AS AMIT SHAH, the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, prepared for a three-day visit to Bengaluru in August, the party’s Karnataka unit went into a state of nervous excitement. The BJP’s chances of defeating the incumbent Congress in the state’s assembly election, then roughly half a year away, appeared to be waning, and Shah was to get the party’s electoral machinery rolling in earnest. In anticipation, a senior BJP politician from Karnataka told us, officials of the party’s Karnataka unit drafted an itinerary for Shah, and sent it up the chain for approval. Among the things they proposed was for the BJP president to officiate at an induction ceremony for Rajeev Chandrasekhar, an independent member of the Rajya Sabha from Karnataka. Chandrasekhar, the BJP politician said, was ready to join the party and shed all pretence of his political independence.
When the itinerary came back, Chandrasekhar’s induction had been removed, without apology or explanation. He remained officially unaffiliated. Chandrasekhar’s influence had met its limit.
In theory, the importance of Rajeev Chandrasekhar is indisputable. Besides being a two-time member of the Rajya Sabha, he is a businessman with a rich and wide-ranging portfolio, and a media baron on the rise. More importantly, he is flush with the most vital currency for any enterprising politician—visibility.
But this has not been enough to win him a place in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet—something that numerous people associated with him said he has long been angling for—through all of the present government’s three ministerial reshuffles so far. Instead, the veteran journalist HS Balram, who worked with Chandrasekhar for several years, told us, “one lollipop he has been given”: an appointment as the vice chairman of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in Kerala, where the party ranks a distant third by electoral popularity, and can count but a single seat in the legislative assembly, won in 2016, in its entire history.
By all accounts that we heard, Chandrasekhar cares a great deal about how he is perceived, and has worked hard to thrust himself into public view. Often, this has meant bidding for moral capital—specifically, the variety of it that appeals most to the Indian middle class. He has made prominent announcements of his nationalism, and talked up his efforts, in parliament and outside it, for such causes as privacy, freedom of expression and the battle against corruption. He has also long advocated for the rights and welfare of military personnel. In Bengaluru, where he has lived for the best part of his life, he has championed various civic causes.
“He has been, unlike other MPs, a working MP—that is what earned him the goodwill of the Delhi media initially,” a political journalist from Karnataka said. “But his stock was always low with the Kannada media.” A television journalist from the state said, “If you are shaved, if you speak good English, are handsome, seen to be articulate, you can get a name for yourself in Delhi.” But for Chandrasekhar, he added, the reputation in the national capital “is far removed from your image in your own land.”
This is partly due to unresolved questions over Chandrasekhar’s business dealings with the family he married into, which runs the electronics firm BPL. These came up persistently in our interviews in Bengaluru, with journalists and the city’s social and economic elite. To add to this, for all of Chandrasekhar’s claims of fighting corruption, we heard multiple accounts of how he might not always have stuck to legitimate paths to secure his position in the Rajya Sabha. Even while continuing with his civic activism, he has, on several occasions, faced accusations of irregular land dealings relating to companies he has been associated with, some of which are under government investigation. His position as an advocate of free speech suffered after he filed a defamation suit earlier this year against The Wire, forcing the news portal to take down articles that, among other things, alleged conflicts of interest between his roles as a parliamentarian and a businessman.
Projections of Chandrasekhar’s wealth seems to vary by context. His investment firm, Jupiter Capital, which he holds a 51-percent stake in, is valued at Rs 1,350 crore, or over $200 million, in its latest filings with the registrar of companies. In 2015, after the Times of India published a list of the world’s richest Malayalis without naming Chandrasekhar on it, a representative of his called an employee of the paper to complain. A person aware of the conversation told us that, according to the representative, “Rajeev Chandrasekhar was worth about Rs 7,500 crore,” or more than $1 billion, after factoring in all his investments and real estate holdings, in India and abroad. The same year, a report on the declared assets of Rajya Sabha members, released by the advocacy group Association for Democratic Reforms, showed his total assets at Rs 35.9 crore, or roughly $5.5 million.
Early in his career, Chandrasekhar built up one of India’s first private mobile-telephony businesses, under the BPL brand, before selling it off and starting Jupiter Capital. Through the firm, he ventured into multiple commercial fields, including the media. He controls the most popular news channel in Kerala, as well as a daily newspaper and a news channel in Karnataka. His latest media gambit, the one that has earned him the most national attention so far, came this May, with the launch of the English-language news channel Republic TV. Chandrasekhar is a major investor in the venture, and Arnab Goswami, the high-decibel anchor, is a co-investor and its editor-in-chief.
But “there is no proven utility to Rajeev politically,” a former editor at one of Chandrasekhar’s outlets told us. The son of an officer in the Indian Air Force, he had the transient upbringing common to many children of the country’s military personnel. He traces his lineage to Kerala, but is seen as an outsider there. According to a Congress leader from the state, Chandrasekhar is ill at ease with Malayalam. He is not well versed in Kannada either, which hampers his claim to belonging in Karnataka. He has no mass base to appeal to. With his chosen political allies, the former editor at one of Chandrasekhar’s outlets said, “he may have to be willing to bend over backwards, even if they do not make good on their promises. He is not really in a position to negotiate.”
In 2011, the Economic Times published a report on Chandrasekhar paired with a caricature of him standing beside a dartboard, several darts clustered around the bullseye but not a single one on it. “Somehow, the last mile is a problem for him, the last mile leading to the cabinet,” a former executive in one of Chandrasekhar’s companies said. “Somehow, with that, he always gets lost.”
At the age of 53, a parliamentarian for 11 years, with a fiercely burnished nationalism and money to spend, Rajeev Chandrasekhar has enough badges of honour to charge at India’s greatest bastions of power. If anything can finally get him inside them, it is his media empire—straddling languages and states, and with an audience in the millions.
IN THE MID 1990S, BPL hired Amitabh Bachchan to appear in an advertising campaign. It was the actor’s first ever paid brand endorsement, and he was reported to have received Rs 8 crore for it. This was an almost obscene sum for such work in those early post-liberalisation days, but BPL—having found success manufacturing and marketing consumer electronics, among much else—was one of the few Indian companies able to afford it.
The group’s fortunes were short-lived. By the first decade of the new millennium, BPL was in decline, after what a business newspaper would later summarise as “simultaneous expansion into several unrelated areas of business, lack of financial discipline, the entry of the South Korean companies LG and Samsung and dissension in the family.” The two main antagonists in that dissension were Chandrasekhar and his father-in-law—TPG Nambiar.
Nambiar started BPL in 1963, in his native Kerala, in collaboration with the UK firm the company drew its name from—British Physical Laboratories. That same year, in another part of the country, another Malayali was also making new beginnings. MK Chandrasekhar, a young pilot and officer in the Indian Air Force, and Valli, a hockey player from Gujarat, were introduced by a mutual acquaintance. They wed soon afterwards. In May 1964, while MK Chandrasekhar was in Egypt on an assignment, Valli gave birth to their son, Rajeev.
MK Chandrasekhar told us that, as a little boy, Rajeev “saw me take off on early mornings from Mohanbari”—an air force station in Assam. “His main thing was books,” he recalled. “He could read a book this thick”—MK Chandrasekhar spread a thumb and index finger several inches apart—“and finish it in two hours. You could ask him questions and he would tell you which page, which paragraph.”
MK Chandrasekhar was frequently transferred from one posting to another. To try and give Rajeev some stability, the family briefly enrolled him at a school in Delhi, and then at a boarding school in Thrissur, Kerala. There, he contracted tuberculosis. The treatment left him with weak eyesight, which eventually cost him a shot at the career his father had hoped he would pursue, that of a pilot in the air force.
Rajeev often points to his childhood by way of explaining his ardent nationalism. “His mother says that he is his father’s son,” MK Chandrasekhar said. “Patriotism is a state of mind. … A child imbues the value systems he sees his father exercising.”
After he finished school, Rajeev enrolled in a university to study economics, but did not take to the course. MK Chandrasekhar thought of arranging a seat for his son at another institution, Aligarh Muslim University, but, he recalled, “his mother said, ‘Over my dead body will you send my son to a Muslim institution.’”
Rajeev was finally enrolled to study electronic engineering at the Manipal Institute of Technology. MK Chandrasekhar said that, to secure his son a seat, he “spent a lakh.” The college, according to one of Rajeev’s seniors from his time there, was a place “for those people who were smart but marginalised by the quota system.” It cost “a lot of money” for the time, he added.
Rajeev first gave the impression of being “a nerdy bookish type,” his senior said, but “he partied as hard as anyone else did—and boy, we partied hard.” The journalist Vir Sanghvi, in a gushing profile of Rajeev in his book Men of Steel, wrote that while at Manipal the young man was part of a biker’s gang called the Junk Sangh—“ironic, in the light of the friends he made later in life,” Sanghvi noted. The gang used to drive to Bengaluru, around 400 kilometres away, “for concerts by the few rock stars who came to India in the early 1980s.” Rajeev remains a big music fan.
The young man had his first brush with politics while in college. During an election, he volunteered as a polling-booth agent for the Congress leader Oscar Fernandes in nearby Udupi, and roamed the city “with some tough-looking guys, drinking throughout,” a person who was with him that day said. “It was a blast.”
After completing his undergraduate degree, Rajeev headed to the United States. According to Sanghvi, in nine months he earned a master’s degree from an institute in Chicago, and “gained a mentor to beat all mentors, Vinod Dham.” Dham, famed for his work as an engineer at Intel, recruited Rajeev to work at the technology company.
“I had a great career at one of the best companies in the world,” Rajeev said in a 2011 newspaper interview. “I was driving a Porsche to work in Silicon Valley. I basically had everything I wanted.”
This is when MK Chandrasekhar intervened. As he recalled it, he told Rajeeev, “My son, it is a dangerous situation. You, at the age of 24, are doing so well, enough money in your hand, you will find half a dozen young females in America willing to lift their skirt if they see you. … I would like for you to marry an Indian.”
As Rajeev was growing, TPG Nambiar’s company was too. Soon after its founding, Nambiar became its majority stakeholder and broke ties with its UK partner. In 1966, BPL moved its headquarters to Bengaluru. It branched out into manufacturing colour televisions, refrigerators, washing machines, telephone sets, medical equipment and more. Not content with building just finished products, Nambiar insisted on producing components as well. By the 1990s, BPL products were ubiquitous in India’s middle-class households.
Towards the end of the 1980s, TPG Nambiar was introduced to MK Chandrasekhar. Nambiar’s daughter, Anju, was also in the United States, studying at Boston University. Chandrasekhar and his wife travelled to San Fransisco to meet Rajeev, and drove across the country to Boston, where they met Anju and her parents. “Now that you both are together, we would like you to go to the Boston University lawns and talk for the whole afternoon,” MK Chandrasekhar said he told Rajeev. “Come back in time for dinner—which your father will pay for—and then we’ll talk.” When Anju and Rajeev returned in the evening, they were smiling.
MK Chandrasekhar decreed that the wedding would wait till Anju had graduated. He also stipulated that Rajeev and Anju were not to meet again in the United States before they were married, though they could spend as much time as they wanted on the phone. He did this, he explained to us, as “it is easy to get waylaid in the American environment.”
The wedding, a grand affair, was held in Bengaluru. Afterwards, according to MK Chandrasekhar, Anju was reluctant to return to the United States. Rajeev quit his job at Intel and moved back to India. By 1991, he had joined BPL and been appointed the executive director of one of its companies, BPL Systems and Projects, which was then manufacturing push-button phones and telecommunications equipment. This entity later became BPL Mobile Communications. Nambiar’s son, Ajit, was handed increasing responsibility over the rest of BPL’s operations.
Ajit and his brother-in-law were a study in contrasts. “Rajeev was a go-getter,” a confidant of TPG Nambiar told us. “If there was something he wanted, he knew how to go and get it—could be a tender, a government order, a notification. He had the ways to get it done.” Ajit, a journalist who covered BPL said, “was exactly the opposite—a very quiet, humble, rooted guy.” A civic activist in Bengaluru described him as “a sweetie-pie.”
“TPG was a dictatorial man, but he would call Rajeev and ask him for advice on business matters,” Nambiar’s confidant said. “He loved him more like a son than a son-in-law.” A business journalist who was at a photo shoot of the two in those years, and has covered both their careers, said that “Rajeev was deferential with his father-in-law, but there was a great deal of affection between them.”
Rajeev Chandrasekhar soon began working on a new frontier: mobile telephony. He met with the Congress politician Rajesh Pilot, who was the minister of communications between 1991 and 1993. In 1994, BPL Mobile Communications secured one of the first licences for cellular operations in Mumbai.
“A lot of people think that Rajesh Pilot gave them the lucrative licence of Bombay because of the political Congress influence through TPG—who was very influential at that point of time,” the business journalist said. “But Rajeev would dispute that fact, saying that it was he who worked on the bureaucratic system in Delhi.” Pilot knew Chandrasekhar’s father from a short stint in the air force. Sanghvi, in his book, wrote that this connection landed him access to the minister. Chandrasekhar’s other contacts included MK Narayanan, Ajit Nambiar’s father-in-law, who would go on to serve as the national-security adviser from 2005 to 2010, under a Congress-led government.
The company started operations in October 1995. “Everyone did everything in those early days,” Chandrasekhar wrote in a magazine piece in 2014. “I went on sales calls and sat and took calls in the call centre.” When they made their first call from a mobile handset, he said, it was “like travelling to the moon: spiritual, satisfying, history-making.”
BPL Mobile Cellular, another BPL entity run by Chandrasekhar, subsequently acquired licences for other parts of Maharashtra, and also Tamil Nadu and Kerala. “By 2001, BPL Mobile was the largest cellular operator in India,” Sanghvi wrote. “And Chandrasekhar had become the poster boy of the telecom revolution—the Intel engineer who came back to India to prepare us for the twenty-first century.”
It was a capital-intensive business, requiring large investments to build infrastructure, purchase licences and establish a customer base. Nambiar would later claim to have spent close to Rs 550 crore to fund the licences for BPL’s foray into telecom. His confidant claimed that his total outlay on the project was close to Rs 800 crore. To augment these investments, Chandrasekhar arranged loans from multiple banks and chased down private investment, in India and abroad.
Over the course of his work, Chandrasekhar broadened his political ties. A former union minister from the BJP told us that Ananth Kumar and BS Yeddyurappa, both prominent party leaders in Karnataka, “were in regular touch with Nambiar for funds.” After 1998, “when the BJP first formed the government at the centre, that is when Rajeev Chandrasekhar, through his intimacy with Ananth Kumar, came to Delhi.” Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the new prime minister, nominated Chandrasekhar to his council on trade and industry. Chandrasekhar also had a stint on the advisory committee to the ministry of information technology during Vajpayee’s rule.
Vajpayee’s government announced, in 2001, that private telecom operators earlier only licensed to provide fixed-line services could also start cellular operations, and also use alternative technologies earlier barred to existing cellular companies. The existing companies worried that the new entrants would undercut them. Chandrasekhar joined the fight against the move. He met with the journalist Ajith Pillai, and encouraged him to investigate the government’s decision. “He kept speaking about this entire Licence Raj being run by a government which runs things by playing favourites,” Pillai told us. “He believed that groups such as the then-undivided Ambanis, Tatas and Himachal Futuristics were being promoted because of their close links to the party”—the BJP—“and larger parivar”—the groups affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s parent organisation.
Chandrasekhar ultimately had to accept the government’s move. “Since the bulk of BPL’s empire was in the south, Rajeev realised that he did not often have the clout required to be able to lobby in Delhi,” the business journalist from Bengaluru said.
Many others with interests in telecommunications at the time—such as the Tatas, and Sunil Mittal of Airtel—did. “He picked a fight with Mittal because he thought Mittal and he were at the same level, but Mittal just raced ahead of him,” the journalist who covered BPL said. “Mittal was controlling Delhi media, so it was an all-out war those days.” For Chandrasekhar, “That is something he couldn’t digest.”
Chandrasekhar did his best to work the media too. He could be curt when he saw unfavourable, or unfavourably timed, pieces. The journalist who covered BPL said that Chandrasekhar often told him, “Don’t fish for stories where there are none.” When needed, he was strategically generous. The business journalist said that when a senior business editor was on a visit to Bengaluru, “Rajeev had one of his chelas find out that he was an audiophile, and he ensured that a high-end music system was sent to his house.” Pillai told us, “I think he told his PR people to be very generous with journalists. During evening meetings, he would serve Black Label, which was a big deal then.”
The businessman gained a reputation as a man of expensive tastes. Even as a child, MK Chandrasekhar said, “His requirements were very clear—he wanted the latest of things.” As an officer in the Indian military, MK Chandrasekhar had enough to be able to provide. Today, the business journalist from Bengaluru told us, Chandrasekhar owns a fleet of luxury cars, numerous motorcycles and a nine-seat private jet that reportedly cost Rs 140 crore—in the vicinity of $20 million. “I don’t come from the school of thought that creating a business is bad, or that having a jet is bad, or that having a Lamborghini is bad,” he told the Financial Times in 2012. “I have a Lambo, I have a jet, I enjoy all that.” Chandrasekhar “is a flashy guy,” the civic activist from Bengaluru said. “He is more a Punjabi than a Malayali—that’s how I would slot him.”
In Bengaluru, Chandrasekhar lives in the exclusive Third Block of Koramangala. When we went looking for his house—amid the homes of tycoons such as Nandan Nilekani and Kris Gopalakrishnan of Infosys, and Binny Bansal of Flipkart—security guards directed us to the “bada-wala ghar,” the big house. They were not joking. The mammoth structure was obstructed by a high wall and gate, but it was impossible to miss the national flag hoisted up on a pole beyond them.
This aspect of Chandrasekhar’s personality bothered his father-in-law as well. Nambiar’s confidant told us that he used to say, “I made all these things with one Fiat car, I don’t know why people need two or three.”
Around the turn of the millennium, Nambiar’s confidant said, the BPL patriarch also started to worry about some of Chandrasekhar’s business decisions. The Birla group, the Tata Group and the US multinational AT&T had agreed to form a weighty new combine in India, colloquially named “Batata.” As Sanghvi described it, “Chandrasekhar decided to merge BPL Mobile into the big Batata, recognizing that his company, by virtue of its size, would be the single largest shareholder in this new entity.” A former BPL executive said that “TPG was at the signing of the agreement,” and was proud “to see the captains of the industry join hands with BPL.” But when the new venture, officially called Idea Cellular, was unveiled in 2002, BPL had no part in it. The deal had fallen through.
In anticipation of the merger, Chandrasekhar had refrained from further investment in Maharashtra, arguably his most important telecommunications market. “Consequences were disastrous because in 2002, when the merger was cancelled, we were faced with lost market share in Maharashtra, had not raised any capital, and consequently not invested,” Chandrasekhar told a journalist in 2005. The controversial entry of fixed-line operators into the cellular market only made things worse.
Some investors in BPL’s telecom ventures were unhappy enough with the handling of the business to sue, leading to arbitration in the United Kingdom. “Rajeev was seen as a guy who was very temperamental and would pick big fights with his investors,” the journalist who covered BPL said. “But most of those fights didn’t work well for him, tragically. Some people say he could have become bigger in telecom—which Sunil Mittal did and he could not—had he been a little less impetuous.” Nambiar, according to his confidant, used to wonder, “Why is this boy behaving like that? Negotiation can take place.” But, the confidant added, at the time Nambiar chose not to interfere.
There was plenty to worry about already with BPL’s other interests. The company’s electronics business was struggling to stay competitive, particularly with the arrival of rival Korean brands in the Indian market. Supplies of vital components from Sanyo, a major Japanese partner, were interrupted by an earthquake, and the partnership itself came under scrutiny after Sanyo was taken over by a rival firm. BPL was also facing increasing labour unrest. (During one strike, in 1999, a bus carrying BPL staff was set on fire, killing two women. In a widely contested investigation, the police blamed members of a union of BPL workers, several of whom later received life sentences. The accused men maintained that they had not been present at the scene of the crime.)
The crisis between Nambiar and Chandrasekhar stormed into full public view in September 2004. Nambiar filed a petition with the Company Law Board, the quasi-judicial body that oversaw the workings of India’s corporations, alleging that Chandrasekhar had mismanaged BPL’s telecom business and surreptitiously increased his control over it. He reportedly demanded that Chandrasekhar be removed from the boards of BPL’s telecom companies, along with the existing directors, to be replaced by people of his choosing.
Nambiar, his confidant told us, had discovered that, through a series of convoluted transactions over several years, Chandrasekhar had increased his personal stake in BPL’s telecom operations at the expense of the Nambiars’ combined stake in them—so much so that he had become the majority stakeholder in the ventures. News reports at the time said that the petition was meant to stall a plan by Chandrasekhar to sell his stake in BPL’s telecom companies.
Nambiar called a crisis meeting, where he illustrated Chandrasekhar’s dealings to his closest associates. According to a person with knowledge of the meeting, Nambiar declared, “I have to fight him.” His family tried to dissuade him, but he would not yield.
Things became “very public and very ugly,” a person who worked with Chandrasekhar at the time said. Nambiar railed against his son-in-law in media interviews. Chandrasekhar saved his fight for court. The person who worked with Chandrasekhar estimated that he spent roughly Rs 100 crore on the legal battle and related strategies. “This was a different scale of aggression,” he said.
In reply to the petition, Chandrasekhar denied that he had acted surreptitiously or unethically, and accused Nambiar of mismanaging the companies under his control, committing fraud and breaking various financial laws. He stated that BPL had suffered massive losses in the previous year, and was facing legal action for failing to pay its dues. BPL had approached the Corporate Debt Restructuring Cell, his reply said, and been told to put up over Rs 90 crore if it wanted help taking care of what it owed. Nambiar, Chandrasekhar suggested, was looking to tap BPL’s telecom companies to meet this requirement.
The tribunal initially ordered that the status quo be maintained in the telecom companies, but soon voided that order. The dispute went to the Karnataka High Court, and then the Supreme Court. In July 2005, the matter was settled without judicial intervention. Chandrasekhar reportedly bought Nambiar’s remaining stake in the telecom business for Rs 150 crore.
That same month, Chandrasekhar sold a 64-percent stake in the business to the conglomerate Essar, in a deal reported to be worth roughly Rs 4,400 crore—then over $1 billion. Factoring in debts and his direct holdings, Chandrasekhar walked away with an estimated Rs 1,000 crore. Soon afterwards, he founded his investment company, Jupiter Capital, headquartered in Bengaluru.
Nambiar’s confidant said the patriarch “only backed down because there was so much pressure from the family.” What troubled Nambiar the most was that “this was not done overnight. It was a very planned thing, that had probably been put into action even while he thought they were close.”
“The settlement happened because there was something missing in the paperwork,” the person who worked with Chandrasekhar said. Even if Chandrasekhar was legally in the clear, the person added, “morally, you need to be asking questions.”
A representative of BPL told us that neither Ajit nor TPG Nambiar wanted to comment. Several reporters told us that Ajit, when asked about the dispute, maintains that the family has left it behind. He is now leading an effort to revitalise BPL. TPG Nambiar is aged, and very rarely appears in public. He remains very close to Anju, and is an adoring grandfather to her and Chandrasekhar’s two children.
The balance of power between Chandrasekhar and the Nambiars has been reversed from where it started. The person who worked with Chandrasekhar said that the Nambiars, “once among the first families of Bengaluru,” now “haunt the Bangalore Club.” And the man no one knew “until his name was aligned with the Nambiar family,” as the civic activist from Bengaluru put it, is now more prominent than anyone in the family he married into. But his enduring reputation in the city, the activist added, is that he “shafted his father-in-law.”
A reporter who spoke to Chandrasekhar around the time of the dispute told us that he was “not at all apologetic about it.” Chandrasekhar had the feeling that “the father-in-law had goofed it up.” When we reached out to Chandrasekhar for an interview, he passed us on to a representative. Over the course of five months, we sent in numerous interview requests, and continually followed up. We were given tentative appointments on several occasions, only for them to be cancelled each time.
Chandrasekhar is no longer as forthright with the media as he was earlier, the business journalist said. The only publications he will speak to, the journalist said, are the lifestyle supplements of business papers, “where they will talk about his dogs, his house, how his stuff looks, rather than ask him hard questions about his business,” and venture-capital-oriented outlets “where he will say, I am raising some more funds—who is he raising funds for, where is it being deployed, which are the companies.” Try digging too deep, “and he will stonewall you.”
IN MARCH 2006, the Karnataka legislative assembly prepared to vote four candidates into the Rajya Sabha. Chandrasekhar saw an opportunity to make a formal entry into politics.
Karnataka was ruled by a coalition of the Janata Dal (Secular) and the BJP at the time. Chandrasekhar first filed a set of nomination papers with backing from the JDS—the party of the former prime minister HD Deve Gowda, and his son HD Kumaraswamy, who was then the state’s chief minister. The JDS had a history of helping businessmen into the upper house—it had previously backed the successful candidatures of the tycoons MAM Ramaswamy and Vijay Mallya, the latter with support from the BJP as well. Chandrasekhar filed a second set of papers soon afterwards, showing BJP support for his bid as well.
“Rajeev was a surprise candidate,” a former editor at one of Chandrasekhar’s outlets told us. “Everyone knew he had made a ton of money by selling BPL, he was known as a moneybags. Why would a party like JDS, a farmer’s party and all that, pick a guy like that? But JDS had that reputation as well—it always raised party funds through moneybags.”
The eventual occupants of three of the seats on offer were, for all purposes, already settled. The JDS, the BJP and the opposition Congress each had a favoured internal candidate, and the numbers in the legislative assembly to vote their respective men in. But each party also had more votes in the house than it needed for this, and the destinies of these were under contest.
As the deadline for nominations approached, Chandrasekhar seemed the strongest candidate for the fourth seat. But, just before the deadline passed, the Kannada writer UR Ananthamurthy registered as a contender as well, backed by a few independent MLAs and a rebel faction of the JDS led by Siddaramaiah—who later joined the Congress and is the present chief minister of Karnataka.
This constituted a direct challenge to Chandrasekhar, as Ananthamurthy’s electoral strategy made clear. The writer, one of the tallest intellectuals in Karnataka and the country, complained that the Rajya Sabha was turning into a “forum of business tycoons.” He pointedly told journalists that he did not have money, and that he was contesting the seat “because we seem to invariably send a non-Kannadiga to represent us. If I win, it is a victory for Kannadigas. If I lose, at least it will stir up public awareness of the situation our politics is in.”
Ananthamurthy and Chandrasekhar clashed publicly, and Kumaraswamy lashed out against the writer. “Who is Ananthamurthy?” the JDS leader asked. “How many Kannadigas know him? He is only indulging in cheap politics in the name of Kannada.”
In a column, the writer TJS George was critical of Ananthamurthy’s appeals to Kannada chauvinism. The legitimate question to ask about Chandrasekhar, he argued, was not whether he was Kannadiga, but “how he got the backing of all parties though he has never been in the public eye.” The right choice, he wrote, was clear: “It has to be Ananthamurthy.”
Gauri Lankesh, a journalist who ran a Kannada weekly until her murder this September, told us that many of Karnataka’s public-spirited intellectuals took the same view. A few hundred people gathered at Bangalore Town Hall, an iconic landmark near the seat of the legislative assembly, to demonstrate against Chandrasekhar’s candidature. “We suspected that the MLAs were selling their votes,” Lankesh said. The idea was to march to the assembly building with coins and throw them in symbolic protest, but “the lawyers advised us against it, saying that we would get arrested and we had enough battles to fight.”
Ananthamurthy had been associated with the JDS in its early days, and now he appealed to Deve Gowda for support. Ali Baba, a political activist who worked with Ananthamurthy on his bid for election, was part of a group present at a meeting of the two men at Deve Gowda’s home. The politician made the writer wait for half an hour before receiving him, Ali told us. Then he told Ananthamurthy, “I respect you, but what can I do? I am helpless.”
According to Ali, a well-known industrialist approached Ananthamurthy with an offer to finance his campaign. “I have not entered this election to win at any cost,” Ali said Ananthamurthy responded. “This is not how I want to fight this battle.”
At a meeting in Delhi, the senior BJP politician from Karnataka said, the party’s high command—including LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Pramod Mahajan—discussed Chandrasekhar’s bid for their support. Mahajan, who had a stint as communications minister under Vajpayee, furiously opposed backing the businessman. The senior BJP politician recalled him saying, “Jo apne sasur ka bhala nahi kar saka, woh is party ka kya bhala karega?” (What good will a man who could not do good by his father-in-law do for the party?). In the end, Mahajan lost the argument because he “could not suggest another candidate jo thoda bohut paisa kharch kar sake” (who could spend a little money).
Chandrasekhar might have expected the support of the Congress too. His friend VG Siddhartha, the owner of the Cafe Coffee Day chain, is the son-in-law of SM Krishna, at the time a Congress leader. (Krishna joined the BJP this year.) Writing at around the time of the election, the journalist Vinay Madhav reported that, in early 2004, the Congress scion Rahul Gandhi, along with his sister Priyanka and her husband, Robert Vadra, “visited Bangalore and a private lunch was hosted in a farm house for the three. The owner of the farm house was none other than Rajeev Chandrasekhar.” But, just days before the vote, the Congress declared support for Ananthamurthy.
On the day of the election, a JDS legislator was posted outside the voting chamber to keep his fellows in line, Ali said. Chandrasekhar polled 53 votes, against Ananthamurthy’s 24.
In 2012, Chandrasekhar was re-elected to the Rajya Sabha, with far less controversy, backed by the JDS and the BJP. He was one of only four candidates put forward for the four seats on offer.
“Rajeev Chandrasekhar is a good friend of ours, both my father and me,” Kumaraswamy told us. “Our party, when we supported him in both elections, we have not taken anything.” As for other parties that supported him, he said, “How did those parties support him, how did he convince them—he has to answer.” But a top leader of the JDS admitted, “He might have helped with some small money to our party, and even the Bharatiya Janata Party.”
A subsidiary of Jupiter Capital won a contract in 2007 to establish an airport and aviation training facility at Hassan—Deve Gowda’s ancestral home and electoral constituency. The airport, meant to be completed in 18 months, is still unfinished. According to a report in Deccan Herald, Jupiter was given a 30-year lease for the airport for a surprisingly low price of Rs 1,100 per acre per year. At the time of the deal, Deve Gowda’s son Revanna headed the agency overseeing the project.
In 2009, the former union minister from the BJP said, during the campaign for the year’s general election, the party leader Rajnath Singh, now the home minister, demanded that Yeddyurappa come up with Rs 10 crore. Yeddyurappa had already put in what he could, and struggled to bring in more. Eventually, the former minister said, he asked Chandrasekhar to pay Singh in Delhi. “Yeddyurappa may have paid him back in Bengaluru, I don’t know. This is the capacity of Rajeev Chandrasekhar.” During the same campaign, Chandrasekhar appeared at a “Friends of BJP” event in Bengaluru alongside Ananth Kumar and Arun Jaitley—both now cabinet ministers. In 2010, the party appointed Chandrasekhar to head a group that outlined the party’s vision of development. That same year, Chandrasekhar was nominated for a Padma Bhushan by the Karnataka government, led by the BJP, and four Congress leaders, three of them cabinet ministers.
“HOW I GOT INTO THE media has been almost by fluke,” Chandrasekhar said this July at a panel discussion on journalism and the media. His first media investment, he explained, was in “essentially an entertainment company in the south”—Asianet, based in Kerala. At the time, Asianet ran three channels: its flagship general-entertainment channel, another oriented towards younger viewers, and Asianet News. Jupiter Capital, through a subsidiary, acquired a 51-percent stake in Asianet in October 2006, for a price reported to be between Rs 120 and Rs 150 crore.
The person who worked with Chandrasekhar around this time told us that the businessman thought “that news channels, and the media in general in India, were relatively very undersold. The idea, from what I understood, was that if somebody could organise them, and make them even remotely viable, then it would be easier for a foreign company to invest in the media here.”
So Chandrasekhar “organised” Asianet—he restructured it into four separate companies, one each to handle general-entertainment, news, radio channels and infrastructure assets. Then he found a company looking to invest in media in India—the Star Network, owned by the American media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Just over two years after Jupiter bought into Asianet, it struck a deal with Star that gave Murdoch’s company control over Asianet’s general-entertainment business, reportedly for close to Rs 1,400 crore, or $235 million. According to an executive who worked at Asianet, the deal “could not have come at a better time” for him.” (Star gradually increased its stake in the business, and completely took it over in 2014.)
At the time Star first invested in Asianet, in 2008, foreign investors were not allowed to acquire any more than 26 percent of an Indian news channel. Asianet News remained in Chandrasekhar’s control. This was what Chandrasekhar described as his “fluke.”
Today, Asianet News is one of the few assets in Chandrasekhar’s media portfolio that turns a significant profit. It is also, by wide consensus, the most popular and credible news channel in Kerala. Chandrasekhar frequently presents this as evidence that he does not interfere in the media ventures he invests in, as long as they build audiences and make money. This August, he told a reporter, “You have got to have a large share of the market. You have to do what you have to do to get a large share of the market.” That, he said, is his “only brief” for his media holdings. If this requires “a slight leftist slant in a market that requires a leftist slant, they do that,” he added. And “if it requires a certain slant in another market, they do that.”
What we discovered in interviews with former and current employees of Asianet News suggests the picture is more complicated. The channel’s credibility, we were told, owes much to its distinctive journalistic tradition, which has survived despite, and not always because of, the inclinations of its past and present corporate owners.
Asianet began broadcasting, with a single channel, in 1993. It was one of the very first private satellite television channels to broadcast in the country, and the first ever to do so in Malayalam. Early on, to get around the government’s broadcasting restrictions, its programmes were produced in Kerala and flown on tape to Moscow, to be beamed up to a Russian television satellite that then beamed them back down to India. In 1995, having switched to beaming its content from the Philippines, Asianet broadcast the first ever live news bulletin by a private Indian channel. The channel eventually moved all of its operations to Indian soil.
Asianet’s founders were the journalist Sashi Kumar, and his uncle, the businessman Reji Menon. Under Kumar’s guidance, the audacity that drove the channel to the lengths it went to to get on air in those days also extended into Asianet’s content.
Neelan, a former news editor at Asianet, recalled how, even before the first live newscast from the Philippines, a team in Thiruvananthapuram was trained to produce bulletins. The channel was committed to the “point of view of the marginalised,” the writer Paul Zacharia, who was part of Asianet’s founding team, told us. “Our reporters came from a certain intellectual sensibility. They had to be progressive, contemporary. Non-conformism was a very important part of our agenda.”
Part of this meant opening the doors to women. “The first three girls that we hired, they didn’t last very long, the atmosphere was not very conducive,” BRP Bhaskar, who anchored a media-critique programme alongside Zacharia, said. “But the women who joined subsequently all stood their ground, and the newsroom was better for it.” The journalist Shahina KK, who started her career at Asianet, said that perhaps the company’s biggest contribution was that “it mainstreamed women in a male-centric profession in Kerala.”
“It was broadly left, but that doesn’t mean we were siding with the CPI or were anti-Congress and anti-BJP,” Neelan said. “All shades of opinions were allowed to be expressed.” But, he added, “we never telecast any mad right views. … You never tell lies and you never allow others to tell lies. That was the Asianet spirit.” NM Pearson, a political analyst from Kerala, told us that the channel became known for being “fierce, fair and independent.”
One illustrative instance came in the late 1990s, after the channel carried an interview with a member of a Naxalite group being pursued by authorities. Neelan told us that he arranged the interview, and that it left the state government displeased. At the time, he was anchoring a weekly question-and-answer show that featured Kerala’s chief minister, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader EK Nayanar. When Nayanar met Neelan to shoot an upcoming episode, he chastised him. “This is my job, unfortunately,” Neelan recalled having replied. “I am doing a job which will be uncomfortable for you, not uncomfortable only for the Congress man or the BJP man, even the Chief Minister. And I enjoy it—making you uncomfortable.”
This editorial approach earned Asianet strong viewership, but, even so, the company struggled financially. In 1994, the Rahejas—construction and real-estate tycoons, and the proprietors of Outlook magazine—bought a 50-percent stake in Asianet’s cable company, which had been established alongside the channel. The Rahejas then reportedly pushed to take over the remaining stake in the cable company, held by Kumar and Reji Menon. After Menon sided with the Rahejas, he and Kumar fell out. In 1999, after the Rahejas completed their takeover of the cable company, Kumar resigned from Asianet. He sold all his holdings to Menon, who replaced him at the head of editorial operations.
The journalists at Asianet prized the freedom they had been allowed under Kumar. “He was always more of an editor than he was an owner,” Shahina told us. Now, in Menon, they “had an owner who acted like one.”
On one occasion, Menon cut part of Bhaskar’s segment from his and Zacharia’s show without taking Bhaskar’s consent. Bhaskar resigned. Zacharia later quit as well, and the show was discontinued. Menon also intervened when an Asianet reporter was approached by a woman who said that PK Kunhalikutty—a leader of the Indian Union Muslim League, who then held several ministerships in the Kerala cabinet, including that of social welfare—had paid her to have sex with him several years ago. According to a reporter with Asianet News at the time, Menon did not want to carry the story, arguing that it would intrude into a personal matter. “It was a tug of war between the management and the editorial department,” the reporter recalled, and management prevailed. The story was later broken by another channel.
But, the reporter said, oftentimes the editorial team resisted Menon. Once, he proposed a programme on the importance of computers as an educational tool. Aware that Menon was eyeing a venture to bring more computers into Kerala, the team refused. “It was a matter of give and take,” the reporter said. “Sometimes we would give in, but on most matters we stood our ground.”
Menon, wanting to invest elsewhere, soon decided to sell some of his stake in Asianet. The media baron Subhash Chandra, founder of Zee Media, was ready to acquire a large stake in the company in 2000, but the deal hit a hurdle. Asianet’s earlier agreement with the Rahejas reportedly prohibited the takeover of its channels by any rival with interests in cable distribution, which Chandra had. When Chandrasekhar came shopping in 2006, though, nothing stood in his way. The 49-percent stake that did not go to him was shared, among others, between Menon, Chandra’s Zee Media, and K Madhavan, then the managing director of Asianet. (Today, Madhavan remains an executive with Asianet News, and simultaneously heads operations for Star in south India.)
In the years after the takeover, the reporter with Asianet News at the time said, Chandrasekhar rarely visited the channel’s newsroom, and his presence was barely felt in its coverage. Madhavan was the management’s main representative to the editorial staff. But as the 2014 general election drew near, a journalist who worked at Asianet News told us, Chandrasekhar’s “interest in Kerala grew,” and with it, “so did his interest in Asianet.”
Several politicians and journalists told us that Chandrasekhar may have been eyeing a BJP ticket for the Lok Sabha from Thiruvananthapuram. (He earlier turned down an offer of a ticket in any constituency in Bengaluru from the Aam Aadmi Party. Chandrasekhar had previously donated Rs 5 lakh to the AAP, and declared that the party’s beliefs resonated with his own.) “He was desperate to be noticed in Modi’s durbar,” the civic activist from Bengaluru said. In interviews, through his social-media accounts and on billboards he hired out, Chandrasekhar made clear his support for Modi’s bid to become prime minister.
Firmer directives starting coming down to the channel, a former journalist at Asianet told us. These seldom came from Chandrasekhar himself, and were usually communicated either through a senior editor or someone in the management.
One of the first red flags came very shortly before the election, in April 2014. By then, Chandrasekhar had started a news channel in Karnataka, Suvarna News, which had been airing a series of stories on Aadhaar, the government scheme for universal biometric identification cards that was spearheaded by Nandan Nilekani. These had first appeared on the website of the investigative news website Cobrapost. Asianet, a Kerala-based journalist told us, was told to carry the stories too.
The instruction to run the series “had come from Chandrasekhar himself,” a former journalist at Suvarna News told us. “Our editorial discussion with him was mostly around the flaws in the concept of Aadhaar, and it was a story of substance.” The intentions of the series “were never openly spelt out, but you can join the dots for yourself.”
Nilekani was the Congress candidate for the Lok Sabha election in the Bangalore South constituency. Standing against him was Ananth Kumar.
“It seemed to us that he was using Aadhaar as astroturf to make some very personal attacks on Nandan,” a person involved with Nilekani’s campaign said. An editor who has worked with Chandrasekhar told us that the media owner resents Nilekani in part because he is one of the government’s most trusted technocrats—a position Chandrasekhar may have wanted for himself.
Other directives followed. The journalist who worked at Asianet News said that Chandrasekhar “tried to tell us in a very copious way, ‘Please don’t do anything against Modi. You can do stories against the BJP, not Modi. Give him a chance for at least one term.’”
Sindhu Suryakumar, an anchor and editor at Asianet News, denied to us that Chandrasekhar had given such instructions. “He may have different opinions sometimes, about journalism or news, he will be having that,” she said. “But, in my experience, he has never imposed that on us.”
Soon after the general election, Asianet News hired MG Radhakrishnan, a former editor with India Today and the son of a CPI(M) leader, as its editor. In October 2014, the BJP leadership in Kerala declared that it was boycotting Asianet News in retaliation for what it saw as biases against the party. The journalist who worked at Asianet News said this was at least partly the result of political machinations. O Rajagopal—who, in 2016, became the first and only BJP leader ever voted into the Kerala legislative assembly—had narrowly lost out on a seat in the Lok Sabha to the Congress’s Shashi Tharoor. Rajagopal, the journalist said, believed that Chandrasekhar “had played a role in defeating him through Asianet News because he would have been a contender for the post of a union minister—which Rajeev was eyeing—had he won.” So, the journalist continued, Rajagopal worked to make Asianet News seem a hurdle to the BJP’s success in Kerala.
And there was possibly more. A political analyst with connections to the RSS told us, “There was talk about the fact that Rajeev might be a member of the union cabinet. At that moment, V Muraleedharan”—a former head of the BJP in Kerala—“wanted the position too. It was his decision to showcase Asianet as an anti-BJP channel.”
Chandrasekhar was pressured to better control his channel. Late last year, at a meeting in a luxury resort in Kovalam, the RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy reprimanded him for Asianet’s status as a “leading anti-RSS channel,” a person aware of the event told us. Chandrasekhar was concerned that the channel’s ratings could suffer if its position changed overnight. Gurumurthy suggested a change of guard. Further meetings with RSS ideologues followed, the person added, to discuss “how to change Asianet slowly, not overnight, so that it doesn’t attract too much attention.”
A person who works with the BJP in Kerala told us that, at this point, one journalist “tipped to head the channel” was Hari S Kartha—a former chief editor of Janmabhumi, a Malayalam newspaper backed by the RSS, who is now a media consultant for the head of the BJP in Kerala. But Kartha, the person said, “did not want to take the risk.” Since “all other members of the channel are card-carrying Marxists,” he added, Kartha’s “being there would not have been very effective.” It did not help that Kartha was struggling with his health at the time.
A senior member of Asianet’s editorial team told us that Chandrasekhar asked the channel’s editors to interview Kartha. “He can’t say no if requests like that are made by the party,” he said. But “Kartha did not make a journalistic fit for the channel, and we said as much.”
“This organisation has grown and matured in such a way that it would be difficult for any owner to exert any direct pressure on it,” the senior member of Asianet’s editorial team told us. The journalist who worked at Asianet News said, “Rajeev never interfered directly. But, make no mistake, he did try to interfere.”
In March 2016, Modi, in a speech while campaigning for an assembly election in Kerala that May, brought up the deaths of Adivasi children in the state and said the situation there was “scarier than even in Somalia.” The comparison irked many Malayalis—Kerala has some of India’s best development indicators—and earned the prime minister plenty of ridicule on social media. Two journalists held a live discussion on Facebook on the reception of Modi’s statement. A recording of it was uploaded to Asianet Newsable, a partner organisation of Asianet based in Bengaluru. The next day, a journalist formerly with Asianet Newsable told us, the video was taken down. The recording was also uploaded to the website of Asianet, the journalist said, and it remained available there, and on the channel’s Facebook page.
Chandrasekhar was in Kerala regularly “during the months in the run-up to the election,” a senior journalist from Kochi said, to campaign for the National Democratic Alliance. At around this time, the BJP’s Kerala leadership ended its boycott of Asianet News.
Several journalists currently at the channel told us there was no attempt to influence its election coverage. The member of the Asianet News editorial team pointed out that the channel conducted and aired one of the first pre-election surveys, which predicted a victory for the Left Democratic Front, a rival coalition to the National Democratic Alliance.
The journalist who worked at Asianet News, however, told us that Chandrasekhar pressed for coverage of Modi’s rallies in the state. He would check whether the channel broadcast Modi’s speeches in full, or only used short snippets. “He used to get irritated because we would not show the entire speech,” the journalist added. “His people would say, ‘He was not happy, you could have given more.’”
The Left Democratic Front, headed by the CPI(M), won the election. Chandrasekhar was made the vice chairman of the NDA in Kerala in September.
The same month, an email arrived in the inboxes of some senior staff at media organisations in Chandrasekhar’s portfolio, from the address of Amit Gupta, the chief operating officer of Jupiter Capital. Its subject line read, “Editorial Hirings.” The message said that all future editorial hires should be “right of centre; pro-India, pro-Military; and aligned to Chairman’s ideology.” This was leaked, and was reported in the media.
“There was a lot of outrage among the editors and backlash from the top people at Asianet News,” the former journalist with Asianet Newsable told us. “We started joking about it and calling each other sanghis.”
Gupta sent out another email the next day, requesting that the earlier one be ignored. Gupta later claimed that his account had been hacked by a “disgruntled employee.” Chandrasekhar, when asked about the email by a reporter earlier this year, said, “I have investigated it after it was reported to me, and it has nothing to do with anybody in my team. The theory that has been put out there is that this is a disgruntled employee who is trying to do a hatchet job on someone.”
“Rajeev is a man who likes to control the people under him—his lackeys from the management, even more so,” the former editor at one of Chandrasekhar’s outlets said. “I find it hard to believe that they would take the liberty to send such an email and he would be ignorant of it entirely.”
For now, Asianet News appears to displease every major political block in Kerala.
This July, the channel broke the story of an internal probe by the BJP into accusations that one of its leaders had accepted bribes from the owner of a medical college while promising to arrange government accreditation. The scandal marred the party’s image in Kerala. “Asianet is a channel of leftists,” Kummanam Rajasekharan, the president of the BJP in Kerala, told us. MT Ramesh, the BJP’s general secretary for the state, told us to look at the background of MG Radhakrishnan “and you’ll know why the channel is on a witch hunt of the party.”
Pinarayi Vijayan, the CPI(M) leader and chief minister of Kerala, alleged in the state assembly this May that a private Malayalam channel under Chandrasekhar’s control was working to push his political agenda. Several CPI(M) leaders brought up an article Radhakrishnan wrote for the daily Mathrubhumi earlier this year, in which he criticised their party’s functioning in Kerala, and said this was proof of his ideological shift.
In April 2016, Oomen Chandy, then the chief minister, included Radhakrishnan and another Asianent News journalist in a defamation suit after the channel aired a letter from a woman who accused the politician, alongside others, of sexual harassment. Chandy’s complaint read, “Asianet News is also an un-independent channel which is interested to ensure that political party represented by the complainant, viz, The Indian National Congress does not win in the oncoming elections.”
The BJP and RSS in Kerala appear to have concluded that it is beyond Chandrasekhar’s ability to control Asianet News. MT Ramesh told us, “Rajeev can’t do anything about Asianet News. Yes, he is the chairman, but all the journalists are communists. We talked to him many times, but since he is a gentlemen”—and here Ramesh laughed—“he can’t interfere too much.”
“I don’t know what is going to happen with the election in 2019,” the senior member of the Asianet News editorial team told us. “But for now, I am very proud of our journalism.”
KVS Haridas, a former editor with Janmabhumi, told us that when he ran into Chandrasekhar at an event in Thiruvananthapuram early this year, the businessman told him that Asianet News could never become a BJP channel, “but he assured me that he had told the journalists there that they could not do stories that were anti-national or anti-Modi.”
SUVARNA NEWS WAS LAUNCHED in March 2008, some nine months before the deal with Star that left Asianet News in Chandrasekhar’s hands. The channel was placed under the umbrella of Asianet News Network, the entity that controls Jupiter Capital’s print and television media entities.
The new channel grew out of a news bulletin on Suvarna, a Kannada general-entertainment channel that Jupiter founded in 2007. Shashidhar Bhat, the founding editor of Suvarna News, recalled that as Suvarna’s news operations expanded, Chandrasekhar told him that he wanted a “people-oriented channel that would not favour any political party.” A Jupiter executive declared that Suvarna News would stand for “transparent and unbiased journalism.”
At the time, the Kannada television news market was sparsely populated. Suvarna News was only the third channel to enter it. The new venture’s main competitor was TV9 Kannada, then, as now, the market leader.
The impression Shashidhar came away with when he first met Chandrasekhar, he told us, was that the businessman was “a nice gentleman.” The editor met with his boss every few weeks. Their conversations were mostly restricted to the channel’s ratings, Shashidhar said, and “content-wise he never interfered.”
Chandrasekhar made good first impressions on all the journalists we spoke to who have worked under him. HS Balram, who was the director of Asianet News Network between 2011 and 2015, told us, “I found Rajeev to be a thorough gentleman, decent guy, who respects editors on a personal level, at least with me.” The former journalist at Suvarna News said, “He is not a very affable sort of person, but he is very businesslike. Not one word more, not one word less—you have to be like that if you’re running an empire of the size that he is.”
The personal courtesy has not always come with professional respect. In the case of Suvarna News, in the nine years that the channel has been in operation, it has seen a long line of editors. Their political inclinations have varied, but in their view of Chandrasekhar many of them agree. “The great Rajeev Chandrasekhar doesn’t have any high regard for journalists, it is clear from his approach,” Shashidhar, who now runs a rival Kannada news channel, told us. Vishweshwar Bhat, a former editor of Suvarna News, wrote in an acerbic column on his former boss that Rajeev Chandrasekhar has had more editors than the English actor Elizabeth Hurley has had boyfriends.
A former business executive at Asianet News told us that there has been a high rate of attrition among the management personnel of Chandrasekhar’s media ventures too. With them, unlike among most journalists, Chandrasekhar has a reputation for flying into rages. “Many of them would tremble at the mention of a meeting with him, especially if they knew there was something he was going to be unhappy about,” Balram said.
Shashidhar—who told us he identifies as “anti-BJP”—lasted at Suvarna News for roughly a year and a half. Tensions flared between him and Chandrasekhar at one point during his tenure, he said, after he received a call from Ananth Kumar. Yeddyurappa had complained to Chandrasekhar about the coverage on Suvarna News, and told him that his editor was “poisonous.” An anxious Chandrasekhar, Shashidhar said, began soliciting opinions on him. One of the people Chandrasekhar conferred with was Kumar, who relayed the conversation to Shashidhar. The editor let Chandrasekhar know his displeasure, and, he said, got an apology.
Towards the end of 2009, Shashidhar received another shock. An executive told him one morning that the management wanted him to leave the channel to become Chandrasekhar’s political advisor. “I said, ‘Sorry, I don’t want to become a political advisor to any politician, I am a journalist,’” Shashidhar recalled. Around noon, the executive told Shashidhar he was being promoted to the director of new ventures for Asianet, and asked Shashidhar to vacate his office. When the editor said he would leave after finishing an afternoon bulletin that he anchored, he was told that he did not have the time. The channel’s new editor was already on his way.
Shashidhar left for Jupiter’s corporate office. He did not last long there either, and went on to join a rival channel. He had had no indication before his removal as editor that the management was so unhappy with him that it was seeking a replacement. Shashidhar realised that though Chandrasekhar “would not say anything directly … his coterie—of CEOs, COOs, CFOs—would try and interfere. He tried to take editorial control through them.”
Other journalists who worked under Chandrasekhar came to the same conclusion. “In private meetings I would find Rajeev very cosmopolitan, but the minute you get out, his CEO or chief of staff—he has a very military kind of structure within the management of his companies—would call and contradict what he had said,” a former editor at one of Chandrasekhar’s outlets told us.
A journalist who worked at Suvarna News said he was convinced that “these deputies did not speak without checking with him when it came to editorial decisions.” Chandrasekhar “is hands-off,” he said, “but there are people who would act as his hands and ears and eyes. I need not steal this mobile phone from you, I can get someone else to do this. My hands are clean. That’s how clean his hands are.”
Shashidhar’s successor was HR Ranganath, until then the editor of the daily Kannada Prabha. The two had started their careers together at the newspaper. Under Ranganath, a journalist who worked with him at Suvarna News said, the channel got “a completely new vision.”
But, a journalist who worked at Suvarna News at that time said, “There was an editorial rift between Rajeev and Ranga,” over Chandrasekhar’s decision “to focus on the BJP and poke his nose in editorial affairs, which Ranga was not okay with.” By April 2011, Hameed Palya, a political editor with the channel, had taken over as the editor. Ranganath soon started a news channel of his own.
While Ranganath was wrestling with Suvarna News, Jupiter secured a 26-percent stake in Kannada Prabha, in 2010. Chandrasekhar had tried to buy into newspapers earlier too, but had failed. Reports surfaced in 2008 that he was looking to invest in The Printers Mysore, which publishes the English-language daily Deccan Herald and the Kannada daily Prajavani. A person aware of the negotiations told us that the deal fell apart after “disagreement over the sale of the real estate”—including Deccan Herald’s offices in a prime location in Bengaluru. (Representatives of The Printers Mysore declined to comment when contacted.) With Kannada Prabha, Chandrasekhar quickly consolidated his hold. In 2011, he raised his stake in the paper to 51 percent, in a valuation that was reported to be close to Rs 300 crore.
Kannada Prabha, established in 1967 by Ramnath Goenka, the founder of the Indian Express, had a history to uphold. It had covered and influenced pivotal movements in Karnataka’s politics, and counted several illustrious intellectuals as its former editors. Shiva Sundar, a veteran Kannada journalist, said that the paper “had a liberal legacy,” and “politically it was centrist.”
In February 2011, Vishweshwar Bhat was appointed Kannada Prabha’s new editor-in-chief. Until the previous year, he had been in charge of another newspaper, Vijay Karnataka. Vishweshwar had also served as an officer on special duty to Ananth Kumar when the BJP leader was a minister in the Vajpayee cabinet.
“Vijay Karnataka and the ethos behind it had an impact on Karnataka media in general,” Sundar said. “It introduced saffronisation, corporatisation and monopoly.” A former executive of the Times Group, the media conglomerate that acquired the paper in 2006, told us that “Vishweshwar Bhat, to a great extent, was a right-winger, and an extremist on that point of view.”
Vishweshwar and the team he brought with him “implemented whatever they were implementing in Vijay Karnataka,” Sundar said. “Communal agenda, batting for the BJP openly, hailing the RSS—it was no holds barred.” (On that team was Pratap Simha, one of Vishweshwar’s protégés. In 2014, he was elected to the Lok Sabha from Mysore on a BJP ticket.)
A reporter who worked at Kannada Prabha with Vishweshwar said that the publication changed drastically under his editorship, and became “a repository of right-wing thought.” Chandrasekhar “was tilting towards the BJP,” Balram said, “even if he didn’t directly say so.” So “the paper’s policy was, tilt towards the BJP.”
Vishweshwar was made the editor of Suvarna News in mid 2011, while continuing as the editor of Kannada Prabha.
In October 2012, a new channel named NaMo TV debuted in Gujarat, two months before an assembly election in the state. It was directed and funded by the Gujarat leadership of the BJP, and dedicated itself to lionising the state’s incumbent chief minister, Narendra Modi, and, to a lesser degree, Amit Shah. A person aware of the project said that ten people from Jupiter’s channels, most of them from Suvarna News, provided technical assistance to NaMo TV. The LinkedIn profile of the chief technology officer of Asianet News Network, CK Vasudeva, states that “while in Suvarna News,” he “created full fledged cable TV news channel for BJP party of Gujatrath named NAMO TV within a short span of 30 days.”
“Plus some editorial guys were involved as well,” the person aware of the project added, though he insisted they “had nothing to do with the content.” He declined to name the journalists who worked on the project, some of whom, he said, are still employed by Asianet News Network. He added that Asianet News Network charged a “nominal fee” for the work, but he was not sure that it even “covered the operational expenditure.”
In a magazine interview in 2012, Parendu Bhagat, a close aide to Modi, admitted to handling the channel’s operations, alongside others from Modi’s team. Bhagat, who usually goes by Kakubhai, said that the channel was “Narendra-ji’s idea,” even down to its name.
In June 2013, the actor turned Congress politician Divya Spandana filed criminal defamation charges against Chandrasekhar and Suvarna News after a story that insinuated that she, among others, acted as a go-between for bookies during that year’s season of the Indian Premier League. Spandana told us that Chandrasekhar asked her if his name could be dropped from the suit, while also telling her that Vishweshwar’s name should “most certainly be there.” The case is ongoing. A former executive at Asianet News Network said that Chandrasekhar spoke often about firing Vishweshwar, but did not want to do it himself.
The journalist who worked at Suvarna News said that Chandrasekhar would “talk big on everything” with the editorial team, but with business and management people “he would put money pressure on them, and they would talk in a way that would destroy everything. He would only talk money with them, not ethics.”
“Every video channel makes money through certain time slots,” a person who worked at Suvarna News said. “Sometimes, this is something visible with a band that says ‘sponsored feature,’ but many of us get away without putting it. It is an industry secret.” The money used to be collected in cash—“sometimes twenty or twenty-five lakh rupees.” The person added, “Maybe I should have stopped it, maybe I should have not taken the money. … But even I was under pressure to generate money.” Chandrasekhar was aware of such business practices by his channel, the person said. He would sometimes ask why no disclosure of the nature of the coverage was carried on air with it. The person said that Chandrasekhar was told that adding such disclosure would mean that no one would buy more slots. Chandrasekhar would, at best, reprimand his staff, and ask for disclosure the next time.
In May 2013, Suvarna News received a new editor, Anantha Chinivar. Vishweshwar retained a designation as the editor-in-chief of the channel, and of Kannada Prabha. By then, the coverage at Suvarna News came with certain omissions. “Tell me, why is there next to nothing about Ananth Kumar on Rajeev’s channel if he is so non-interfering and ethical,” a politician from the Congress told us. The former journalist at Suvarna News told us that the media owner gave top editorial staff the names of people he preferred that the channel not pursue stories on. The list was diverse, the journalist said, in keeping with Chandrasekhar’s wide-ranging affiliations. As of 2013, it included Yeddyurappa, Ananth Kumar and SM Krishna, as well as DK Shivakumar, a Congress politician raided by tax authorities this August.
“You would have to allow these compromises, to an extent,” the journalist said. Things were fine until 2014, but “as the election approached, his everyday interference was there through his people. He would not call directly,” but there were plenty of people “to call on his behalf.”
In early 2014, Chandrasekhar convened an editorial meeting at Suvarna News to discuss “Project Next Level”—an initiative to boost the channel’s ratings and popularity. While also delving into such things as the channel’s visual design, a staff member who was aware of the proceedings told us, Chandrasekhar said that Suvarna News should no longer be seen to be critical of Modi.
In April, with voting underway, officials of the election commission in Karnataka seized over a hundred saris in boxes bearing Modi’s picture. Suvarna News carried a report on the incident, but within minutes of it going on air the editors were told to pull it, according to a former anchor with the channel.
It was around this time that Chandrasekhar directed editors at Suvarna News to run the stories on Aadhaar.
As Chandrasekhar’s alignment with the BJP became more public, so did a strain of acrimony between him and HD Kumaraswamy. In February 2014, Kumaraswamy, speaking in the state assembly, raised suspicions over the manner in which Chandrasekhar had sold land in Dabaspet, on the outskirts of Bengaluru, that had been allotted to BPL by the government specifically to set up industrial facilities. In July, Suvarna News became the first channel to broadcast an audio recording of Kumaraswamy asking an aspirant to Karnataka’s upper house for Rs 40 crore in return for the JDS’s support.
Chandrasekhar did not have any hand in the recording, the former journalist with Suvarna News told us. “It went to all media houses,” he said. “Nobody broke it and we did.” Chandrasekhar had been informed, as was customary before releasing any major story, and had not objected.
Kumaraswamy admitted to the media that the conversation had taken place, although he denied that any money had changed hands. He stated that such propositions were a reflection of the “bitter truth of present-day politics.” In what appeared to be a veiled threat, he also invited Chandrasekhar to join him for an open debate on the practice of cash being paid for votes. By taking on Kumaraswamy, Suvarna News had inadvertently placed the electoral victories of its owner under scrutiny.
In August, Kumaraswamy participated in a live discussion at the Suvarna News studios. Midway through it, the producers brought on HPS Mythri, a whistleblower who had exposed corruption in the state’s recruitment process for jobs in public services the previous year. Mythri called for annulling and rerunning a round of suspect recruitments, which the state government did after an investigation. Kumaraswamy took the side of candidates unwilling to go through the process again. As the channel’s anchors tried to convince Kumaraswamy to debate the whistleblower, the politician staged a dramatic walk-out.
A journalist with Suvarna News at the time said that the channel had told Kumaraswamy beforehand of Mythri’s inclusion, and that he had only raised objections once he arrived at the studios. When we met the politician, he maintained the channel had invited her without his knowledge.
Kumaraswamy threatened to boycott Suvarna News. The politician’s ire caught Chandrasekhar’s attention. “After this, there were probably a lot of back-room negotiations,” the journalist said. “Kumaraswamy and Deve Gowda were too powerful for him. Rajeev was cornered—he had nowhere to run, and he had a lot at stake at that point.” Chandrasekhar “considered Deve Gowda a fatherly figure,” the journalist added. “He still has—I would not say respect—he has some fear in his mind about Deve Gowda. He is a man who can twist Rajeev’s arm.” Chandrasekhar, the journalist said, tried to persuade Chinivar to do an “apologetic interview” with Kumaraswamy, but the editor refused.
Soon afterwards, Chinivar found out through a full-page advertisement in the Times of India that Suvarna News was looking for a new editor. According to the journalist, Chandrasekhar said the decision had come from the channel’s management, and not from him.
Vishweshwar left his post as editor-in-chief in 2015. He remains an editorial advisor at Kannada Prabha.
Kannada Prabha also suffered from the inconstant editorial leadership. “If every two years an editor goes away—every paper has a touch of the editor’s pen, their style of stories and working—then so does the credibility,” Balram said. Shashidhar said that Kannada Prabha “lost its original character.” Lankesh told us, “The infamy of razing down to the ground a once reputed and highly respected publication solely goes to Rajeev Chandrasekhar and the ideology he espouses today.”
The newspaper, fourth in the ranks of Kannada dailies by reach, was also hampered by friction over ownership. When Chandrasekhar first bought his stake in Kannada Prabha, and later increased it, the remaining stake was held by Express Publications (Madurai) Limited, the company that owns the New Indian Express. In mid 2013, Business Standard reported a tussle between Chandrasekhar and the owner of EPML, Manoj Sonthalia, as Chandrasekhar tried to gain complete ownership and Sonthalia tried to wrest back control.
After Vishweshwar departed from Kannada Prabha and Suvarna News, Sugata Srinivasaraju was brought in to lead both. Before this, Srinivasaraju had replaced Vishweshwar as the editor-in-chief of Vijay Karnataka.
“When Sugata joined Kannada Prabha, we were all surprised,” Lankesh said. “Because Sugata is certainly not Sangh Parivar, he is certainly not Congress, but he is a secular guy. He can be critical of the Congress and damning of the BJP.”
“The nature of Kannada Prabha changed under Sugata,” Sundar said. “It became openly anti-communal.” While engineering the reorientation, Srinivasaraju, like his predecessors, had to deal with unwelcome attention from the management. A Jupiter executive asked two staffers at Asianet Newsable to translate stories from Kannada Prabha and indicate to him the positions they were taking. (Several journalists with experience in Chandrasekhar’s Kannada companies said that many people on his management staff struggle to understand their outlets’ stances because they, like the owner, cannot read the language.) A journalist who worked under Chandrasekhar said that, in 2016, the Jupiter executive asked some journalists at Asianet Newsable for their reading of Srinivasaraju’s orientation—specifically, if he was anti-Modi or pro-Modi. When the journalists protested, he justified himself by saying that he needed the information for a meeting with Chandrasekhar.
In March 2017, Srinivasaraju left Asianet News Network. It was a few months after this that Amit Gupta, the chief operating officer of Jupiter Capital, wrote to editors at the company’s media ventures, directing them to recruit in alignment with the chairman’s ideology.
Whatever Srinivasaraju did to align the organisations in his charge with his style of journalism, it only went so far. A journalist who worked with Asianet News Network at the time told us that Chandrasekhar stressed the need to go after individuals and not just issues. “‘Put a face to a controversy, don’t make it look like a systemic thing’—that was his idea of journalism,” the journalist said. “Responsible journalism was not really an idea he understood.”
Several journalists who worked under Chandrasekhar said he pointed to the style of Arnab Goswami—belligerent, jingoistic, and at the time generating top ratings for Times Now, the channel where the anchor worked—as something to emulate. Suvarna News often did.
On Independence Day last year, the channel assembled a live panel of two speakers from the political left, one speaker affiliated to the RSS, and a leader of the BJP’s youth wing. The leftist speakers were presented against a dark backdrop showing barbed wire and raised fists. Their counterparts stood before a light one with the colours of the national flag. “The debate had nothing to do with the freedom struggle or independence,” Gauri Lankesh told us. “Instead, they pitched it as these liberals being anti-nationals, versus the ultra-nationals who really loved the country.” The anchor sided against the leftists, who were regularly scoffed at and ridiculed.
When the show was broadcast, it was so heavily edited that it drew protests on social media, Lankesh said. Suvarna News later put out an unedited version of the discussion, “but in the process, it earned a really bad name for itself.”
The former Suvarna News journalist said that with Republic TV in Chandrasekhar’s hands, “I think it is gelling well for Rajeev, because he now has a right-wing channel in the regional space and right-wing channel in the national space. Now there is synergy. He was always talking about that.”
“WHETHER HE GIVES SUPPORT to BJP, Congress, JDS, it will not have any effect,” Kumaraswamy said. “Through his media, he can give some statement, whatever is in his mind, he can speak about issues. But the common man will not want to take it seriously—this is the real picture.”
“If you notice his Twitter feed or interventions in parliament, he picks up issues that are topical,” the person who worked on Nilekani’s Lok Sabha campaign told us. “There will be public outcry over it, and he sees it as an opportunity to insert himself into that narrative or conversation. This is a trend.”
In 2013, Chandrasekhar, alongside others, petitioned the Supreme Court to scrap Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which penalised “grossly offensive or menacing” online content. After the provision was struck down, Chandrasekhar wrote to the prime minister to ask that he intervene to end all ongoing cases and detentions under the defunct law. “Him posing as a champion of the freedom of expression is a real joke,” Lankesh said. “Why would he file an injunction against a media organisation”—The Wire—“if he really believed in the freedom of expression?”
In 2014, Facebook lobbied hard, even if unsuccessfully, for the Indian government to allow its Free Basics service, which would have allowed users on a select mobile network free access to a restricted set of websites and online platforms. When local campaigners opposed the service on the grounds that it violated the principle of net neutrality, Chandrasekhar took their side.
After meeting Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook CEO, in 2016, Chandrasekhar declared that the company had tweaked the service to align it with net neutrality. In February that year, Chandrasekhar sent a letter to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India criticising its decision to completely ban differential pricing on data networks—a decision celebrated by net neutrality campaigners—and arguing that it should have chosen to look at the issue on a case-by-case basis. Chandrasekhar was criticised, and launched into a battle with a net neutrality activist on Twitter. “It was a classic and complete switch from his earlier position,” a Bengaluru-based advocate of net neutrality told us, “and he was not willing to be called out over it.”
On the matter of Aadhaar, so vehemently criticised on Chandrasekhar’s channels in 2014, a former editor with Suvarna News told us that what surprised him was how the media owner “was more or less muted after the elections, compared to that time.”
Chandrasekhar has introduced a private member’s bill to declare Pakistan a terrorist state, to no avail. His most recent attempt, in February 2017, was withdrawn after opposition from the home ministry. “It was ridiculous, it didn’t make sense, it was ineffectual,” a former member of Chandrasekhar’s policy team said. “We all knew it was not going to pass, and thank god it didn’t.”
Meanwhile, Chandrasekhar has faced allegations of conflicts of interest in his work as a parliamentarian. Since 2014, Chandrasekhar has been a member of the government’s standing committee on defence, which examines the spending plans of the defence ministry. Simultaneously, he has held financial interests in defence manufacturing.
In March 2016, a company called Axiscades Aerospace & Technologies, or ACAT, won a government contract to supply 88 aircraft-recognition training systems. As of early 2015, Jupiter Capital held a 75-percent stake in ACAT, and a subsidiary of Jupiter Capital held the rest. In July 2015, a firm called the Indian Aviation Training Institute, or IATI, acquired almost the entire stake in ACAT. Jupiter Capital owns just under 77 percent of IATI. In December 2016, Axiscades Engineering Technologies, or AET, a publicly listed company, completed its acquisition of ACAT. As of the financial year ending in 2016, Jupiter Capital owned a 59-percent stake in AET.
In October 2016, ACAT bid for a contract to deliver training simulators for Very Short Range Air Defence Systems. The standing committee discussed this project several times between December 2014 and May 2016—and Chandrasekhar was a member of the committee all this while.
In filing his defamation suit against The Wire, Chandrasekhar submitted to a Bengaluru court that “the Plaintiff’s investment in Jupiter Capital Private Limited, factually and legally, it does not and cannot make the Plaintiff responsible for the actions or decisions of the many companies, in which Jupiter Capital has and may invest from time to time.”
Speaking to the Financial Times in 2012, Chandrasekhar described a “completely unique phenomenon in India, which I call political entrepreneurship.” According to him, politicians were saying, “We don’t want briefcases full of cash and Swiss bank accounts and all that anymore. We want to own businesses ourselves. We want equity stakes.”
Chandrasekhar has been an activist for the uplift of military personnel. In 2009, he established Flags of Honour, a foundation that “supports martyrs’ families and serves as a platform for citizens who seek to help families of martyrs.” That same year, he began work in Bengaluru on a memorial to military personnel who lost their lives during service. Today, the memorial, a large park in the centre of the city, contains a ceremonial area, a monument to the dead, and what Chandrasekhar’s father called a “motivational area”—essentially an underground museum. “It was entirely Rajeev’s initiative to create this tribute,” MK Chandrasekhar told us. “I have just worked on it to help him make it a reality.” The memorial is yet to be formally inaugurated. The Bangalore Development Authority, which is responsible for its upkeep, has reportedly been dragging its feet on the project.
“I would concede that his heart beats for the causes of the military, because of his dad’s background,” the civic activist from Bengaluru said. “It helps that this may also be beneficial for his political, and possibly defence, interests.”
Chandrasekhar has associated himself with One Rank One Pension, a long-standing campaign led by military veterans demanding pay and pension reform. In 2010, he bought an old Douglas DC 3—the aircraft his father used to fly—and offered to present it, after restoration, to the Indian Air Force. The defence minister at the time rejected the offer, but the idea has been revived since Modi came to power. The plane, being restored abroad, is yet to arrive in India.
But with his military-related activism, too, Chandrasekhar has generated controversy. In 2015, when One Rank One Pension protests escalated after the Modi government failed to deliver on earlier promises, he stepped in to mediate between agitating veterans and the government. An air force officer from Karnataka who has championed veterans’ causes told us that, more recently, “We have continued raising our voice, but for some reason Rajeev has stepped back.” Following an avalanche that killed numerous soldiers at the Siachen Glacier in February 2016, Chandrasekhar tweeted to say that he had arranged for the family of the only survivor, Hanumanthappa Koppad, to travel to Delhi from Karnataka to be by his side. Congress leaders from the state disputed this claim, and furnished documents to show that the Karnataka government and their party fellows had made all arrangements. The soldier succumbed to his injuries.
Other controversies have come up in relation to the dealings of companies associated with Chandrasekhar. One glaring instance followed Kumaraswamy’s allegations, in the state assembly in early 2014, of irregularities surrounding BPL’s land holdings in Dabaspet. In 1996, the Karnataka Industrial Area Development Board, or KIADB, leased to BPL 150 acres of land that it had earlier acquired from farmers in the area, on the understanding that the site would host three manufacturing plants. The Karnataka High Court quashed the allotment after hearing a public-interest litigation, but the Supreme Court later overruled it. In 2006, the KIADB agreed to sell the land outright to BPL. The company went on to sell parts of the land to other companies, at what Kumaraswamy suggested were exorbitant profits. Towards the end of 2014, the Karnataka government ordered an investigation into the matter by its anti-corruption ombudsman.
Kumaraswamy did not explain to us why he had not brought the matter up again since 2014. But, he said, “When Rajeev says all these things about corruption, no one can take him seriously.”
This May, Deccan Herald published a report on how prime land in Koramangala “allotted to Karnataka Co-operative Milk Federation (KMF) has fallen onto the laps of realtors.” The KMF had been allotted the property decades ago to set up an office complex. In 2008, it leased roughly half of the land to a company called PVK Koramangala Development for 30 years, with an option for a ten-year extension. KMF agreed to levy a rent of Rs 35 lakh per quarter, applicable after the construction of a commercial complex on the site. In March 2011, according to the report, the realtor agreed to divide the site with another “leading realty firm,” and received a deposit of Rs 9 crore. The relevant documents name that firm as Mantri Habitats, and allow the two companies to “hold, gift, sell, mortgage, lease or otherwise dispose of their respective shares or any part thereof in any manner they may deem fit.” The Deccan Herald report stated that “both the parties enjoy absolute ownership over their share in the constructed area.” The KMF had no part in the new agreement, and did not take any action to block it. The directors of the KMF did not answer any questions from the newspaper.
In 2014, Mantri Habitats mortgaged its share of the leased KMF land to raise a bank loan of Rs 66 crore—this according to a “deed of release” it received this January to certify its repayment of the full sum. A document dated March 2017 shows the mortgage of PVK Koramangala’s share of the leased land to raise a bank loan of Rs 25 crore. The commercial complex planned on the site, the completion of which would entitle the KMF to levy the agreed rent, has not been built. The Karnataka anti-corruption bureau is investigating the matter.
At the time of the 2011 agreement, PVK Koramangala’s registered address was in the Bengaluru neighbourhood of Malleswaram. In the mortgage document from this March, its address is 54 Richmond Road—the address of Jupiter Capital. One of the directors of PVK Koramangala is Venkatarame Gowda Kunje, who is also a director in several companies that Jupiter Capital holds stakes in. PVK Koramangala’s registered email address is that of Madhavi Rao, whose LinkedIn profile states that she is an employee of Jupiter Capital.
These disputes have interspersed Chandrasekhar’s long record of civic activism in his home city. His spearhead on this front has been the Namma Bengaluru Foundation, which has taken up, among much else, the preservation of lakes and matters of urban infrastructure. “The issues he picks up are important,” the civic activist from the city said. “But you can’t help but suspect that they are the means to an end, not the end itself. … I am confident that he would not campaign for these causes were the BJP to come to power in the state.”
The foundation was one of numerous civic groups that petitioned the National Green Tribunal to halt work on a Special Economic Zone in an ecologically sensitive area of Bengaluru. In May 2016, the tribunal stalled the project, and fined its developers heavily for environmental infractions. Among them, and holding half of the stake in the project, was the real-estate giant Mantri Developers—the parent company of Mantri Habitats, which PVK Koramangala has split the leased KMF land with. Chandrasekhar brought the matter up in parliament, and demanded that the environment ministry review all approvals granted to projects in the city’s ecologically sensitive areas to ensure these had not been secured through corrupt means.
One of the Namma Bengaluru Foundation’s most publicised efforts was its backing of a movement against a proposed steel flyover, which the state government finally abandoned earlier this year. The activist said that the movement had been launched by civilian groups, but after Chandrasekhar’s foundation got involved, “the government could easily delegitimise the movement” as a political one.
According to a prominent activist from Bengaluru, KJ George, the minister for Bengaluru development and town planning, “spits like a cobra at Rajeev’s name because he has been such a hindrance to so many of the government’s projects.” A member of the chief minister’s office said that the independent MP’s “attacks on the government and Siddaramaiah have been vicious and relentless.”
This is the culmination of Chandrasekhar’s incremental break from the Congress. According to a report by the Association for Democratic Reforms, as late as in the 2009–2010 financial year he was a donor to both the BJP, which received Rs 10 crore from him that year, and the Congress, which received Rs 2.5 crore. By 2014, a Congress leader from Karnataka who met Chandrasekhar before the general election told us, “he had caught the drift” that Modi was coming. “Suddenly, from talking about what a good buddy of his Rahul Gandhi is, he was talking about how Gandhi is a good-for-nothing,” The Congress leader said.
“He was a liberal before, now he is a nationalist,” a minister of the Karnataka cabinet said. When he received the backing of multiple parties for his Rajya Sabha campaign, “his ideology may have been progressive, not limited to the BJP or Congress ideology. But now, it seems that his ideologies are seasonal.”
With this history trailing him, Chandrasekhar has much to prove to the BJP. “Politics is based on mass contact, mass support,” a former union minister from the BJP told us. “You will have to have a strong organisational base. I don’t see any of this in Rajeev Chandrasekhar.”
“To be in the cabinet, he requires political legitimacy, for which he will ideally need to go through the Lok Sabha route,” the person who worked with Nilekani said. “For Lok Sabha, you need to be an organisation guy or you need to buy the ticket—and it’s always more expensive to buy a Lok Sabha ticket, because it is a hyper-competitive market, unlike the Rajya Sabha.”
Chandrasekhar’s standing with the Karnataka BJP does not appear high enough to earn him a Lok Sabha ticket in the state. The senior BJP politician from the state said that Chandrasekhar might be hoping to mount a campaign for the Bangalore Central constituency in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. His best other hope for a Lok Sabha seat is likely a ticket from the BJP’s strongest constituency in Kerala so far, Thiruvananthapuram, but even in that state his record has not inspired great confidence.
In late 2015, with a state election looming the next year, Modi wanted to visit the Sivagiri Mutt, home to the tomb of the social reformer Narayana Guru, while on a tour of Kerala. Born into the Ezhava community, on the bottom rungs of the caste system, Guru established a movement against casteism and for the Ezhavas’ uplift. Vellapally Natesan, the head of a major social organisation founded by Narayana Guru, had just recently announced that he was forming a political party, which was expected to ally with the BJP. The mutt’s leaders were conflicted about this development. The BJP’s central leadership, according to a party politician from Kerala, directed Chandrasekhar to visit, and “to play a go-between between the PM and the Sivagiri Mutt.” Modi’s visit went ahead.
When the Kerala NDA was formed a couple of months later, it included Vellapally Natesan’s new party, the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena, run by his son, Thushar Vellapally. It was a few months later, once the assembly elections had passed, that Chandrasekhar was made the alliance’s vice chairman. “The reason for that, I think, is that he was a mediator in getting the BDJS and BJP together,” the general secretary of the BJP in Kerala, MT Ramesh, said. “He knows Thushar Vellapally well.”
But according to O Rajagopal, the BJP’s sole MLA in the state, the coming together of the BDJS and the BJP involved a group effort. Chandrasekhar “had a hand, but there were other people also who made a contribution,” he said.
“I don’t know who suggested Rajeev’s name, but the suggestion came from Delhi,” MT Ramesh told us. A reporter for a national publication who covers the BJP in Kerala said that Chandrasekhar “is actually an emissary of the central leadership for making this NDA in Kerala a unified whole.”
But, especially in the latter half of this year, the alliance has been falling apart. In November, Thushar Vellappally reportedly accused the BJP of neglecting his party and threatened to pull it out of the alliance.
The BJP in Kerala has not been faring well either. The scandal over bribery by a medical college, which followed the revelations by Asianet News in July, continues to haunt it. “This speaks very badly of a party,” a television reporter from Kerala said. “If it is corrupt even before it comes to power, what happens after?”
A veteran political journalist in the state said that things are further complicated for Chandrasekhar as the local leaders of the BJP, even while bickering among themselves, “seem to have come together in not liking him.”
O Rajagopal told us that except for Chandrasekhar being present at meetings, “I don’t know if he has done anything in the practical sense. … When the national leaders come he also comes, and when they return he also returns.”
The BJP’s rivals do not see Chandrasekhar as a threat. A Congress MP from Kerala told us that “there are three names being bandied about as potential BJP candidates” from Thiruvananthapuram, and Chandrasekhar’s is one of them. “Personally, he is the one I hope gets it.”
To compound his misfortune, Chandrasekhar has also had several run-ins with the state’s CPI(M)-led administration. In May, he re-tweeted a post that wrongly blamed members of the CPI(M) for an attack on an ambulance in Kannur that had actually been perpetrated by members of the RSS. He later removed the re-tweet, but did not post a clarification. Chandrasekhar was soon slapped with a police complaint for promoting communal enmity. He responded, on Twitter, that he was “amused by Left Govt’s continued attempts to intimidate me.”
In November, the youth wing of the CPI(M) vandalised a luxury resort owned by Jupiter Capital near the town of Kottayam. The resort had initially received the necessary permissions from the local panchayat, but these were rescinded after concerns over pollution of an adjacent lake. After this was appealed in court, an investigation reported that the resort was encroaching on government land, including wetlands and a canal. After the attack, the panchayat ordered that all construction on the encroached area be dismantled. The resort’s management denied any wrongdoing, and Chandrasekhar issued a statement to say that the government was trying to distract from a scandal over land encroachment by a state minister who had recently resigned. The whole episode made headlines across Kerala for days.
According to a person who works for the BJP in the state, Chandrasekhar’s work in Kerala has included chairing an organising committee for the Kerala edition of the Hindu Spiritual and Service Fair, in early 2017. The official described the fair—started by S Gurumurthy, the RSS ideologue—as “a non-political forum to showcase all service activities of Hindu organisations.” (An edition of the fair in Jaipur was reported to include a pamphlet by the Bajrang Dal advising Hindu families to call “Muslims as disgusting/terrorist/smuggler/traitor/Pakistan supporter in front of females at home,” so as to protect their women from Muslim men.) “Rajeev Chandrasekhar funded that,” the television reporter from Kerala said. “It was one of his ploys to cultivate the RSS.”
At one point after Modi came to power, he told a journalist about having visited the headquarters of the RSS in Nagpur, in the company of Aroon Purie, the editor-in-chief of India Today. He said he had been impressed, and urged the journalist to meet the RSS’s leadership too.
A Congress leader from Kerala told us that in the early days of the Modi government, when the administration had no representatives from Kerala, there was talk “that the BJP would turn to Rajeev and give him the portfolio of minister of state for defence, or something that he wanted, in order to show the Keralites that they had a Malayali there.” But, the Congress leader said, “that was very quickly squelched, because of the perception within the BJP that he doesn’t matter in Kerala.”
A political journalist said that, in 2016, after the assembly election in Kerala, he asked Arun Jaitley why the businessman’s bid for a cabinet berth had failed. Jaitley replied that he had lobbied hard for Chandrasekhar to be inducted as a face from Kerala, the journalist said, “but it did not happen.”
In mid 2017, according to the senior BJP politician, party leaders from Karnataka met Amit Shah in Delhi to discuss plans for the state’s upcoming election. The senior BJP politician said that Yeddyurappa suggested involving Chandrasekhar in handling the media in Karnataka. Shah scoffed at the idea.
In the government’s ministerial reshuffle this September, KJ Alphons, a former bureaucrat, was inducted as the sole Malayali in Modi’s cohort of ministers. Afterwards, the veteran political journalist from Kerala said, “Rajeev told his friends that he was approached by the party to be a minister of state, but it was not significant enough to match his stature.”
Republic TV might be Chandrasekhar’s best avenue to changing his relationship with the BJP’s top command. “This is an establishment that cares very much for what people are talking about,” a person who has worked on projects with the prime minister’s office said. “They give disproportionate attention to the narrative.” Outlets perceived to be antagonistic to the government “are on their radar,” and “there is some interesting work happening on NDTV right now to signal to all these publications that what you’re doing is not cool.” But, the person added, “it doesn’t harm to have a channel as rabid as Republic. It is the first time in my recollection that RAW and IB”—the government’s primary intelligence agencies—“officially have a channel.”
CHANDRASEKHAR’S DRIVE TO GET into the news business, the industry veteran said, “has to do with his political ambition. He believes that he has not become a force to be reckoned with because he has no contacts and friendships in the national media.” According to the industry veteran, Chandrasekhar, at various points in the past, had expressed a desire to invest in NDTV, Network18 and the Hindi news channel Aaj Tak. In 2008, he was reported to be in negotiations to buy the English-language channel NewsX. Three years later, it was reported that he was looking to acquire the Telugu network Eenadu TV. He was not able to translate his interest in any of these entities into equity. The former executive of Asianet News Network, as well as several journalists who have worked at Jupiter’s companies, told us that Chandrasekhar has long wanted to start an English-language news channel focussed on south India, to fill what he sees as an empty niche. He had attempted to invest in The News Minute, a website covering south India in English, but the deal had not come through.
So when Arnab Goswami went looking for investors in Republic TV, Rajeev Chandrasekhar was interested. The news anchor found well over a dozen investors in all, who each put in anything from several lakh to several crore rupees into a holding company. Goswami and his wife, Samyabrata, put Rs 26 crore of their own into it as well, to secure a 51-percent stake. But it was Chandrasekhar who put up the single largest sum, of Rs 30 crore, through a subsidiary of Jupiter Capital.
As of this March, the Goswamis’ holding company owned an 83-percent stake in Republic TV, with the Jupiter Capital subsidiary holding the rest. “Arnab has come up with a remarkably great corporate structure,” a veteran of the television industry told us. “By putting in almost no money of his own, he has been able to start a channel and he holds the operating share of the company.”
The coming together of Chandrasekhar and Goswami, the industry veteran said, was more important for the businessman than the journalist, as “between the two of them Arnab has more political capital.”
Goswami, perhaps the most belligerent figure Indian journalism has ever seen, has stamped his style firmly on Republic TV’s content and workings. In doing so, he has taken the young channel to the top in the fierce competition for India’s English-language news viewers. The number of these viewers is small—significantly less than one percent of Indian viewers watch English-language news—but their clout in setting the national agenda is unmatched. This is what makes Chandrasekhar’s stake in Republic TV a prized addition to his media portfolio. But with Goswami holding the advantage over Chandrasekhar both in terms of politics and business stakes, the direction that the channel takes is very much up to the anchor rather than the politician. Goswami’s last days at Times Now, and his work at Republic TV so far, are indicators of where he will likely lead it.
According to a former journalist with the Times Group, which owns Times Now, as Goswami’s popularity rose in his old job he asked for a stake in the parent company. The owners of the Times Group, the Jains, refused. “Do you have any idea what the editor of the Times of India or the Economic Times looks like and sounds like?” the industry veteran said. “They have always been behind-the-scenes, because that is how the Jains prefer it.” Journalists “cannot break the hierarchy and replace the owners.” But this was not the only line that Chandrasekhar crossed.
In mid September 2016, militants attacked an army camp near the Kashmiri town of Uri. The Indian Motion Picture Producers Association passed a resolution banning Pakistani actors and film technicians from working in India “until normalcy returns.” A group in Maharashtra issued an ultimatum for all Pakistani artists in India to leave the country. Towards the end of the month, the Indian government said it had conducted “surgical strikes” in Pakistan-controlled territory. The Pakistani government claimed these never took place. These events dominated public attention, and the coverage on Times Now.
Goswami, on show after show, demanded that Pakistani artists in the country condemn the Uri attack. When the producer Karan Johar, who had a film featuring a Pakistani actor coming up for release, came out against the intimidation of the artists, Goswami went after him on air.
The industry veteran said that “entire Bollywood was calling up Vineet”—the managing director of the Times Group, Vineet Jain. “These people are very dear and important to Vineet—be it for the Holi parties or the movie-making business. And he wouldn’t like to look ineffective as an owner against the whims of an employee.” Jain tweeted against the ban on Pakistani artists, and an editorial in the Times of India decried it as a show of “fake nationalism.” But Times Now stomped ahead to its own tune.
During a prime-time debate show on 6 October, Goswami accused opposition parties of “playing into the hands of the enemies” by asking the government to show proof of the “surgical strikes.” Ajay Alok, a spokesperson of the Janata Dal (United) invited to the show, retorted, “You talk that we should ban Pakistani artists and Vineet Jain of the Times of India group says that we must welcome the Pakistani artists. I also cannot believe this duplicity.”
A few minutes further into the show, Goswami abruptly cut off another guest speaker before turning to Alok. “Listen, Ajay Alok,” he yelled. “My name is Arnab Goswami. I know my views and my views are consistent with the people of this country, the republic of this country and the army of this country. I do not care who says what, and let that be clear to you.”
“Vineet Jain is not out of his rights to call the newsroom and say that do not run that story, it is his channel and you are his employee,” a Times Group executive told us. “But has he done that? No he has not.” Goswami, however, used the opportunity to portray himself as wronged, “he knew that it will only help his narrative of victimhood,” the executive said. “He knew that he was going to resign within a month.”
“Even before all that, the house was already burning down,” the industry veteran said. “To even ask for something like a stake in the business from the Jains can only mean that you are looking for a way out. When you are as successful as Goswami, people are always asking, ‘Why are you doing this work for someone else?’”
Towards the end of the month, Goswami went on a week-long vacation. When he returned, on 1 November, he told the CEO of the Times Group, MK Anand, that he wanted to quit, so he could spend time with his ailing father and perhaps go to a university abroad. On account of his father’s health, he asked to have his notice period waived.
On 8 November, over a long lunch at a hotel, Anand tried to persuade Goswami to stay on. “Arre boss, bohut kaam kiya idhar, ab kya hai, kuch nahi hoga” (I’ve done a lot here, there’s nothing left to do), the executive said Anand was told. “Mereko jaane do, sab aapko set karke dunga mai. Bas mai notice period nahi serve kar sakta.” (Let me go, I’ll set everything and hand it over to you. Just that I won’t serve the notice period.)
Anand agreed to relieve Goswami on 18 November, with his last show set to air two days earlier. On 14 November, as the two men returned from another lunch, Anand noticed a huddle of people in Goswami’s office. According to the executive, when Anand asked Goswami what it was about, the anchor replied, “Arre boss, wo kal mera mega-episode hai na, uske liye.” (You know that mega-episode of mine tomorrow, it’s for that.)
“He wanted to wish his viewers goodbye,” the executive told us. “What does that mean? The channel is still going to be here tomorrow—you are leaving. We could not allow that. I mean, we want the viewers to come back even after he has left.”
That evening, Anand told Goswami that the farewell mega-episode was off. The anchor was furious. “No, you can’t do that,” the executive said he yelled. “I will lose face with all the guests I have called.” Goswami’s invitees comprised family and friends, as well as a few celebrities, including Amitabh Bachchan.
Goswami was not allowed on air at Times Now again. “Whatever he may claim, nobody threw him out,” the executive said. The anchor remained in the office for a few more days. “One day after he left the office, we got to know” about the new channel, the executive said. “If Anand had any idea about what Goswami was going to do, he would not have let him off so amicably,” the executive said.
When we telephoned Goswami, he immediately assumed we were doing a story on him. “Listen, I hope your struggling magazine gets some new subscriptions by putting me on the cover—this is the second time,” he said. (The Caravan profiled Goswami in 2012.) “But please find my new pictures okay?” he added, before insisting that his statement was on the record. “There is a whole catalogue available on the internet. I will decide whether to give you an interview after looking at the pictures you find.”
When we reached out to Goswami again to clarify that we were not doing a story on him, he said he had not meant for his earlier comments to be on the record. “Now do not try to be over-smart with me, I have recordings of these conversations,” he added. He declined to speak further, since he does not “give out interviews here and there.”
Goswami announced that he was creating Republic TV in December 2016. By March, he had received a broadcasting licence for the channel. Raghav Bahl, who controlled Network18 until its takeover by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries, has spent over a year waiting for a licence for a new channel that he has planned. “Raghav Bahl won’t get his licence because Mukesh Ambani would not like him to get it,” the industry veteran said. “As for Arnab, well, what do you want me to tell you? Who are the people who will clear the licence? Venkaiah Naidu, Rajyavardhan Rathore, Arun Jaitley.” Naidu was the minister of information and broadcasting from July 2016 to July 2017, and Jaitley preceded him in the position. Rathore is a minister of state for information and broadcasting. “So why would Arnab have to wait for that? There is no reason.”
As Republic TV went on air, in May, a series of promotional videos, titled “Biggest exposes that shook south India and the network that broke them,” appeared online. These showed a rapid-fire montage of landmark stories, many of them broken by Asianet News, and announced that Asianet News Network was “now in partnership with Arnab Goswami to bring you Republic.”
A journalist from Asianet News said that “most of the reports they featured were ones that indicted either the LDF or the UDF.” He added that the management asked the channel’s editorial staff—many of whom were uncomfortable with how the work of Asianet News was being used—to share the videos on social media. Several journalists from Asianet News said that the management also tried to persuade MG Radhakrishnan, the channel’s editor, to appear in a promotional video with Goswami. Radhakrishnan never did.
“The early days were total chaos,” one former employee said. Financial constraints meant Goswami “could not hire experienced people”—and “any mistake would inevitably lead to ugly scenarios of high-pitched shouting and berating from the bosses.”
The channel’s main story on its first day of broadcasting centred on a year-old conversation between the Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad Yadav and the gangster turned parliamentarian Mohammad Shahabuddin, recorded when Shahabuddin was in prison. In it, Yadav, a stubborn opponent of the current government, apparently takes instructions on keeping the police from interfering in unrest in Siwan, Shahbuddin’s constituency in Bihar. The next day, Republic TV broadcast Kapil Mishra, a former member of the Aam Aadmi Party, saying that he saw Satyendra Jain, an AAP leader and a minister in the Delhi government, handing Rs 2 crore in cash to Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi and also an opponent of the national government.
On its third day, the channel carried recordings of conversations regarding the Congress politician Shashi Tharoor and his deceased wife, Sunanda Pushkar, who was found dead under controversial circumstances in a Delhi hotel in 2014. Goswami alleged that Pushkar’s body had been moved from one hotel room to another after her death. Tharoor filed a defamation suit against Republic TV and Goswami. The Times Group also took Goswami to court, accusing him of having taken these recordings from Times Now without permission, while he was working at the channel.
Tharoor occupies the Lok Sabha seat from Thiruvananthapuram that Chandrasekhar was said to possibly be eyeing in the 2014 general election. Numerous politicians and journalists who have worked with Chandrasekhar told us he may be considering a bid for the seat again in 2019. “If you have a very strong platform you’re standing on, if you believe in your manifesto, you start working on it and building towards it,” the person who worked closely with Nilekani said. “If you don’t, then you start attacking the incumbent—which is exactly what Republic has been doing with Tharoor.”
In late July, an RSS worker in Thiruvananthapuram was murdered, allegedly by a gang affiliated to the CPI(M). Chandrasekhar added his voice to a BJP campaign to publicise the killings of RSS members in the state and accuse the state government of inaction. The campaign sidestepped the fact that this was the latest in a series of killings of CPI(M) and RSS members in Kerala. Republic TV, and a host of other channels, brought the issue up in prime-time debates, taking much the same line. On Facebook, a wave of Malayali users gave Republic TV one-star ratings, with comments to make it clear that they were retaliating for the channel’s coverage. In the two weeks following the murder, the channel’s overall Facebook rating more than halved.
Meanwhile, tensions ran high in the newsroom. Within two months of the channel’s debut, SA Hariharan, a popular Tamil anchor who had joined Republic TV in February, told Goswami that he wanted to quit. Goswami had gone out of his way to recruit Hariharan to Republic TV’s headquarters in Mumbai, as part of what he told the media was a drive to bring in journalists from all over the country. Now, according to a Mumbai-based television journalist, he “threatened him, said he would be destroyed, and said that he would put his father and mother behind bars.” Hariharan “ran from office and took his suitcase” before boarding a flight to Chennai that same evening. He sent his resignation letter in from the plane. Hariharan declined to speak about the incident when we contacted him.
In September, a reporter in charge of Republic TV’s live ticker typed in news of Amit Shah reaching a court in Gujarat to testify in the case of Maya Kodnani, accused of multiple murders in the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in the state. According to a former employee of the channel, the reporter was rebuked by Niranjan Narayanswamy, the head of the editorial desk, and told, “Let’s not touch this.” The former employee added, “There is no blacklist, but you better check with Niranjan or someone before you are saying something—anything—about the government.” Narayanswamy cut our first call to him as soon as we identified ourselves, and did not respond to subsequent calls or text messages.
A reporter named Shweta Kothari resigned from Republic TV in October, alleging that she had been humiliated on the job. In a statement posted online, she said she had been told “that Arnab Goswami suspects me of being a mole planted by Shashi Tharoor in the organisation, the reason being, Mr Tharoor follows me on Twitter.”
“It can get really toxic you know, the kind of stories you are asked to do,” a former employee of Republic TV told us. “I don’t think you can sting everyone who does not agree with your ideology.” The channel’s approach “was mostly about targeting the left.” Specific targets included figures such as the poet and communist Varavara Rao and the writer and activist Arundhati Roy, as well as students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, which Goswami has repeatedly maligned for its strong vein of leftist politics. “There have been multiple attempts by multiple people to sting Arundhati Roy, but she never picked up calls,” the former employee said. “One of the reporters even tried to doorstep her.” Once, the former employee said, when Goswami sent a reporter on an assignment to Kashmir to do a story on the plight of the valley’s Pandits, his instructions were, “I want to see how the Kashmiri Muslims say, ‘We hate you, we don’t want you, don’t come back or we’ll kill you again.’”
Republic TV has had astounding ratings through all of this. After the channel’s first week on the air, the Broadcast Audience Research Council, the non-profit that tracks viewership data across the country, ranked it top among all English-language news channels, with roughly twice as many “impressions,” or individual views, as its nearest competitor, Times Now.
A veteran television anchor told us that the channel’s figures represented “an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of English news viewership in India.” Republic TV’s rivals have accused it of gaming the BARC system. For one, they alleged, it had struck deals with cable companies to be shown on multiple channel numbers, and across multiple genre-specific channel clusters, on viewers’ screens. This boosted the number of impressions—individual views, even if fleeting ones—that Republic TV received as viewers flipped through channels, which meant a higher ranking from BARC. Some cable companies made it their “landing channel”—the default one viewers saw when they turned on their set-top boxes.
A complaint to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India yielded a warning against such practices in June, but this did little to end them. One channel filed a complaint at the Delhi High Court, but this was dismissed after TRAI’s lawyers said the body was already investigating allegations of unfair practices by Republic TV and other channels.
“The problem with this whole thing is that nobody is clean,” a veteran anchor told us. “The grouse now is that Arnab does it better than them.”
Republic TV’s competitors have pointed out several apparent anomalies in the channel’s viewership data. One is that the channel received more than half of all its impressions in its first month from Chennai—while carrying no major stories on Tamil Nadu, and getting nothing like the same attention anywhere else in the state. That month, BARC calculated that Republic TV was watched for an average of 23 minutes per viewer per day in the city; the figure for Times Now when Goswami was still with the channel stood at roughly five minutes. In Tamil Nadu, Republic TV has partnered with Polimer News, a local channel owned by PV Kalyanasundaram. TAM Media Research, BARC’s predecessor, threatened to drop Polimer from its database in 2013 for manipulating the system “to influence the ratings in its favour.”
More recently, a single household in the 61-plus age group in Gujarat—BARC gets its raw data from a sample of households scattered across the country—has accounted for an improbable share of Republic TV’s viewership. Rahul Shivshankar, who replaced Goswami at Times Now, flagged the “Guj distortion problem” in emails to Partho Dasgupta, the CEO of BARC, in October. From 21 August to 24 September, Shivshankar pointed out, of all the 36,000 impressions registered for English-language news channels across Gujarat, Republic TV received 30,000; and 26,000 of them were from the one household. He argued that the household in question should be discounted when calculating Republic TV’s ratings, as “statistical analysts always jettison sample data that deviates from the normal.” Asti Misra, the vice president of business development at BARC, replied that the anomaly only seemed egregious because Shivshankar was looking at an untenably small sample size. (BARC’s sample size when it comes to English-language news is already small, given the genre’s relatively small audience in the country, and Shivshankar was whittling it down further in zooming in just on Gujarat.) This implied that within a larger sample the household’s deviation from the norm would fall within acceptable limits. Shivshankar did not accept this, and insisted that the “Gujarat household is an atypical viewer; any defence of this is to bury or miss the point.” When we reached out to Dasgupta, he declined to comment on any specifics of the issue.
By November, Republic TV’s viewing time in Chennai plunged to three minutes per viewer per day. Its advantage in impressions over Times Now had also dropped, although Republic TV retained the lead. Between 11 and 17 November, the channel recorded 566,000 total weekly impressions, compared to 502,000 for its rival.
“If you look at the exclusives that they get, these are very often documents that the government or some functionary would have given them,” the person who has worked on projects with the prime minister’s office told us. “Prime spokespeople are sent to Republic.” All in all, the person said, the channel is setting the agenda. “Do the people who matter account for this, or are they thrilled with this? I think to a certain extent they are. I think the only way this can change is if over due course it loses credibility and market share, which it seems to be on the path of. Then it becomes less useful.”
Chandrasekhar “hopes that putting money in the channel of Goswami would put him in the eyes of Modi and Shah,” the industry veteran said. “If Rajeev is not going to get the return on investment he expects, soon he is going to get very bitter. But, pardon my French, what the fuck is he going to do?”
Nikita Saxena is a staff writer at The Caravan.
Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.