed below expectations in state elections in Bihar, Haryana and Jharkhand. The party’s two main leaders, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani, were ageing, and there was a sense that they no longer appealed to an increasingly young electorate. Advani was also facing the ire of the BJP’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, for his comments on a recent trip to Pakistan, where he praised Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the country’s founding father, as a “secular” figure and an “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity.” There was widespread talk of a change at the top, and infighting was rife among the younger crop of party leaders.

One of the BJP’s young stars was Sanjay Joshi—an RSS pracharak, or full-time worker, who was then one of the party’s national general secretaries. Joshi represented much of what the RSS wanted BJP leaders to be. He was deputed to join the party’s Gujarat unit in the late 1980s, and had been instrumental to its growth in the following decade. Newspapers wrote of him sleeping on a charpoy in the BJP’s Ahmedabad office, and travelling the state in sleeper-class railway carriages, clad in slippers and wrinkled kurtas. In 1995, after the BJP secured power in Gujarat for the first time, an internal revolt forced a reshuffle of top posts, including that of the chief minister. Joshi became the BJP’s general secretary for Gujarat, edging out a fellow rising star, Narendra Modi, who was dispatched to work in Delhi instead, exiled from his home state. Modi reportedly took this as a personal slight, and continued to hold a grudge against Joshi after he became the chief minister of Gujarat in 2001.

Several months before the 2005 meeting, an audio recording was leaked anonymously to the media, allegedly of Joshi having sex with an unidentified woman. Copies of a letter, apparently by the same woman, also appeared, accusing Joshi of exploitation and mistreatment. These had the potential to be especially embarrassing because pracharaks, by the codes of the RSS, are expected to remain celibate. But the BJP high command dismissed the leaks as part of a smear campaign, and took no public action.

Then, on the eve of the meeting, CDs began to circulate among the delegates gathered in Mumbai. On them was a video, apparently showing Joshi having intercourse. According to a report in The Telegraph, copies of the video had also been sent to senior RSS and BJP leaders a week earlier. There was little doubt that the leak came from within the party—nobody even bothered to blame any of the BJP’s rivals.

By the next day, as the national executive met, the video was in the hands of the media, and a scandal had exploded. According to a report in The Hindu, one television channel, described as “representing a powerful BJP faction,” issued an ultimatum: “Mr. Joshi must resign, else the tapes would be telecast.”
Joshi handed in his resignation that evening. The remainder of the event was a washout. The video, the audio recording and the letter all later proved to have been fabricated, but Joshi’s career never recovered.

The name of the channel that issued the ultimatum was never reported. But a veteran journalist on the BJP beat, who was present at the Mumbai meeting, told us that, on the day after Joshi’s resignation, the senior BJP leader Pramod Mahajan told several reporters that it was a fledgling Hindi news channel, India TV. The channel’s head was Rajat Sharma, who rose to fame hosting the hit interview show Aap Ki Adalat on Zee TV in the 1990s, and had set up his own operation just the previous year. Sharma was known to be close with Modi, and with Arun Jaitley—a college mate of his, and then, as now, one of Modi’s most trusted lieutenants. It seemed Sharma’s actions had lined up perfectly with the wants of Modi and his inner circle.

ON 12 NOVEMBER 2016, just days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the momentous decision to demonetise all Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes overnight, Sharma’s interviewee on Aap Ki Adalat was the finance minister, Arun Jaitley. The economy had been thrown into disarray: 86-percent-worth of the cash in circulation had been annulled, replacement notes were in short supply, ATMs had not been recalibrated to dispense them, and people were waiting in line for hours, often days, to exchange or deposit old currency at bank branches. The full effects of the demonetisation had not yet become clear, but reports already spoke of farmers having no cash for seeds at a crucial time for sowing the winter crop, and shopkeepers and vendors seeing business suddenly evaporate. This was the first interview Jaitley had granted since the move, and there was no end of tough questions to be asked.

Sharma appeared on Aap Ki Adalat’s wood-panelled, faux-courtroom set—designed to match the show’s title, which translates roughly to “people’s court”—in his customary garb. He sported large eyeglasses and slicked-back, side-parted hair, and was dressed in a luxury suit—one of an entire fleet of them from an Italian design house, a friend of Sharma’s told us, that he keeps in a walk-in closet in his large south-Delhi home. All of this was much as it has been through the 23 years that the weekly show has been airing, with only short pauses as it moved from channel to channel.

In keeping with the Aap Ki Adalat format, after calling the finance minister out to sit in the witness box and answer “charges,” Sharma introduced a guest meant to act as a judge—in this case, the journalist Vijay Sanghvi. This was immediately followed by a narrated montage sketching out Jaitley’s political career, with particular mention of his long friendship with Modi, and of how he stood by the former Gujarat chief minister in “the dark days of the 2002 riots.” There was not even a casual disclaimer about how Jaitley and Sharma share an intimacy stretching back more than four decades.

With Sharma moderating in casual Hindi speckled with English, Jaitley defended the government against charges that the demonetisation had caused “public harassment,” had left “small traders at loss,” and was carried out to hobble the finances of opposition parties ahead of upcoming state polls. Amid intermittent applause from the studio audience, he stuck to the government’s line, saying that the policy was in the long-term public interest, and would free the country “of the menace of black money,” or illicit wealth. Sharma did not challenge this narrative, or ask Jaitley to explain how this purely domestic measure was to eliminate the problem of black money when huge amounts of untaxed Indian income find their way abroad.

At the end of an hour, the “judge” delivered his verdict. “The explanations given by the finance minister are worth thinking about,” he said, “so there is no need to say much on this.” He concluded, responding to an earlier suggestion from Jaitley that the country move away from cash in favour of electronic payments, with a request that the government consider reducing interest rates on credit cards.

The show, aired in prime time on India TV, went out to a massive audience. In the week of the Jaitley interview, according to the Broadcast Audience Research Council, India TV’s audience reach was 169 times greater than that of the top English-language news channel, Times Now. Among Hindi news channels, India TV’s popularity puts it in second place, with ratings lagging behind only those of Aaj Tak.

This gives Sharma—the channel’s chairman and editor-in-chief, and the host of the daily news show Aaj Ki Baat in addition to the weekly Aap Ki Adalat—enormous public influence. And that, combined with his connections and access to the highest echelons of Indian politics and government, makes him the most powerful person at work in Indian television news today.

Sharma’s oldest political link is with Jaitley, and dates to their days in student politics together, at college in Delhi in the 1970s, as active members of the RSS-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. Such is the depth of their rapport that, early this year, after Jaitley filed a defamation case against the Delhi chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, to counter allegations of financial impropriety during his chairmanship of the Delhi & District Cricket Association, Sharma went before a judge to vouch for Jaitley’s integrity.

With Modi—access to whom is a rare and incomparable boon for any journalist covering the present government—Sharma’s relationship goes back several decades too, to the prime minister’s time as a young pracharak making a name for himself in Gujarat. In India TV’s earliest days, in the mid 2000s, Modi was a repeated visitor to the channel’s offices, according to several people who worked there at the time. The journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, in his book 2014: The Election That Changed India, writes that Modi calls Sharma “pandit-ji” in private, and has done so for decades. So far as access to Modi is concerned, “there is him, and then there is no one for a mile,” a reporter who has been covering the prime minister’s office for the last several years told us. “When you know the PM for as long as he has, you work on a different level.”

One reason put forward for this proximity, by numerous journalists who are close to Sharma or have worked with him, is that he was not a part of the media circles that vilified Modi for his alleged role in the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 2002. “Rajat never did all that, and has been rewarded for it,” a veteran editor said. “He is the only journalist Modi trusts.” (The majority of those we interviewed for this story, most of them journalists, asked to remain anonymous. At least a dozen people cited Sharma’s present power in media circles and said they did not want to imperil their job prospects.) Sardesai, in his book, describes how Sharma sat on stage with Modi during his swearing-in as Gujarat’s chief minister after the BJP called and won a state election soon after the 2002 violence.

Besides his exceptional political connections and his enormous reach in the Hindi heartland, Sharma also has backing from some of India’s most powerful corporate houses. Among the investors in Independent News Service, which owns India TV, is a company linked to the businessman Gautam Adani, Modi’s oldest and most steadfast corporate supporter. Also on the list is a company associated with Mukesh Ambani, the country’s richest man and the head of Reliance Industries Limited.

Sharma has shown himself to be an enthusiastic supporter of the government’s avowed intent to clamp down on black money, but his own financial dealings are not above suspicion. Independent News Service’s books show a 2007 investment, routed via Mauritius, from a US-based venture-capital firm whose investment in another Indian news broadcaster from that same year was disallowed earlier this year by the income-tax department. Annual reports from Independent News Service and other companies co-owned by Sharma appear to show some creative accounting suggestive of tax evasion.

Sharma does not shy away from letting his connections colour his work on-air. “He wants to be considered the god of journalism,” an editor who has worked closely with Sharma told us. “And the path he has chosen to get there is that of a public-relations man.”

{TWO}

THERE IS A STORY SHARMA LIKES to tell about his childhood. He has rolled it out in guest lectures at universities and conferences, in meetings with media executives abroad and in numerous newspaper interviews. “No one in my family, or even distant relatives, had anything to do with journalism,” he told a conference in 2014. His childhood home, he said, did not have electricity or a water connection, let alone a radio. The Sharma family—his mother and father, seven brothers and one sister—lived in a single room in a poor Delhi neighbourhood. There were days, sometimes two, sometimes three, when there was nothing to eat. “In those days, powdered milk packets donated by America were distributed to the poor. We used to stand in long queues for those packets.”

(We hoped to hear about his life and career from Sharma himself, but he did not give us a chance to meet him. The one time he took a call, he told us to contact his office. We sent in repeated interview requests, but these were never answered.)

One day, Sharma said, when he was eight years old—this would have been sometime around 1965—he came home in tears. A neighbouring family had shut him out when he went over to watch a movie on their television set. Sharma recalled his father telling him that day, “Kisi dusre ke ghar pe kisi teesre ko TV par dekhne jaate ho. Agar dam hai to kuch aisa karo ki tum TV par aao aur log tumhe dekhe.” (You go to someone’s house to watch someone else on television. If you have it in you, then do something to get yourself on television so people watch you.)

By his own telling, Sharma was a studious child. He started at a public school, and worked his way up to a prestigious private school in an upscale neighbourhood. In 1974, he joined Delhi University’s Shri Ram College of Commerce—then known as Bania College—a hub of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.

“He was one of those who we identified as having potential for activism as he was a good debater,” Shri Ram Khanna, a prominent ABVP leader at the time, told us. “He was quite active in the inter-college debates and forthright in his views.”

Sharma was elected a councillor for his college in his first year—at the same time that his senior and friend Arun Jaitley became the president of the Delhi University Students’ Union. Sharma, on his website, describes how Jaitley once paid his college fees.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency in June 1975. Student leaders were at the forefront of resistance to it, and Sharma was among them. “He was very active,” KN Govindacharya, an RSS ideologue who knew Sharma as a student politician, told us. “People had pseudonyms and meetings were held in secret locations. He was trusted to coordinate with people for such meetings and pass on messages.” Sharma, along with Jaitley, was soon arrested and sent to jail. He was released in 1977, the year that the Emergency ended.

After his release, Sharma joined the Delhi School of Economics, also under Delhi University, to pursue a master’s degree in economics. He contested DUSU elections on an ABVP ticket, and was elected the union’s general secretary. The president’s post went to his friend Vijay Goel, now the minister of youth affairs and sports in Modi’s cabinet. Goel and Sharma were both expelled from the university the next year for leading a protest, but were pardoned and taken back soon afterwards. Sharma was in line to become the DUSU president, but the ABVP had decided not to contest any elections nationwide for three years.

“He contributed to the students’ movement at the cost of his studies,” Sudhir Goyal, Sharma’s classmate and a former Bahujan Samaj Party minister in Uttar Pradesh, who now teaches at Delhi University, told us. In his last year, “barely ten days before the final exams, he came to me and said, ‘I have wasted many years of my student life. If I don’t pass exams this time, my parents won’t let me study further.’” Sharma crammed, and managed a good score.

Politics seemed a natural course for him from there, but he chose journalism instead. “So far as I know, his family background compelled him to go for a job,” Goyal said. Sharma, with Vijay Goel, used to edit a college magazine, Campus Mirror. Now, he started freelancing for the left-wing newspaper The Patriot, and, in 1982, got a break with the fortnightly Onlooker as a trainee reporter.

“Back then, he was a lanky fellow who wore big glasses and never tucked his shirt in,” said a journalist who then worked at the daily Free Press Journal, which shared an office with Onlooker in central Delhi. “He had come out of student politics, and had his friends in the BJP.” Two years later, he became Onlooker’s Delhi bureau chief. In 1985, Sharma became its editor, and moved to join the magazine’s headquarters in Bombay.

A senior journalist close to Sharma told us an anecdote about his “hunger to break big stories” at this time. It was 1985, the journalist said, and Sharma, then 28 years old, was still trying to prove himself fit to be an editor. After the flamboyant millionaire Rajendra Singh Sethia was arrested on charges of fraud, Sharma decided to interview him. Since journalists are not normally allowed access to inmates, he got himself arrested too, on charges pending from his student days, and spent a few days behind bars. He got the interview he was after.

In 1986, Sharma joined Pritish Nandy, then the editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, on a trip to London. The pair were to interview the god-man Chandraswami regarding allegations that he had brokered the multimillion-pound sale of the department store Harrods to the sultan of Brunei and the Egyptian millionaire Mohamed al Fayed. Nandy had previously told Chandraswami that he was writing a story on him and asked for an interview, but had been rebuffed. So he went in under an alias, posing as a reporter for Onlooker.

The interview was off the record, but Sharma and Nandy recorded it without their subject’s knowledge. Chandraswami spoke about the sale of Harrods, and about his relationship with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. He also asked Sharma if he could help make sure that Nandy would not write about him. “Maine bola, Swami-ji, wo Nandy khane-peene wala aadmi hai, to kuch le-de ki baat ho sakti hai’” (I said, “Swami-ji, that Nandy is known to take bribes, so we can arrange something”), Sharma recalled at the 2014 conference. Chandraswami asked Sharma to approach Nandy with an offer of Rs5 lakh to buy his silence. Back in India, both Onlooker and the Illustrated Weekly of India published the interview with headlines screaming “Sensational” and “Exposed.”

In 1987, Sharma was hired as the editor of the weekly Sunday Observer. “We almost died of shock at the choice,” the journalist Javed Anand, who used to work at the publication, told us. The Indian Express was then waging a campaign against Dhirubhai Ambani, the head of the Reliance business empire. “Onlooker’s line was heavily slanted towards the Ambanis. We wondered why he was brought in.”

Inside a year of Sharma’s arrival, the Ambanis bought the newspaper. With that done, Sharma left the paper. Anand told us that, to the best of his memory, Sharma never wrote a single editorial during his editorship.

The staff, according to Anand, speculated that Sharma “was brought in as part of the deal of transition of ownership.” Sharma, he said, told him, “Since Dhirubhai calls me his third son, it would not be appropriate for me to continue.” Sharma used to boast of this “third son” status at the Bombay Press Club as well.

Next, in 1989, he became the editor of The Daily, a Bombay tabloid. For most of Sharma’s tenure, it was owned by Kamal Morarka, a businessman from Rajasthan then representing the Janata Dal in the Rajya Sabha. “I spoke to him almost every day about what was going on in the paper,” Morarka told us. “He was a BJP supporter, but none of that reflected in the paper. We never had any problems.”

The Bofors corruption scandal, which overwhelmed Rajiv Gandhi’s administration, was then a massive issue. Sharma—like numerous journalists friendly with Jaitley—tried vigorously to ensnare Amitabh Bachchan, who was close to Gandhi, in it. When the journalist Chitra Subramaniam, who broke the Bofors story, refused to implicate the Bollywood star, The Daily carried stories alleging that she was having an affair with him.

Through all of this, Sharma continued to shuttle between Bombay and Delhi, and kept his ties with Jaitley strong.

In December 1989, Rajiv Gandhi’s rule was ended by a minority government under the prime ministership of the Janata Dal’s VP Singh, which also took in the BJP. Jaitley was made an additional solicitor general, and tasked with investigating the Bofors case. On 23 October 1990, the day the BJP’s LK Advani was arrested on VP Singh’s orders while on his iconic Ram Rath Yatra, Jaitley encountered two reporters—Pankaj Pachauri, then with India Today, and Abid Shah, then with The Statesman—as he was walking out of the BJP’s Delhi office.

“The VP Singh administration was on the brink of falling out,” Shah told us. “Me and Pankaj Pachauri were going there to find out what was happening.”

Pachauri was about to quit India Today, Shah said, so Jaitley said to him, “I hear you’re on your way out.” But “we had heard that, with the fall of the government, Jaitley would stop filing paperwork to further the investigation, so Pankaj quipped, ‘We hear that so are you.’” As Shah recalled it, Jaitley replied, “See, for me, politics comes before profession.”

“Since India Today’s next edition was more than a week away,” Shah said, “instead of Pankaj, I wrote the story, in The Statesman, saying that Jaitley will be abandoning his investigation into Bofors. Next day, he barged into the office with Rajat Sharma, demanding that the story be retracted. Jaitley being Jaitley, even back then, he managed to get a retraction issued in the next day’s paper.”

Soon afterwards, the VP Singh government did in fact collapse. Jaitley never took the investigation any further.

“It shouldn’t surprise you that he came to the office with Rajat,” Shah told us. “They’re basically the same person, cut from the same cloth, and that is how you have to understand them—politics before profession.”

{THREE}

WHEN THE TELEVISION INDUSTRY was still finding its feet in the wake of India’s economic liberalisation in 1991, Sharma took a fateful flight. Travelling from Bombay to Delhi, he bumped into Subhash Chandra—the businessman who had launched Zee TV, the country’s first Hindi cable channel, the previous year.

Chandra narrates the incident in his autobiography. A gentleman, he writes, walked up to him and said, “Sir I have a program suggestion for you that you may consider for Zee TV.” They got talking. “Zee should launch a show where political and other important personalities are grilled publicly with tough questions,” Chandra quotes Sharma as telling him. “These people should answer the questions on the camera.” Chandra approached Sharma a few days later to develop the idea.

Sharma recalled the story himself at the 2014 conference. By his telling, he lectured Chandra on journalism and political accountability, before proposing a show where politicians would be put in the stand in a mock courtroom, before an audience, “aur joote maaro inko janata ke saamne” (and flog them before the public). When Chandra offered to turn this idea into reality, Sharma was taken aback. “You’ve made a mistake, sir,” he remembered saying. “I was just joking around.”

The journalist Vinod Dua, a friend of Sharma’s from his student days, told us that Sharma did not come up with the concept for the show himself. At the time, one of Sharma’s brothers hosted a programme on All India Radio that simulated a courtroom discussion. Sharma, Dua said, told him that “the original idea belonged to his elder brother’s show.” Dua told us that he designed the format of the programme for Sharma, building on that idea.

According to Chandra’s autobiography, at first Sharma was reluctant to appear on television. When the two met a couple of months later, he suggested that someone else present the show, leaving him to do the research required for the interviews. “Rajat seemed to have confidence in the idea,” Chandra writes, “but not in himself.”
It took some persuasion, but eventually Sharma agreed to host the show. Chandra sent him to a friend of his, Gulshan Sachdeva, to be taught how to face the camera. As it turned out, Sharma was a natural.

“After he had spent some time with Gulshan, one day, in 1993, I brought Rajat to Noida,” Jawahar Goel, who oversaw Zee TV’s news division while Sharma was with the channel, told us. The few studios that existed in Noida back then were set up for film production, and Zee TV, which was a general-interest channel, hired them out to produce its shows. Today, Zee TV and its sister channels command sprawling premises in Noida’s Film City, but when the first episode of Aap Ki Adalat was shot, Goel said, there were still cows grazing around the area.

Sharma’s first guest was Lalu Prasad Yadav, then the chief minister of Bihar. The episode aired on 14 March 1993. With this new role, Chandra writes in his book, Sharma’s salary increased tenfold, from Rs3,000 to Rs30,000 per month.

Aap Ki Adalat was a hit, and broke new ground. The media critic Sevanti Ninan, in an essay published in the late 1990s, describes how Doordarshan, the state broadcaster that held a monopoly over Indian television prior to deregulation, twice tried and failed to produce interview shows because of a lack of cooperation from politicians. Sharma’s connections proved useful in overcoming that hurdle, and he managed to draw celebrities into his studio too.

It helped that Sharma was in the right place at the right time. Television’s popularity was taking off, and high-profile people were starting to embrace the medium. “Everybody wanted media power,” a journalist who worked with Sharma at this time, and is now the editor of a Hindi news channel, told us. Zee TV was the only private channel offering competition to the staid Doordarshan, “so everybody was trying to woo Rajat Sharma.”

Sharma’s confidence grew with the popularity of his show. By the end of 1993, Chandra was toying with the idea of producing a daily, 30-minute news bulletin. He went to Sharma with an offer to host the show. This time there was no hesitation. “He was enjoying the success of his show,” Chandra writes, “and wanted more.”

Zee TV did not have the necessary permissions to broadcast news bulletins, so it partnered with an organisation that did—Asian News International, or ANI, a Delhi-based news agency. Since Sharma had no experience producing a bulletin—a wholly different game to running an interview show—he hired a few reporters and took them to London for a crash course at Sky News. Sky was partly owned by Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-American media mogul who had recently entered the Indian market by buying the broadcaster Star TV.

Zee TV began airing its bulletins in early 1994, under the title Faisla Aap Ka­—“people’s verdict.” These comprised reports by Sharma’s team and feeds from ANI, and were stitched together by Doordarshan producers moonlighting for the private channel. Sharma became the first journalist to have his own news-bulletin show with a private broadcaster.

Sharma was now heading his own division at Zee TV, in charge of news and current affairs. Working with him were many future leaders of Indian media and politics: Smriti Irani, later to become a television-soap star and currently a minister in Modi’s cabinet; Pritish Nandy, who went on to be a film producer and a member of the Rajya Sabha; Vinod Dua, now a veteran of television news; Uday Shankar, the present CEO of the Star India group; Sudhir Chaudhary, now a prime-time anchor with Zee News.

Chaudhary told us that Sharma used to come into the office every morning before everyone else. “All the big newspapers were stacked on his desk,” he said, and Sharma would read each one and fling it to the floor. “When all the newspapers were on the floor, he would come to the newsroom and conduct the editorial meeting. It was very intimidating. You feel the heat when your editor has read every newspaper.”

Sharma’s success opened doors outside Zee TV too. Ninan, in her essay, notes that Aap Ki Adalat served as a wake-up call for Doordarshan, forcing it to shed its bureaucratic tameness. The state broadcaster went searching for more daring, independently produced news and current-affairs shows, and this created opportunities for many of today’s top television journalists and media entrepreneurs—Prannoy Roy, Karan Thapar, Madhu Trehan, Raghav Bahl, Nalini Singh—to further their careers.

It didn’t take long for Sharma to get used to his growing prominence. In her book Selective Memory: Stories from My Life, the author Shobhaa De describes him speaking to a reporter in the wake of Aap Ki Adalat’s early success. “I enjoy being recognised at airports and restaurants,” De quotes Sharma as saying. “I enjoy being asked for autographs. I enjoy people wanting to pose for photographs with me. I just enjoy being famous.”

Chandra writes that Sharma used to tell him in those days, “I would never forget that you are like my godfather.” It was a relationship of mutual gain: as Ninan notes in an article on Zee TV’s twentieth anniversary, Sharma’s political connections were “Chandra’s door to Delhi’s power circuit.” Chandra himself says in his book that Sharma was keeping tabs on politicians in Delhi and making sure that Zee TV’s shows were being received well.But the bonhomie reached a bitter end. “Sadly,” Chandra writes, “the great run of the show was interrupted by seemingly unprofessional behaviour by Rajat.” A woman “in the team became an alternative power centre,” and Chandra called Sharma “and said that he must remove her.” Sharma replied that “if she was asked to go, he would leave too.”

On 3 January 1997, Sharma quit Zee TV, walking out in the middle of the day. He left without finishing the day’s news bulletin. “So all the reports that had come in from ANI or elsewhere were compiled by the technicians, and Subhash-ji himself wrote the script that day,” Jawahar Goel told us. The bulletin was broadcast on time, though it was six minutes shorter than usual. Goel conceded that Sharma’s separation from Zee TV “was not amicable,” but refused to go into more detail. “It will be like hitting someone below the belt,” he said.

A former Zee TV staffer told us he did not believe that Chandra’s version of events in his autobiography told the whole story. “It is basically a fight between two personalities, a power struggle. Today, Subhash Chandra is known as a media mogul, but in the nineties nobody knew him. Rajat Sharma was a star. A lot of people thought Rajat Sharma was the co-owner of the channel. Editors always had more power than the owners those days. It’s an age-old fight.” An editor who was with Zee TV at the time told us, “Subhash Chandra felt that Rajat Sharma will become bigger than him.”

Chandra writes that Sharma’s exit left the Zee TV newsroom divided. Sharma eventually took a bunch of Chandra’s employees with him—more than 40 people, by some reports. Rumours swirled about him being courted by rival channels, but in his resignation letter Sharma made clear that he wanted to set up his own production house. Later that year, he incorporated Independent News Service, in partnership with Ritu Dhawan, a producer who had followed him out of Zee TV. In 2000, Sharma, who had had an earlier marriage end unsuccessfully, married Dhawan.

PARTICULARLY DURING HIS TIME with Zee TV, Sharma’s circle of political influence expanded beyond his coterie of friends from the ABVP days. “Despite his strong leaning towards the right, he has friends all across,” one of his collegues from this period told us. Top Congress leaders such as “Madhavrao Scindia, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Rajesh Pilot, were all very close to him.”

After he left Zee TV, Sharma didn’t hesitate to use his power against his former employer. By the end of 1996, Murdoch’s Star TV had launched its own general-entertainment channel, Star Plus. Star’s expansion plans relied heavily on introducing direct-to-home broadcasting technology, at a time when Indian television was almost entirely reliant on cable distribution. But DTH did not have government approval, and Chandra was opposing it with all his might.

In July 1997, the government issued a notification banning DTH. Sharma—alongside Rathikant Basu, a former Doordarshan bureaucrat then heading Star, and Prannoy Roy, a co-founder of the news broadcaster NDTV—lobbied to get the notification withdrawn, but failed. So they tried another approach. A 30-member joint parliamentary committee was then assessing a bill that, if passed, would override the ban and allow DTH. The majority of the committee’s members were from the BJP, and, in September, Sharma and Basu visited LK Advani, then a leader of the opposition, to discuss the issue.

But none of this worked, and the proposed bill never passed. It would be six more years before DTH was first allowed in the country.

Zee lost its dominance of the market anyway. Star Plus overtook Zee TV in the ratings. Chandra launched a Hindi news channel, Zee News, but it struggled for popularity. Aaj Tak rose to the top of the Hindi news market in 2001, three years after it was launched.

Meanwhile, Sharma was running his own production house. He continued producing his courtroom show, temporarily renamed Janata Ki Adalat, and came to an agreement to air it on Star Plus. He was also contracted to produce a show for Doordarshan, called Seven to Nine, which aired five mornings each week.

In 1998, the BJP took power at the head of the first National Democratic Alliance administration. In 2000, Kuldip Nayar, a veteran journalist and then a member of the Rajya Sabha, demanded in parliament a list of all the individuals and companies contracted by Doordarshan to produce its current-affairs and news programmes, and the amounts paid to each of them per month. Jaitley was a minister of state for information and broadcasting at this time.

When the numbers came out, the journalist Jal Khambata wrote that the “reward bestowed by Information and Broadcasting Minister of State Arun Jaitley on his compatriot of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) days is mind boggling.” Sharma was getting more for his show, Khambata said, than even Amitabh Bachchan was getting for Kaun Banega Crorepati, a huge hit on Star at the time. “The state-run Doordarshan has no matching programme to make anybody ‘crorepati’ (multi-millionaire) and yet it has already made … Rajat Sharma a ‘crorepati’ in two months and continues to pay him a hefty sum of Rs55 lakhs every month.”

Sharma, Khambata continued, “has hardly any expenditure since he liberally uses all the facilities of Doordarshan, courtesy Jaitley, though he collects cheques in the name of M/s Independent Media Private Limited”—which Sharma and Dhawan also incorporated in 1997—“to avoid anybody detecting how big fortune an individual has been making from the state-run TV company.”

The advent of the National Democratic Alliance saw Atal Bihari Vajpayee return as the prime minister, after a fleeting 16-day stint in the post in 1996. This time, he stayed in office until 2004. Sharma had great access to the new prime minister. Namita Kaul, Vajpayee’s foster daughter, had participated in student politics alongside Sharma, and they had remained friends. Kaul was married to the businessman Ranjan Bhattacharya, whom Sharma also knew from his time at university, and who had become one of Vajpayee’s trusted aides. This connection put Sharma in a potentially difficult situation, since Bhattacharya and Jaitley were known not to see eye to eye, but he was tactful enough to maintain his proximity to both of them.

Sharma’s link to Vajpayee, and his readiness to work as a back-room operator, had already been proven earlier. An editor of a Hindi news channel told us that Sharma “was responsible for the deal between Vajpayee and Kanshiram,” the Bahujan Samaj Party leader, in 1997. Uttar Pradesh was under a prolonged period of extended president’s rule. “There was a hung assembly, and a solution had to be found for the sake of people,” Sudhir Goyal told us. “I approached Rajat Sharma, and he played a meaningful role” in the BSP and the BJP coming together to form a coalition.” Goyal said Vajpayee and Advani were both involved in the talks, but he declined to elaborate on just what Sharma had done. “Let me leave it at that. He played a meaningful role,” he said.

Particularly after Vajpayee’s return as prime minister, the word was that Ranjan Bhattacharya controlled access to him. Numerous journalists we spoke to said that Sharma openly flaunted his proximity to the Vajpayee household—much like he once showed off his association with Dhirubhai Ambani.

There was persistent talk during Vajpayee’s tenure that Sharma was writing a biography of him, but no such book ever materialised. A senior editor with links to the BJP told us that Sharma’s access to the prime minister was curtailed towards the end of Vajpayee’s rule, but did not tell us why.

Another instance of Sharma’s back-room dealing came in 1999. Mohan Guruswamy, then an advisor to the finance minister, fell out with the government and went public with embarrassing allegations of intrigue. These included accusations that Vajpayee had acted to benefit a corporate group, and that the home minister, LK Advani, and the minister of information and broadcasting, Pramod Mahajan, had sided with particular corporations as well. Sharma tried to play peacemaker.

The journalist Tavleen Singh and the India Today editorial director Prabhu Chawla “approached me and said they will set up a meeting with Rajat Sharma,” Guruswamy recently told us. When he met with Singh and Sharma, Guruswamy recalled, “He said, ‘No reason why we all should be fighting. We all belong to the same government.’ To which I said, ‘I am not a party man.’ ‘Be practical,’ he said. I asked him, ‘Are you speaking for the prime minister?’ He replied, ‘I am like a member of his family.’”

After this meeting, Sharma took Guruswamy to Mahajan’s house. Guruswamy wrote about the incident in a column for the Asian Age, without naming the journalist who escorted him:

Now, we live in a town where the distinction between journalism and political activism is blurred. Many who masquerade as journalists are in fact political operatives. I went in the journalist’s car and we entered Mahajan’s residence from the Safdarjang Lane entrance so that no one would see us. … The ostensible reason we were meeting was to see if a cease-fire could be worked out.

The journalist Virendra Kapoor addressed Guruswamy’s piece in a gossip column for Rediff.com, and didn’t hesitate to name names:

Well, the cease-fire wasn’t possible. But what should interest you is the identity of the journalist who tried to broker peace. And it is none other than the popular Janata Ki Adalat host on Star channel, Rajat Sharma. … Playing such a role behind the cameras is nothing new to Sharma. He has reportedly been a backroom operative for a host of politicians from Arif Mohammed Khan and Jagdish Tytler to Kalyan Singh et al.

{FOUR}

INDIA TV WAS LAUNCHED ON  20 May 2004. It entered an increasingly crowded Hindi television-news market, with Aaj Tak in the lead, and NDTV India, Zee News, Star News and three Sahara Samay channels all trailing. Doordarshan was also about to launch DD Lok Sabha and DD Rajya Sabha.

The quality of the content on rival news channels was poor, and Sharma promised something better. As he said at India TV’s launch, “We aim to change the way broadcast news reporting is being conducted in the country. India TV will set new benchmarks by maintaining international standards of responsible and credible news reporting. We will stay away from graphic depictions of violence and sensationalism of news. We will uphold the viewer’s right to correct information and their right to truth and verity. India TV is not just a news channel, it is a movement.” The channel’s tag line was “Desh badalna hai to channel badlo” (If you want to change the country, change the channel).

Sharma made some hires that reflected his grand plans. Maneka Gandhi, who had served as the environment minister for the VP Singh government, was to do a show on ecology. Tarun Tejpal, who had been running the investigative portal Tehelka.com, the precursor to Tehelka magazine, was to head investigations. Everyone knew about Sharma’s proximity with the BJP, “so I think I was approached to bring some credibility to the channel,” Tejpal told us.

India TV signed a content-sharing agreement with the Doha-based broadcaster Al Jazeera, securing access to diaspora viewers in the lucrative Gulf market. A senior journalist told us that Sharma’s contacts in the Samajwadi Party, which was part of the United Progressive Alliance government then in power, helped with securing the requisite government permissions. “See, though he was a BJP guy, he never became pathologically anti-Congress,” the journalist said. India TV also acquired over 80,000 square feet of space in Noida’s Film City, and built the biggest television studio floor in Asia at the time to accommodate shows with large live audiences, such as Aap Ki Adalat.

But Sharma had never run a news channel before, and this soon became a problem. “They did news well, but didn’t understand the visual medium, in which the sound and visuals on screen are important,” the journalist Sanjay Dubey, who joined India TV soon after its launch, recalled. “The concept of news for India TV was bland.” As a result, “there were no ads. We used to be happy if there was one ad in two hours.”

Sharma’s good intentions, Dubey said, “didn’t last long.” In February 2005, elections in Bihar produced a hung assembly, and the state headed towards president’s rule. As the country watched the drama unfold, India TV “didn’t have the wherewithal to get live reporting like other channels. We couldn’t possibly compete with them.” One day, the channel aired a video from a sting operation on some Bihar politicians, “and we managed to beat all the other channels in the race for eyeballs.” Soon afterwards, the channel also telecast stings on the Bollywood actors Shakti Kapoor and Aman Verma, in which they solicited sexual favours from a reporter posing as an aspiring movie star. (Kapoor and Verma later took India TV to court, alleging blackmail.) From then on, India TV started to reflect more and more of Sharma’s past as a tabloid journalist.

Sudhir Chaudhary, who was hired as an anchor, told us that one of the things agreed upon in the channel’s early days was that “we will be restrained and responsible with the term ‘breaking news,’” which was so overused on other channels that it “had become a cliche, it had lost its meaning.” When India TV launched, Sharma hosted the flagship show, Aaj Ki Baat, at 9 pm, with Chaudhary’s India Live following at 10 pm. “Aaj Ki Baat was the most watched show at 9 pm according to the ratings,” Chaudhary said. “Even my show was doing very well, but we wanted more viewers, so instead of those two shows we both started to host a three-hour show starting at 9 pm.” The title chosen for the show was “Breaking News.”

According to Chaudhary, Breaking News had great ratings. But overall, the channel was doing badly. Tejpal left before he shot a single show, to launch Tehelka. A former India TV reporter, who was with the channel at this time, told us that journalists at the channel “were not treated like human beings.” There were copious rules and restrictions. Ghazala Amin, a former newsreader with Doordarshan brought in to train anchors and reporters, had final say over everything from her trainees’ hairstyles to their manners of speech. Reporters were not allowed to address the audience directly through the camera, and even when they delivered breaking stories their names were not mentioned on air. Junior staffers were expected to be servile to senior ones. There was particular discontent with Hemant Sharma, who was then in charge of the channel’s reporters and is currently its news director. According to the former India TV reporter, about 30 people quit the news division, and “by the end of 2005 and the beginning of 2006, the desk was left with no reporters. So they started depending on YouTube for stories.”

India TV has since also faced more serious accusations of mistreating its staff. In 2014, Tanu Sharma, a former news presenter with the channel, went to the police to file a first-information report against two India TV executives. In the document, Tanu claimed she had faced severe harassment at work, which pushed her into attempting suicide. She wrote that she had been told to do “wrong things” and asked “to meet corporates and politicians.” Rajat Sharma and Ritu Dhawan denied Tanu’s claims, and threatened to sue her. The case is yet to be resolved.

Within two years of its launch, India TV was in severe financial straits. “It lost so much money that the banks that gave it loans got after it,” Sharma told the 2014 conference. Some salaries were paid, he said, by selling off land that he owned and his wife’s jewellery. There were only two options left for the channel, “to either sell, or change. So we changed.”

Sharma told his audience, “I could not live with the tag of ‘unsuccessful’ on my head.” So he called in his team, and asked “if from the next day they would be willing to leave morality, honesty, idealism and intellect at home. They replied, ‘Sir, if the boss leaves it at home, so will we.’”

The most popular shows on news channels­ at that point, Sharma said, were Khauff on Aaj Tak, Kaal Kapaal Mahakaal on Zee TV and Sansani on Star News. These were notorious for pandering to popular superstition and sensationalising banal stories, often through the use of overblown re-enactments. “They were doing these shows for the ratings once or twice in a day,” Sharma said. “So we decided to do all our shows like that.”

Online videos about such things as driverless cars and demonic possession now became the basis for hours of the channel’s broadcasts, and “experts” were called in to discuss ghosts and miracles. Within less than a year, India TV was the second-most-watched Hindi news channel. It would end up becoming almost synonymous with this sort of content.

According to a veteran journalist who has worked with NDTV in the past, at around this time India TV also brought down its advertising rates. “They were much lower than the standards of the industry, so they got advertisers,” he said. “But it destabilised everyone else,” especially since advertising accounted for the large majority of revenue for all news channels. “Why would an advertiser pay more money for an ad on a channel that had lower ratings than India TV? So everyone brought their prices down—and the cuts were reflected in the content that was broadcast.”

“Dumbing down of the news was happening since much before India TV,” Vinod Kapri, who became the managing editor of India TV in 2007, said. “India TV only took a step further.”
When he joined the channel, Kapri said, Sharma was very clear about what the channel needed. In the first year, he had wanted ratings. In the second year, he had wanted ratings and revenue. In the third, he wanted ratings, revenue and respect. So, “in the third year, we did serious news shows which also had ratings, like Top 20 Reporter”—a fevered rundown of 20 pieces of news from the last day.

“I said that I will bring different content, but I will not do superstitious stories,” Kapri told us. “We moved away from mythology and superstition and started looking for international news—NASA and Higgs Boson and such.” India TV’s coverage on the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle, presented it as something that could “end the world,” Kapri said.

“We did stories about Satya Sai,” Kapri continued, referring to the god-man Sai Baba. “We debunked his myths. Things he used to pass off as miracles, they weren’t miracles. Even the magicians could perform those tricks. In those days, we always had two or three magicians in the studio.” These stories, Kapri said, were repackaged and replayed over days.

In May 2008, a teenager, Aarushi Talwar, was found murdered in Noida, along with her family’s domestic helper, Hemraj Banjade. The facts of the crime were anything but clear, and the case attracted lots of indelicate speculation. India TV, like many other channels, jumped on it, with crude and sensational coverage. The channel was criticised, “but we had ratings,” Kapri said. “We covered that case like nobody else—we played it for three months straight, 18 hours a day.”

Later that year, beginning on the evening of 26 November, came the Islamist attacks on Mumbai. India TV, like all its competitors, covered the attacks live. “Phone networks were going down that night, so we started to flash our numbers on screen,” Kapri said. “We were also challenging the terrorists throughout. We told them that they have been surrounded and more specialised forces are about to reach.” Then, in the early hours of the morning, “a terrorist from Oberoi Hotel,” one of the sites of the attacks, “called us.”

The caller was asked to confirm that he was a terrorist. He did this, Kapri told us, by firing shots in the air. In the recordings of the call that India TV broadcast, the caller identified himself as a member of an unknown group called the Deccan Mujahideen. Later investigation would show that the attack was in fact the work of the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. India TV also broadcast another recorded phone call, from a caller claiming to be an attacker at another site, Nariman House. The channel kept both recordings on air until the ministry of information and broadcasting called it in the evening and told it to stop. “We were trying to mediate between the terrorists and the government,” Kapri told us. “And that the I-and-B ministry called us saying that we are jeopardising things proves that the calls were genuine.”

By the time Kapri left India TV, in 2013, it was hugely profitable.

ACCORDING TO REPORTS FILED  with the registrar of companies, in the 2010 financial year, Independent News Service saw a profit of Rs1.2 crore, though it also reported losses of about Rs66 crore carried over from previous years. In the 2014 financial year—which covered the lead-up to the 2014 general election—the channel’s reported profits swelled to Rs11 crore. In its 2015 report, the company showed a profit of Rs20 crore, and a net worth of Rs141 crore—approximately $21 million.

Beyond the healthy balances, however, Independent News Service’s finances throw up some uncomfortable questions.

Sharma and Dhawan began raising capital for the company in 2005. That year, Aditya Corpex—a part of the Adani Group, owned by Gautam Adani—bought a 16.4-percent stake in it. The investment totalled Rs6.8 crore: Rs3.8 crore to cover the base value of 3.8 million equity shares at Rs10 each, plus a premium of Rs3 crore. The conglomerate Jaypee Group also made an investment, putting in Rs24 lakh to secure a 1.05-percent stake, paying the base rate for its equity shares but without any premium.

In March 2007, Independent News Service attracted funding from outside India too. CV Global Holdings, a company registered in Mauritius, invested Rs45 crore, buying equity shares as well as preference shares—these come without the voting rights that equity shares bring, but guarantee preferential treatment when it comes to dividends. CV Global’s equity shares gave it a 20-percent stake in Independent News Service. (The ministry of information and broadcasting sets limits on foreign direct investment in news channels. In 2007, the stipulated maximum—calculated based on holdings of equity shares—stood at 26 percent.) CV Global’s whole investment put together, though, represents 59.3 percent of the company’s current total capital.

All foreign venture-capital firms looking to invest in the country must register with the Securities and  Exchange Board of India. Of the 154 such firms registered at present, 149 are based in Mauritius. Of these, 46 share the same address, phone number and fax number. CV Global is one of them.

CV Global was acting as a conduit for ComVentures, a venture-capital firm based in the United States that announced that it was making an investment in India TV. Alongside this investment, ComVentures also put Rs87.8 crore into another Indian broadcaster, NDTV. In April this year—by which point ComVentures had merged into a larger entity, Velocity Interactive Group—the income-tax department disallowed this latter investment, calling it a “sham transaction” and “unexplained investment in the hands of NDTV,” and demanding additional tax from the channel. There has been no notice of what attention, if any, the income-tax department has paid to the ComVentures investment in India TV.

In December 2007, an Indian company called Shyam Equities bought a 23-percent stake in Independent News Service for Rs100 crore. According to Independent News Service’s annual report for that year, the investment included Rs7 crore to cover the base price of equity shares at Rs10 each, and a premium of Rs93 crore. It is highly unusual to pay such a massive premium to secure a stake in a nascent company—particularly one that, by Sharma’s own admission, was in deep financial trouble in this period. Shyam Equities is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Tally Solutions, whose directors include Manoj Modi and Anand Jain—both known to be business associates of Mukesh Ambani.

Strangely, Shyam Equities’s own annual report for that year, while agreeing that the company invested Rs100 crore in Independent News Service, tells a different story of how the total broke down. According to this document, the company paid Rs70 crore to cover the base price of its equity shares, at a rate of Rs100 each, and paid the rest of its investment as a premium.

In 2012, Shyam Equities’s 23-percent stake in Independent News Service was bought by Infotel Televentures. The company is owned by Mahendra Nahta, a businessman with close links to Mukesh Ambani, who has been questioned by the Central Bureau of Investigation in relation to the 2G-spectrum scam under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. Infotel bought the stake for Rs12.5 crore—meaning that Shyam Equities took a loss of Rs87.5 crore on its Rs100-crore investment.

Besides Independent News Service and Independent Media, Sharma and Dhawan have incorporated three other companies: India TV & Film Academy, India TV Broadcast Company and India TV Interactive Media. Some of these companies own parts of others: part of India TV Interactive Media is owned by Independent Media, and part of Independent Media is owned by Independent News Service. In accounting jargon, this pattern of ownership is called crossholding. While not illegal in itself, crossholding can be used to avoid taxes by moving money from one company to another as expenses in order to under-report the amount of taxable revenue.

Some money from Independent News Service appears to have found its way into Sharma and Dhawan’s other companies. In the 2015 financial year, Independent Media—in which Independent News Service had purchased a stake—had revenues of only Rs1.25 lakh from its operations, yet it showed reserves and surplus capital of over Rs21 crore. That same year, India TV Interactive Media reported an income of Rs18.6 crore, of which Rs16.5 crore came from renting “infrastructure facility / studio facility” to Independent News Service—essentially, to India TV. The previous year, Rs15.8 crore of its Rs17.36-crore income came from the same channel and under the same head. Such transactions under such circumstances are often signs of tax avoidance.

TOWARDS THE END OF 2013, as campaigning for the 2014 general election gathered intensity, India TV turned its guns on the BJP’s opponents—particularly the Congress and Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party. “They were showing Muslim discontent with the Congress—half-an-hour stories without a single soundbite,” a former colleague of Sharma’s told us. “Rajat Sharma’s own show had totally manufactured crowds. They would behave in a certain way when Kejriwal came to Aap Ki Adalat, and another when [it was] someone from the BJP. The mood of the show was completely manufactured.”

Kejriwal appeared on Aap Ki Adalat in October 2013, while preparing for an upcoming Delhi legislative-assembly election that delivered the AAP to power in the capital. Kejriwal had come to prominence as the leader of an anti-corruption campaign, and Sharma pressed him hard on allegations of past malfeasance by some AAP leaders. Kejriwal replied that the allegations were untrue, and were fabricated by his party’s rivals. Sharma started quoting from a complaint filed with the Delhi lokayukta, or anti-corruption ombudsman. When Kejriwal said that the complaint had been filed by a BJP leader and was being investigated, Sharma accused him of being evasive. “First you asked for papers,” he said. “When I show papers, you say they are not correct. How are you the only standard of correctness?” The audience applauded. Sharma did not let Kejriwal respond.

Kejriwal’s treatment, it appeared, departed from a common Aap Ki Adalat practice. Jawahar Goel told us that even during Sharma’s time at Zee TV, his interviewees usually screened the questions that would be posed to them. “This is a format for an entertainment-news show. Aap Ki Adalat ka ye matlab nahi hai ki bulake logon ki pant utarenge” (Aap Ki Adalat does not mean that you call people on and pull their pants down), he said. “So the people who appeared on the show more or less knew in advance the questions that will be asked by Rajat.”

At 9 pm on 12 March 2014, less than a month before the general election, Sharma began Aaj Ki Baat by saying to his audience, “I want to tell you something from my heart.” He had a sore throat and was feeling unwell, he said, but this was important. “Arvind Kejriwal and his team, once again, have tried to threaten the media,” Sharma said. “Arvind Kejriwal and his team had the audacity to point fingers at India TV.”

By this point, Kejriwal had stepped down as the chief minister of Delhi and dissolved his government following a torrid 49-day reign. Recently, at a private gathering of AAP members, Kejriwal had claimed that several news channels, including India TV, were biased against the party. A video of his remarks was leaked to the media.

The entire hour of Sharma’s show that night was dedicated to taking apart Kejriwal’s claim. Several AAP members had by then tried to downplay their leader’s remarks, saying that he had confused India TV with another channel, India News. But Sharma was not placated. He said that this backtracking was evidence of the duplicity of Kejriwal and the AAP, of a habit of saying one thing in private and something completely different in public. He reminded viewers of Kejriwal’s grand promises during his anti-corruption campaign, then showed him moving into a big house after being elected chief minister. Clips from Kejriwal’s Aap Ki Adalat interview were also thrown in.

“I have to say something to Kejriwal and his team,” Sharma said to the camera as the show neared its end. “Mr Kejriwal, you have not been in public life for four days, you do not understand what struggle is. To fight for the right to speak, I had to spend time in jail during the Emergency. I was tortured in a police station for two days.” In his 32-year career as a journalist, Sharma said, no one had ever been able to so much as point a finger at his integrity.

Afterwards, the News Broadcasters Association, a body of private news broadcasters that has Sharma as its director, issued a press release threatening to stop coverage of the AAP if Kejriwal did not stop maligning news channels.

A month later, on 12 April, Sharma presented a special episode of Aap Ki Adalat. During the BJP’s election campaign, India TV was granted special access to the party, and its leaders often chose to be interviewed by Sharma’s channel above all others. Now, Sharma announced a coup. His guest that night—in the middle of multiple-phase polling that began on 7 April and ran on for over a month—was the BJP’s prime-ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. This was the second of only two interviews that Modi gave to Hindi news channels during the campaign.

Sharma opened the interview with a comment rather than a question. All the country’s top politicians were worried, he said, because everywhere they went all they heard was Modi’s campaign slogan, “Ab ki bar, Modi sarkar” (This time, a Modi government). The audience cheered. Several of Sharma’s prompts to his interviewee sounded like compliments. Every once in a while, the audience broke into chants of “Modi, Modi, Modi.” Sharma read out some messages he had seen online: “Twinkle twinkle little star, ab ki baar Modi sarkar.” “Rahul Gandhi ne khai chocolate bar, ab ki baar Modi sarkar.” Modi laughed. The show went on in this vein for over an hour.

“When the ratings came in,” Sharma told the 2014 conference, “we couldn’t believe our eyes.”

In journalistic circles, the interview drew widespread ire. “It wasn’t an interview, it was a rally for Modi,” a veteran news editor told us. A journalist who earlier worked with NDTV described it as “shameful.” Qamar Waheed Naqvi, who had left Aaj Tak to join India TV as its executive director just months before the interview aired, quit after it was broadcast, reportedly saying that the whole thing was scripted.

{FIVE}

LOYALTY IS VERY IMPORTANT TO MODI,” senior journalist who has worked with Sharma told us. “The equation Jaitley has with journalists is different—you can have dinner with him and still write a column that is, if not directly accusatory, at least unfavourable. That cannot be done with Modi. With him, you are either eating out of his hands or you are not.”

Since Modi’s election victory, Sharma’s prominence has only grown. “People like Rajat Sharma are not used for small assignments,” a senior journalist told us. “India TV has become a cat’s paw … of the BJP. When the government came to power, it started looking like Doordarshan, showing stuff according to handouts.” Shatrughan Sinha, the BJP leader and cabinet minister, told the Economic Times in February 2015, “Sharma today is more influential than many ministers in the cabinet. He can get a seat in any House, any award because he knows everyone.” In March 2015, Sharma was awarded the Padma Bhushan, the country’s third-highest civilian award. A right-to-information request by the Indian Express revealed that he had not been on the government’s regular list of nominees, but had received the prize on the recommendation of Jaitley.

There have also been other perks. For instance, since 2012, Sharma has been on the advisory board of Hockey India, which governs field hockey in the country. Hockey India is headed by Narinder Batra, who is also close to Jaitley and served as the treasurer of the Delhi & District Cricket Association under him. Ashok Mathur, the former secretary of the rival Indian Hockey Federation, which was contentiously disbanded, told us, “Rajat Sharma is on the board only because of Arun Jaitley. He has nothing to do with hockey otherwise.” In December 2015, KPS Gill, a former head of hockey in India, sent a letter to Arvind Kejriwal alleging nepotism in Hockey India under Jaitley’s guidance. “What is urgently required to be probed,” Gill wrote, “is the conflict of interest that is being very much visible when you look at the list of office bearers and various committees of Hockey India and financial misappropriations of funds meant for hockey.”

Hemant Sharma, the India TV news director and a co-director of India TV Interactive Media alongside Rajat Sharma, has also seen his star rise. Hemant, who started out as a print journalist in Lucknow, is the son of Hanuman Prasad Sharma, also known as Manu Sharma—“a good friend of Vajpayee,” according to the RSS ideologue Govindacharya. “When he got married to the late Congress leader Devendra Dwivedi’s daughter, his connections with politicians took off,” a senior journalist from Varanasi told us. “He is very close to Mulayam”—Mulayam Singh Yadav, the supremo of Uttar Pradesh’s ruling Samajwadi Party—“as he is to the BJP. He joined India TV and helped Sharma with his connections in the bureaucracy and politics to get the land allotted in Greater Noida for the India TV office.” This March, Hemant received Uttar Pradesh’s highest honour, the Yash Bharti Award, from Akhilesh Yadav, Mulayam’s son and the state’s chief minister.

“He was the first to break the news that Modi might contest from Varanasi,” the journalist said, almost five months before the announcement of this decision was made. “Even the local BJP leaders didn’t know about it. Because of India TV’s reputation we didn’t believe it, but nobody opposed the news.” Last year, the Economic Times quoted sources crediting Rajat Sharma and Hemant with having a “significant role” in the BJP’s campaigning, particularly in having Modi contest the Lok Sabha seat from Varanasi.

Hemant has been tipped to play a big role for the BJP in the upcoming state election in Uttar Pradesh. Whenever he goes to Varanasi, the journalist from the city said, all the local leaders hoping to secure a BJP ticket for the state assembly go to the airport to receive him, as do all the top leaders from the surrounding Purvanchal region. He travelled to the city recently after a death in his family, the journalist said, and was accompanied from the airport by a cavalcade of 45 vehicles.

Although Varanasi is now Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency, the journalist continued, “there is no representative of Modi to monitor” the city for him. “Hemant Sharma is his sole point person. He has become very close to Amit Shah”—the president of the BJP and Modi’s closest confidante. “He was sitting in the front row at Amit Shah’s son’s wedding reception.”

An editor at a Hindi news channel, who earlier worked with Rajat Sharma, told us that Shah got to know Hemant well between 2010 and 2012, when he spent a lot of time at the India TV office in Noida. This was the period when Shah was exiled from Gujarat in connection to his trial for murder.

Earlier this year, as the BJP prepared to nominate members to the Rajya Sabha, the reported front runners for one seat were Rajat Sharma and Swapan Dasgupta, another journalist who is also close to Jaitley. At the last moment, a senior editor told us, “Hemant Sharma threw his hat in the ring.” The seat eventually went to Dasgupta.

IN DECEMBER 2014, Sharma hosted an extravaganza in central Delhi to commemorate the twenty-first anniversary of Aap Ki Adalat. Almost every person we interviewed brought up the event—sometimes in admiration of how far Sharma has come from his humble beginnings, sometimes as proof of his clout in the present government, sometimes both. It was an unusual anniversary to mark with a major celebration, but, a friend of Sharma’s told us, it was chosen because, with Modi’s election victory earlier in 2014, it presented Sharma with a unique opportunity to flaunt his connections.

The guest list was breathtaking: the prime minister, and President Pranab Mukherjee; Jaitley and Amit Shah; M Venkaiah Naidu, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Smriti Irani and others from the BJP’s top ranks, as well as prominent leaders from an array of other parties; Gautam Adani, and his fellow corporate magnate Anil Ambani; the god-man and entrepreneur Baba Ramdev; the news anchor Arnab Goswami; and a host of Bollywood superstars, including the “Three Khans”—Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir. India TV broadcast the event, and Star, headed by Sharma’s old friend and colleague Uday Shankar, bought the rights to show it too. “Boy, what a turnout!” the news website Firstpost gasped the next morning.

One of the highlights of the night was a brief speech by Modi. The prime minister praised Sharma’s character and perseverance, then offered some comments on his Aap Ki Adalat interview earlier that year. “Mere liye thanksgiving ka avsar hai,” he said—For me this is an occasion for thanksgiving. “Because in the days of the election, I got a chance to put my words out on such a large scale. … In the effort that the workers of my entire party put in, that chance was very useful. For that, I give India TV, Aap Ki Adalat, Ritu and Rajat my heartfelt compliments.”

Earlier, Sharma had appeared on stage to start the proceedings. “I want to thank all of you who are here,” he told his guests. “You made an ordinary man a star. Without me having a law degree, you made me the lawyer for the people of the nation.”

Sharma said he was fortunate “that those who I put in the witness box and questioned did not take offence, they became close to me. Some became friends, some well-wishers, some my guides. And there are many among you who became my elders and blessed me. This is what I have earned in these 21 years.”

Corrections
An earlier version of this story (i) misidentified the Broadcast Audience Research Council as the Broadcaster Audience Research Council; (ii) misidentified the journalist Abid Shah as Abid Khan; (iii) misidentified the Securities and Exchange Board of India as the Stock Exchange Board of India; and (iv) mistakenly stated that Kamal Morarka, the owner of The Daily for most of Rajat Sharma’s tenure as the tabloid’s editor between 1989 and 1993, was then a member of the Janata Dal (Secular), when he was a member of the Janata Dal. The Caravan regrets the errors.

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THE BHARATIYA JANATA PARTY GATHERED for its twenty-fifth national executive meeting in the very last days of 2005, at Mumbai’s Bandra Reclamation Ground—the very place where the party was launched a quarter-century ago. To mark the jubilee, three days of grand celebrations were planned to follow the two-day meeting.

Yet an air of gloom hung over the run-up to the event. The BJP had lost national power after a shock defeat to the Congress in the previous year’s general election, and, more recently, it had performed below expectations in state elections in Bihar, Haryana and Jharkhand. The party’s two main leaders, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani, were ageing, and there was a sense that they no longer appealed to an increasingly young electorate. Advani was also facing the ire of the BJP’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, for his comments on a recent trip to Pakistan, where he praised Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the country’s founding father, as a “secular” figure and an “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity.” There was widespread talk of a change at the top, and infighting was rife among the younger crop of party leaders.

One of the BJP’s young stars was Sanjay Joshi—an RSS pracharak, or full-time worker, who was then one of the party’s national general secretaries. Joshi represented much of what the RSS wanted BJP leaders to be. He was deputed to join the party’s Gujarat unit in the late 1980s, and had been instrumental to its growth in the following decade. Newspapers wrote of him sleeping on a charpoy in the BJP’s Ahmedabad office, and travelling the state in sleeper-class railway carriages, clad in slippers and wrinkled kurtas. In 1995, after the BJP secured power in Gujarat for the first time, an internal revolt forced a reshuffle of top posts, including that of the chief minister. Joshi became the BJP’s general secretary for Gujarat, edging out a fellow rising star, Narendra Modi, who was dispatched to work in Delhi instead, exiled from his home state. Modi reportedly took this as a personal slight, and continued to hold a grudge against Joshi after he became the chief minister of Gujarat in 2001.

Several months before the 2005 meeting, an audio recording was leaked anonymously to the media, allegedly of Joshi having sex with an unidentified woman. Copies of a letter, apparently by the same woman, also appeared, accusing Joshi of exploitation and mistreatment. These had the potential to be especially embarrassing because pracharaks, by the codes of the RSS, are expected to remain celibate. But the BJP high command dismissed the leaks as part of a smear campaign, and took no public action.

Then, on the eve of the meeting, CDs began to circulate among the delegates gathered in Mumbai. On them was a video, apparently showing Joshi having intercourse. According to a report in The Telegraph, copies of the video had also been sent to senior RSS and BJP leaders a week earlier. There was little doubt that the leak came from within the party—nobody even bothered to blame any of the BJP’s rivals.

By the next day, as the national executive met, the video was in the hands of the media, and a scandal had exploded. According to a report in The Hindu, one television channel, described as “representing a powerful BJP faction,” issued an ultimatum: “Mr. Joshi must resign, else the tapes would be telecast.”
Joshi handed in his resignation that evening. The remainder of the event was a washout. The video, the audio recording and the letter all later proved to have been fabricated, but Joshi’s career never recovered.

The name of the channel that issued the ultimatum was never reported. But a veteran journalist on the BJP beat, who was present at the Mumbai meeting, told us that, on the day after Joshi’s resignation, the senior BJP leader Pramod Mahajan told several reporters that it was a fledgling Hindi news channel, India TV. The channel’s head was Rajat Sharma, who rose to fame hosting the hit interview show Aap Ki Adalat on Zee TV in the 1990s, and had set up his own operation just the previous year. Sharma was known to be close with Modi, and with Arun Jaitley—a college mate of his, and then, as now, one of Modi’s most trusted lieutenants. It seemed Sharma’s actions had lined up perfectly with the wants of Modi and his inner circle.

ON 12 NOVEMBER 2016, just days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the momentous decision to demonetise all Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes overnight, Sharma’s interviewee on Aap Ki Adalat was the finance minister, Arun Jaitley. The economy had been thrown into disarray: 86-percent-worth of the cash in circulation had been annulled, replacement notes were in short supply, ATMs had not been recalibrated to dispense them, and people were waiting in line for hours, often days, to exchange or deposit old currency at bank branches. The full effects of the demonetisation had not yet become clear, but reports already spoke of farmers having no cash for seeds at a crucial time for sowing the winter crop, and shopkeepers and vendors seeing business suddenly evaporate. This was the first interview Jaitley had granted since the move, and there was no end of tough questions to be asked.

Sharma appeared on Aap Ki Adalat’s wood-panelled, faux-courtroom set—designed to match the show’s title, which translates roughly to “people’s court”—in his customary garb. He sported large eyeglasses and slicked-back, side-parted hair, and was dressed in a luxury suit—one of an entire fleet of them from an Italian design house, a friend of Sharma’s told us, that he keeps in a walk-in closet in his large south-Delhi home. All of this was much as it has been through the 23 years that the weekly show has been airing, with only short pauses as it moved from channel to channel.

In keeping with the Aap Ki Adalat format, after calling the finance minister out to sit in the witness box and answer “charges,” Sharma introduced a guest meant to act as a judge—in this case, the journalist Vijay Sanghvi. This was immediately followed by a narrated montage sketching out Jaitley’s political career, with particular mention of his long friendship with Modi, and of how he stood by the former Gujarat chief minister in “the dark days of the 2002 riots.” There was not even a casual disclaimer about how Jaitley and Sharma share an intimacy stretching back more than four decades.

With Sharma moderating in casual Hindi speckled with English, Jaitley defended the government against charges that the demonetisation had caused “public harassment,” had left “small traders at loss,” and was carried out to hobble the finances of opposition parties ahead of upcoming state polls. Amid intermittent applause from the studio audience, he stuck to the government’s line, saying that the policy was in the long-term public interest, and would free the country “of the menace of black money,” or illicit wealth. Sharma did not challenge this narrative, or ask Jaitley to explain how this purely domestic measure was to eliminate the problem of black money when huge amounts of untaxed Indian income find their way abroad.

At the end of an hour, the “judge” delivered his verdict. “The explanations given by the finance minister are worth thinking about,” he said, “so there is no need to say much on this.” He concluded, responding to an earlier suggestion from Jaitley that the country move away from cash in favour of electronic payments, with a request that the government consider reducing interest rates on credit cards.

The show, aired in prime time on India TV, went out to a massive audience. In the week of the Jaitley interview, according to the Broadcast Audience Research Council, India TV’s audience reach was 169 times greater than that of the top English-language news channel, Times Now. Among Hindi news channels, India TV’s popularity puts it in second place, with ratings lagging behind only those of Aaj Tak.

This gives Sharma—the channel’s chairman and editor-in-chief, and the host of the daily news show Aaj Ki Baat in addition to the weekly Aap Ki Adalat—enormous public influence. And that, combined with his connections and access to the highest echelons of Indian politics and government, makes him the most powerful person at work in Indian television news today.

Sharma’s oldest political link is with Jaitley, and dates to their days in student politics together, at college in Delhi in the 1970s, as active members of the RSS-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. Such is the depth of their rapport that, early this year, after Jaitley filed a defamation case against the Delhi chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, to counter allegations of financial impropriety during his chairmanship of the Delhi & District Cricket Association, Sharma went before a judge to vouch for Jaitley’s integrity.

With Modi—access to whom is a rare and incomparable boon for any journalist covering the present government—Sharma’s relationship goes back several decades too, to the prime minister’s time as a young pracharak making a name for himself in Gujarat. In India TV’s earliest days, in the mid 2000s, Modi was a repeated visitor to the channel’s offices, according to several people who worked there at the time. The journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, in his book 2014: The Election That Changed India, writes that Modi calls Sharma “pandit-ji” in private, and has done so for decades. So far as access to Modi is concerned, “there is him, and then there is no one for a mile,” a reporter who has been covering the prime minister’s office for the last several years told us. “When you know the PM for as long as he has, you work on a different level.”

One reason put forward for this proximity, by numerous journalists who are close to Sharma or have worked with him, is that he was not a part of the media circles that vilified Modi for his alleged role in the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 2002. “Rajat never did all that, and has been rewarded for it,” a veteran editor said. “He is the only journalist Modi trusts.” (The majority of those we interviewed for this story, most of them journalists, asked to remain anonymous. At least a dozen people cited Sharma’s present power in media circles and said they did not want to imperil their job prospects.) Sardesai, in his book, describes how Sharma sat on stage with Modi during his swearing-in as Gujarat’s chief minister after the BJP called and won a state election soon after the 2002 violence.

Besides his exceptional political connections and his enormous reach in the Hindi heartland, Sharma also has backing from some of India’s most powerful corporate houses. Among the investors in Independent News Service, which owns India TV, is a company linked to the businessman Gautam Adani, Modi’s oldest and most steadfast corporate supporter. Also on the list is a company associated with Mukesh Ambani, the country’s richest man and the head of Reliance Industries Limited.

Sharma has shown himself to be an enthusiastic supporter of the government’s avowed intent to clamp down on black money, but his own financial dealings are not above suspicion. Independent News Service’s books show a 2007 investment, routed via Mauritius, from a US-based venture-capital firm whose investment in another Indian news broadcaster from that same year was disallowed earlier this year by the income-tax department. Annual reports from Independent News Service and other companies co-owned by Sharma appear to show some creative accounting suggestive of tax evasion.

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Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.
Praveen Donthi is a staff writer at The Caravan.

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16 thoughts on “Our Man in the Studio”

आदरणीय प्रधान मंत्री साहब हमारे इस13 चौरस किलोमीटर शहर को गोद ले लें please मेरा निवेदन एक दम जायज है।*
*आधरणीय प्रधान मंत्री साहब सादर प्रणाम* ,
*मेरा आपसे हाथ जोडकर निवेदन है कि आप हमारे छोटे शहर को गोद ले लें please क्योंकि 600 करोड सालाना बजट है उल्हासनगर महानगरपालिका का फिर भी शहर की हालात एकदम खस्ता है। शहरवासियों को मूलभूत सुविधांए बिलकुल नही हैं। गंदगी ,पानी की किल्लत, खराब सडकें व सरकारी र्कायलयों में रिशवतखोरी, भ्रष्टाचार ,आम आदमी पिस रहा है । यहाँ लगभग सभी चुने हुए प्रतिनिधियों का विकास पाँच सालों में साफ दिखता है।लेकिन शहर वहीं का वहीं नरक समान । कृपाय ये छोटा शहर आप गोद लेकर उपकार करें पुण्य कमायें ।मुख्यमंत्री श्री देवेन्द्र फडनवी को गोद दें या श्री आदित्यनाथ योगी जी को दें धन्यवाद uttam bhagat singh ramrakhyani 9422678457

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