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Capital Reporter

How profit and principle shaped the journalism of Shekhar Gupta

By KRISHN KAUSHIK | 1 December 2014

ALMOST EVERY YEAR for nearly two and a half decades, Shekhar Gupta hosted a party on Diwali.

In 1990, when the tradition started, he was a senior editor at India Today magazine. His home was one floor of a house in a colony near the Indian Institute of Technology in south Delhi, and the party was a modest, intimate affair—a few friends, relatives and colleagues, some of whom lived alone, celebrating the festival with him, his wife, and their two children. There was serviceable, fusty catering, sometimes from the India International Centre, and the guests doubled up as bartenders.

In 2003, after an eight-year period during which he became first editor, then CEO, of the Indian Express, transforming it into the capital’s most influential  newspaper, Gupta bought a large house in the same neighbourhood. The party grew with him. A scrum of official vehicles—red beacons flashing, sirens wailing—choked the narrow street outside. As their wards hobnobbed, National Security Guard commandos would eat together in an area set aside for staff. The “entire local thana” would be present because of all the VIPs, someone who attended the parties since the early 1990s told me. Cabinet ministers, top bureaucrats, intelligence officers and senior cops mingled with famous journalists. High commissioners clinked glasses with leading intellectuals and industrialists. “If you wish to rub shoulders with the political, business and media glitterati of Delhi and Mumbai,” an article on the capital’s “A-list” in India Today told readers a few years ago, “get invited.”

Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, including LK Advani, Sushma Swaraj, and the late Pramod Mahajan, were regulars, as was the Congress stalwart and two-time finance minister P Chidambaram, a close ally of Gupta. The BJP politician and current finance minister, Arun Jaitley, would also stop by. Even Sonia Gandhi could occasionally be spotted in the crowd of about two hundred people shuffling in and out, helping themselves to food from the five-star ITC Maurya hotel.

An omnipresent newspaperman in the age of celebrity television anchors, Gupta wheeled through his parties with determination. He’s “a social terrorist,” a senior television journalist told me. “He will look at you for five seconds, shake your hand, then look at who’s the next person coming in. The party is just to show off who all he knows.” The Congress politician and former cabinet minister Mani Shankar Aiyar called the soirées “social climbing efforts.” He said Gupta “acquires his influence” at such events and is “quick to accept” invitations. At someone else’s party, Gupta “cut me dead and he walked away,” Aiyar recounted. “It was very uncomfortable. And I never mentioned it to him.” (He added, “I am sure he will avidly read every comment about him here, so let me get my own back this way.”)

As his Diwali bash turned into an essential way station on the capital’s social circuit, Gupta gained ever greater access to the country’s elite. Many of those present at his parties appeared at one point or another on Walk the Talk, his popular weekly interview show on NDTV. In the introduction to a forthcoming anthology of these interviews, Gupta writes that he spoke to more than five hundred “stellar guests … including heads of states, top politicians, film and sportstars, scientists and beauty queens, 14 Nobel Laureates so far in different fields.” The growing guest list—of the parties and the series—was a measure of how far he had come. The son of a minor bureaucrat, Gupta became one of the best-connected, and richest, journalists in the country, with an annual salary that sometimes exceeded Rs 10 crore, or roughly $1.6 million. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan, for journalism, in 2009. Perhaps no other reporter has been as successful in pairing a warm, down-to-earth manner with the sort of hard-nosed ambition it takes to achieve proximity to power.

The parties and guests might have changed over the years, but the principle behind them—Gupta’s belief in people as an investment—did not. Despite the occasional snub, almost everyone who knows Gupta remarks on his ability to maintain relationships, over time, and with people from varied backgrounds. As a journalist, Gupta has written on topics from sports to diplomacy, from strategic and defence policy to economics, all the while developing an impressive network of contacts. A long-term staffer at the Indian Express told me “he likes to be on first-name terms” with his sources, “whether it’s politics or businesses.” Tarun Tejpal, the embattled former editor of Tehelka magazine, told me during an interview at his Gurgaon apartment that Gupta is “very, very good with personal relations,” and has a “wide universe of access.” The senior journalist Satish Jacob, who reported alongside Gupta for the BBC in the 1980s, said Gupta could “make friends very quickly.” Gupta himself is fond of saying that, for reporters like him, “people are the capital of our lives.”

Over the years, as Gupta enriched himself socially and financially, he became both increasingly admired and increasingly reviled. Kuldip Nayar, a senior editor at the Indian Express in its heyday during the Emergency years, and when Gupta started his career there, wrote in his 2012 autobiography that Gupta had grown “abnormally affluent as well as arrogant … I liked him when he was a simple straightforward journalist at Chandigarh. Now, Shekhar Gupta was infatuated with himself. His personal views and other considerations shaped the Indian Express which was once India’s most anti-establishment newspaper.” (Though he later retracted the passage, and subsequent editions of the book were published without it, Nayar told me this is what he felt at the time.)

But no one can deny Gupta’s importance. A successful lobbyist, who makes a killing off the co-dependency of business, the political establishment and the media, told me that Gupta’s significance was manifold. As the editor of the Indian Express, Gupta spoke directly to political and corporate decision-makers. On Walk the Talk, he hosted almost all the people who count in the country, and several who matter internationally. His contacts from the newspaper and the show made him privy to insider information circulating through Mumbai’s financial circles and Delhi’s governing elite.

This year, however, there was no party. When I met Gupta at his home in mid November, for our second interview, the house was undergoing major renovations. After a whirlwind six months, during which he had left his 19-year post at the helm of the Indian Express and returned to India Today, only to step away from the magazine about two months into this job, Gupta seemed to be enjoying his first hiatus from full-time employment in almost forty years. When I asked him about some of the rumours swirling about his successive departures, he replied, “Look, as I said, I’m a bit of a big fish right now for these factors to bother me.” Over the course of our interviews, I realised that Gupta was no longer content to be the steward of someone else’s property, even if he had milked his time at the Indian Express for all it was worth. He related a piece of advice his friend Deepak Parekh, the chairman of HDFC Bank, had given him: “Ab bahut tu ne kar liya. Ab tu speech de, ab tu article likh, ab tu books likh.” You’ve done enough—give speeches now; write articles and books. “Enjoy life! Right? You are a brand—work for your own brand.”

 

I WAITED IN GUPTA’S LIVING ROOM for our second interview, looking at two small, personally inscribed sketches on cloth by the painter MF Husain: a running horse for “Shekhar and Neelam”—Gupta’s wife, and a peacock and Ganesh for their children, Mandakini and Abhimanyu. After ten minutes, Gupta walked in, fresh from recording a Walk the Talk interview with the cricket writer Gideon Haigh. He wore formal trousers, a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled-up—a signature of his consciously unbuttoned style—a Nehru jacket, and brown leather shoes which he had slipped into by crushing their backs under his heels. He greeted me, excused himself, then returned, having changed into a kurta pyjama, a warmer jacket, socks and slippers.

I asked him about the sketches. “That’s an interesting story,” he said. After recording a Walk the Talk in 2006 with Husain, who was living in exile in Dubai, Gupta went to a café with him. Husain asked for his wife’s and children’s names, and drew the two sketches on cloth napkins. Gupta said he had to argue with the café staff, ignorant of Husain’s fame, to let him buy the napkins and take them home.

Gupta’s house is a repository of such anecdotes; in a sense, his parties are always going on. Famous people populate his conversation to the point of crowding it: the former National Security Advisor, who sat right here on the night that he died; and the time the superstar cricketer MS Dhoni was introduced to his resident namesake, an adopted stray dog. Gupta’s charm makes most of these stories entertaining, but they’re also a way of telling people how they should think about his success.

During a discursive spiel about his relationship with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Gupta told me he once said “something which was halfway inappropriate, something corny” to the man who “was prime minister then and very powerful.” He recounted, “Then, in a mock show of horror, I bit my lip and I said, ‘Atalji aapke saamne mere mooh se jo marzi nikal jaata hai, kyuki aap mujhe sehen kar lete hain’”—I just blurt out whatever I want in front of you, because you tolerate me. “So he thought for a while and he said, ‘Shekharji aapko sab sehen kar lete hain, uske do kaaran hain. Ek, aap kisi se darte nahin hain; aur ek aap kisi se kisi cheez ki apeksha nahi karte’”—Shekhar, everyone tolerates you for two reasons: you’re not afraid of anyone and you don’t expect anything from anyone. Though Gupta lacks the eloquence of editors such as Vir Sanghvi or N Ram, he speaks with confidence, but without the pugilistic style, for example, of Arnab Goswami. He’s warm, approachable. I could see why so many people would be willing to open up to him.

Accounting for Gupta’s success was an important part of our conversation. “The story of Shekhar Gupta is a story of post-reform India,” he told me. Gupta grew up in small-town Haryana and identifies as an “HMT,” or “Hindi Medium Type.” He once defined this category in one of his weekly “National Interest” columns in the Indian Express, with reference to Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian woman in space: a “new, small-town, modestly brought up but ambitious, hard-as-nails Indian … anybody who would have been considered an outsider in the upper-crust power structure till the other day.” According to a senior editor who worked under him, Gupta once complained that “we aren’t part of the elite. They protect each other.” A senior journalist who worked with Gupta for a decade at the Indian Express articulated it with more nuance: “He was a small-town person. There was a great sense of aspiration, trying to rise above his circumstances.”

“In post-reform India, it was no longer so important that your parents should have done very well,” Gupta told me. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a senior journalist who worked with him briefly at India Today, in the early 1990s, said Gupta believes that the free market gives opportunities to anyone who is willing to grab them, work hard and make it to the top. If you are unable to do this, “he looks down upon you,” Guha Thakurta told me. “He is the personification of that thought.”

Tejpal, who worked with Gupta during the 1980s, agreed, but thought that Gupta “undervalues the sheer quality” of his own achievements because of this philosophy. “He was always very ambitious,” Tejpal said, echoing almost every journalist I spoke to for this story. “His ambition is middle-of-the-road, all the way up to the hill.” Tejpal added that Gupta has a very linear understanding of progress, growing “day over day, month over month, year after year.” He described it as a “solid middle-class” view. “By his own standards,” Tejpal continued. “he has gone all the way.”

Over the course of four months, I interviewed roughly fifty people about Gupta. Opinions about his past success and future ambitions were mixed, at times contradictory. Detractors of what Manini Chatterjee, The Telegraph’s national affairs editor, called “the Shekhar Gupta phenomenon” tended to bring up a few general allegations, sometimes with more specific details. They contended that Gupta’s personal wealth compromised the “Journalism of Courage” he promoted at the Indian Express (the phrase adorns the paper’s masthead). Many people told me that Gupta was hungry for influence, and was even interested a seat in the Rajya Sabha. They felt his proximity to power, dressed up as a reporter’s access, conflicted with his responsibilities as a member of the press. But the vast majority of people I approached—including Gupta’s ex-colleagues and other fellow journalists—either refused to speak to me at all, or refused to have their stories told in print, even anonymously. In a business often perceived as being full of righteous backstabbers, Gupta engenders surprisingly intense loyalty and profound wariness: hardly a single person with a story showing Gupta in a negative light was willing to let me put his or her name to it.

Tejpal took some of the criticism for simple jealousy. “You mustn’t discount envy—even among friends,” he said. The senior journalist from the Indian Express had a different point of view. There was one part of Gupta that was “truly interested in promoting this ‘Journalism of Courage’ kind of brand. Another part of him was willing to make all kinds of compromises, I am sure. And also his ideology—there was an ideology. And I am sure he benefited from that.”

“I don’t have an ideology,” Gupta told me. “I have a philosophy, and the philosophy is very simple: why can’t you be, in modern India, economically liberal and socially liberal? Why to be socially liberal you have to be economically left?” This philosophy feeds into Gupta’s approach to both the editorial and business sides of journalism. He believes that a regulated, for-profit model protects reporting from undue influence and internal agendas. At the Indian Express, he was at the forefront of turning the paper from a loss-making family company into a solvent business. He realised that the anti-establishment reputation that had made the Indian Express respected was also a marketable commodity, especially to a relatively small but extremely influential group of decision-makers, many of whom shared his breed of liberalism. “Part of my idealism in journalism,” Gupta told me, “is also the belief that there is no contradiction between the marketplace and good journalism. That you can make money with good journalism and pay tax on it and live well.” There is no ethical contradiction if sources became friends and the establishment becomes one’s social milieu along the way.

 

[ II ]

 

FROM 1935 TO 1990, the Indian Express was commanded by Ramnath Goenka, the paper’s owner. Although star editors—Frank Moraes, S Mulgaonkar, S Nihal Singh, Kuldip Nayar, BG Verghese and Arun Shourie—had certainly made their marks, it was Goenka’s firebrand personality that was most clearly reflected in the paper’s anti-establishment position, enshrined in its stand against Indira Gandhi during the Emergency.

Goenka reigned supreme in the newsroom, conducting meetings and parlaying with editors in his penthouse at the iconic Express Towers building at Mumbai’s Nariman Point business district. S Nihal Singh, who was editor for a brief period in the 1980s, wrote in his memoir that when he joined the Express, Goenka “was already an icon of the industry. Sometimes, he would march into the editorial offices, his loud voice reminding everyone who the boss was.”

Goenka’s spirit was also reflected in the combativeness of the Express, which went out on a limb to break important stories, such as Ashwini Sarin’s 1981 investigation into the flesh trade in Madhya Pradesh, during which he purchased a woman called Kamla. Goenka, along with the accountant S Gurumurthy, also doggedly uncovered various corrupt business dealings of Dhirubhai Ambani’s Reliance Industries in the late 1980s.

Nayar told me he once asked Goenka how he could afford to be so irreverent. The old man reportedly responded, “Lota le kar aaya tha, lota lekar waapis chala jaunga”—I came with a lota, I will return with a lota: a reference to his humble origins.

After Goenka died in 1991, various factions of his family vied for control over the Express Group and its assets, including newspapers and properties. The newsroom was left devoid of a stable figurehead. By 1995, Ramnath’s adopted son (and natural grandson) Viveck Goenka had consolidated control over the northern and western editions of the Indian Express (the rest went to his cousin and were eventually renamed the New Indian Express).

Shekhar Gupta came on board at the tail end of the family drama, taking over as the editor of Viveck Goenka’s Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Chandigarh, Nagpur, Ahmedabad and Baroda editions. Within a few years, Viveck, who was going through a separation from his wife Ananya, was spending most of his time in Dubai, where he ran a pen boutique. By 2000, Gupta had begun to consolidate his own control over the newspaper. Its CEO, K Digvijay Singh, stepped down that year due to a disagreement with Goenka over stock options, according to a source in the company’s senior management. Gupta, who was already editor-in-chief of the group, became the CEO, taking the reins of a portfolio that, in addition to the Indian Express and the Express Towers, included the Financial Express, Jansatta and Loksatta newspapers.

Ramnath Goenka pioneered the concept of a paper with multiple centres in the 1940s, aggressively acquiring dailies in cities across India. While the Express experimented with a franchise model in the early 2000s, overall, Gupta worked on instead consolidating the business and  making the spirit of the paper more centralised, while still retaining a strong network of reporters. He wanted, he said, to create something like a Washington Post for India, or a domestic International Herald Tribune. “I think we changed the basic business model,” he told me, by pursuing the idea “that Express should not compete for numbers, but that it is a paper of quality and should be read by quality readership.”

At one point, Gupta asked his marketing and sales team to get the addresses, in Delhi’s ten poshest localities, of the country’s top industrialists, lawyers and other such powerful people. He wanted to make sure the Express was reaching their homes on Aurangzeb Road and Prithviraj Road, in Golf Links, Jor Bagh, Sundar Nagar and Shanti Niketan. “Do you know how many houses there were there in total?” he asked me, before answering himself. “Two and a half thousand.”

In the mid 2000s the Express also conducted a positioning survey to understand if its particular style of journalism was still relevant. Rama Bijapurkar, a marketing consultant for the paper who was involved in the exercise, told me it was conducted around the time that DNA was about to launch, the Hindustan Times was coming to Mumbai, and the Times of India had launched Bombay Times, which “had sort of become the icon of the new age.” Newspaper prices were contracting, Bijapurkar said over the phone from Mumbai, and the question at the Express was whether it too would have to play by the rules of “throwaway prices” and “page-three culture.” There was pressure from the market “to go the Bombay Times way, lighten up the paper.”  Something had to be done to counter the “disruption” in the market, or “Express and Loksatta would get swept away.”

The survey revealed, she said, that the Express had “character of image, but not strength of image”—it was thought of highly, but by few people; it had a “smaller pond with a very loyal readership.” One of the questions people were asked, Bijapurkar said, was “Is politics dead? Do people not discuss politics in their drawing rooms anymore?” It turned out that they did. So “if Kareena Kapoor was the Times of India,” as Bijapurkar put it, “why couldn’t we be Kajol?”

Bijapurkar called Gupta a “very strategic thinker” who had “the pulse of what’s going on.” While thinking about how to “re-architect” the Express, she said, he noted that the “Times of India is the newspaper of record … it records and chronicles the events.” Gupta realised, she said, that “I am not in that space. This paper has clout that’s far more than its circulation.’”

One option was to move away from the “Journalism of Courage” identity, Bijapurkar remembered, but everyone in the newsroom was opposed to this. So because the survey found people did “not want to be bombarded with what all was wrong” while having their morning tea, it was “Shekhar’s idea to move from IE—India Exposed and India Enraged—to India Empowered, India Engaged, and India Explained.”

Some years later, Gupta printed insights from another survey, by the Indian Market Research Bureau, on the backs of his sales team’s visiting cards; for example, the fact that 99.9 percent of readers trusted the Express over other newspapers. The senior journalist who had worked with him for a decade said Gupta understood that the paper would never sell more than around 2 lakh copies a day, so he focused on increasing its profile while cutting down the circulation, to save on newsprint and distribution—the major cash drains in the print business.

The latest Indian Readership Survey does not include the Indian Express in its publicly available results, as it is not among the top ten English-language dailies by circulation. But according to a 2013 report from the Registrar of Newspapers in India, to which newspapers self-report circulation figures, the Express sells just over 4 lakh copies across India every day, and about 78,000 in Delhi. According to the same report, the Times of India, the country’s largest-selling English-language daily, sells more than 47 lakh copies nationwide, and over 10 lakh of its Mumbai edition alone.

Unlike the Times of India and the Hindustan Times, which subsidise their newspapers’ prices with advertising revenue, the Express has relied more heavily on government and public-sector advertisements. Gupta told me that the group offered very attractive packages for statutory advertising as part of its strategy. On another tactical prong, he said, the cover price of the Express was slowly brought up to Rs 5—much higher, for example, than the Hindustan Times or the Times of India. Gupta told me the circulation revenues increased significantly and now stand at about Rs 70 crore.

 

IN THE NEWSROOM, Gupta tended to be one step removed from implementing the shift from “India Enraged” to “India Explained.” As editor, he had a light touch, and relied on fiercely loyal, trusted deputies, especially Raj Kamal Jha and Unni Rajen Shankar, the two backroom boys who supported him on the floor for almost twenty years. That Gupta invested in his team and in strong reporting is uncontested. He was willing to take chances on young reporters, and he preferred to hire one good reporter and pay him or her well than to bring in four or five mediocre reporters and pay them poorly. And no story that he deemed worthy ever suffered for lack of a reporting budget.

Samar Halarnkar, who worked as a reporter in Delhi and was the resident editor of the Express in Mumbai, told me that Gupta—“a great raconteur with stories on everyone”—taught the newsroom “the power of facts.” He mentioned that Gupta put almost twenty reporters from the Indian Express and the Financial Express on a 22-part investigative series on the non-performing assets of banks in the early 2000s, helping them with his own sources and contacts.

He told the reporters to absolutely avoid writing that a person in the story “could not be reached,” insisting that every potential source or target be called, faxed, emailed and—if they were still unreachable—besieged at their office or home. Each reporter did “not have to just appear to be fair,” Halarnkar said, “but try his best to give them a fair opportunity.”

Once the series appeared in print, Gupta started getting calls, and “quite a few people would land up straight at the Express building,” Halarnkar said. He explained that Gupta stood by the reporters, and called him in on such occasions to deal directly with the people upset by the stories.

Gupta wasn’t always so hands-on. Jha “would take things through; would implement the ideas,” Halarnkar said. Jha and Shankar—the low-key editor and managing editor, respectively—got reporters into the field, made them file stories, worked on copy and published the newspaper. It was a stable three-way marriage, in which everyone understood his role. A senior editor who worked with Gupta at the Express said that Jha and Gupta had a daily conversation at around 2am, to discuss stories and ideas. Whenever Gupta spoke to his editors or reporters, the senior editor said, the normal questions would be “Kya chal raha hai? Kya khabar hai?”—What’s happening? What’s the news? But the price of a certain day-to-day independence in the newsroom, the senior editor said, was that editors and reporters had to be “on their toes” with their work. They could follow stories they wanted, but they had to be sure of their facts to avoid “unnecessary denials.” You could not “embarrass” Gupta, the senior editor said. Because he was always on the move, meeting people, attending social events, getting information, he had a “great bullshit detector”.

Gupta was closely tuned in to upcoming stories, even minor ones, that might affect people in positions of power. Halarnkar recalled one small piece in the Mumbai edition, about Mukesh Ambani’s billion-dollar residence, Antilla. A city reporter had attended and written about a press conference of the state Wakf Board, held to highlight the disputed nature of the land on which the building was coming up. Halarnkar said he wasn’t even aware of the story, but Gupta called him “from a train in Italy” to ask about it. He didn’t try to kill the story, Halarnkar said, he just wanted to know what it was about, to give an “answer” to whoever had alerted him to it.

A reporter who had worked for various publications, including the Express, said that unlike the other national newspapers, which are “corporate and management-driven,” the Express was an “entirely editorially driven newspaper.” Manoj Mitta, a journalist who worked with Gupta, said that “For a reporter, it is magical to have an editor like him. He believes a lot in freedom, but then everything that is published under a staffer’s name”—both reporting and opinion, he said—“has to be broadly within his worldview.”

 

[ III ]

 

IN NOVEMBER 2010, less than a month before a mass anti-corruption rally was held at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan to protest the 2G spectrum scam, Shekhar Gupta sat across a table from the industrialist Ratan Tata at the Tata Group-owned Taj Wellingtons Mews Luxury Residences in Mumbai. Open and Outlook magazines had just published leaked transcripts of conversations between Niira Radia—the head of a communications firm that handled public relations for Tata and Reliance Industries, among others—and various journalists and politicians.

I spoke with a person who used to work closely with Radia and her firm, Vaishnavi Communications. “Tata only wanted to give one interview” in the wake of the leak, he said. Gupta told me he had called Tata’s office, and Vaishnavi had gotten back to him, agreeing to a Walk the Talk on the condition that the conversation be conducted sitting down. Apart from this change in usual format, the Tata interview followed the friendly, chatty style of most episodes. Gupta, who can at times be a very sharp interlocutor, did not raise any direct questions about why Radia, on Tata’s behalf, had sounded so insistent on the leaked tapes that the politician Andimuthu Raja be given the telecommunications portfolio after the UPA government was re-elected in 2009. Instead, the conversation was marked by a sense of mutual admiration.

“Always inspirational talking to you,” Gupta said as the interview wrapped up.

“Let me just tell you,” Tata replied, “that you’ve come to be somebody that I really respect because of the fact you stand for what you believe in, and I have enjoyed every moment that we have been able to share together. I hope that friendship will grow as we go forward.”

“Inshallah.”

“It’s something I’ll cherish,” said Tata. “Thank you.”

This coziness is emblematic of Gupta’s interactions with powerful people even off-screen. Radia’s former associate told me Gupta was in touch with Tata through Vaishnavi, but was close enough to Mukesh Ambani to call him directly. He said that if the firm’s clients wanted to approach the Express, Gupta put Vaishnavi in touch with the appropriate reporter or editor without getting directly involved. He added that the firm was in constant contact with Gupta, including during the time Radia’s phone was being tapped by the Income Tax Department. There were many senior journalists whose recorded conversations with Radia were not leaked, he said, calling the disclosures “targeted.”

In Gupta’s opinion, “the Radia episode … tells you how little rotten the media is. Because, of the hundreds of journalists she was in touch with, only five got caught in varying degrees of indiscretion.” I pointed out that not all the conversations had been made public, but he assured me that he himself had heard several hours’ worth, before launching into a story. “Pratibha Patil,” then the country’s president, “called me and my wife for dinner once. We were coming back at 10.30 and my phone rang. I told my wife, ‘Oh—Niira Radia.’ She slapped me on the wrist and said, ‘Mat ley!’ So I said, ‘Why not? Dawood Ibrahim karega toh uska bhi loonga main—mujhko kya dar hai?’” If Dawood Ibrahim calls me, I’ll pick up his call too—what do I have to fear? “She’d come to meet me, she was a Delhi animal. Interesting Delhi character.”

Despite Gupta’s proximity to people in power, most Express journalists I spoke to said that if a story was compelling enough, it would find space in the newspaper’s pages. The long-term staffer explained that Gupta “always had a reason for why a story was stopped. Whether those reasons were that editorially the viewpoint was different, or, as he claimed, the facts were not up to the thing is something you decide for yourself.”

“Every editor has allegiances,” Tejpal told me. “You have political allegiances, you have intellectual allegiances. You may have financial allegiances also.” He pointed out that editors today face added pressures and responsibilities from the business side of their publications. “You have been made a part of the mess of running the media,” he said. “In a very, very weird way, it leaves less room for grandstanding on moral issues. And that’s not such a bad thing. The world is a messy place. Why should you be given the right to grandstand over everybody else, while somebody else does the dirty work? Today you’re told that this thing has to be kept going, dirty work has to be done.”

“Nobody pisses in their own backyard,” Tejpal continued. “Can you, in the Times of India, write a piece against the Jains? Can you, in the Hindustan Times, write a piece against the Bhartias? So if some people are part of Shekhar’s backyard, it’s possible he won’t piss on them. You can criticise him for that, that’s fair. But you still have to make a judgment in balance.”

“Your backyard cannot include your front yard,” he conceded. “All I am saying is there will always be a small corner that you don’t touch—every organisation has that. But if it’s not a small corner, if it’s three corners out of the four, or if it’s the middle of the room, then it’s a problem … The balancing act is my burden, as an editor.”

At least half a dozen former and current members of the Express newsroom whom I spoke with, however, claimed that Gupta used his editorial powers to further his own philosophies beyond a certain level of seemliness, or to protect certain people in power. They told me specific anecdotes about stories being killed, allegedly without discussion with those reporting them—stories that went against a top industrialist, a cabinet minister, a real-estate group. One journalist described how Gupta once had him debrief a foreign government agency, which seemed irrelevant to any of the stories he was working on.

A reporter allowed me to describe the events behind a series he had worked on, about the properties of a Supreme Court judge. Its parts were already laid out in sequence, although the judge had not responded to a request for an interview. The judge called Gupta to his home, after which, the reporter said, Gupta’s attitude to the series seemed to change. Rather than using whatever he had learned from the judge to strengthen the story and fill in any gaps, the reporter said Gupta became, in his tone, quite discouraging: he said there was a lot of ground yet to be covered before the series could run. The reporter had already spent about a month on it, and decided not to pursue the matter any further, as he could see that Gupta was no longer keen on it. Gupta did not kill the story, the reporter said, but it was ultimately dropped.

When I asked Gupta about these allegations, he responded that the “principle at the Express is simple and straightforward: any story that passes the test of our newsroom’s editorial filters gets published. It is an exacting test.”

Of the journalists I spoke with who had worked or still work with the Express, severalmentioned that they thought these editorial filters were impermeable to both Chidambaram and the Ambanis, who they said were off-limits for proactive investigation. “Chidambaram was the one example you totally couldn’t touch,” the long-term Express staffer said. “You could not criticise him. He was a holy cow, he was the holy cow.” The staffer qualified this by saying that Gupta “is a man of the moment,” and who these “holy cows” were also depended on who was in power.

The staffer elaborated on the matter of the Ambanis, calling it “a tricky area.” The staff “sort of had the feeling that the Ambanis were untouchable—but certain stories were done against the Ambanis.” The senior journalist who worked with Gupta for a decade said he “never told us to plug Ambanis—nothing like that.” Another former colleague said that Gupta never tried to influence his reporting on the fight between the Ambani brothers, even though Gupta was in contact with both Anil and Mukesh at the time. The former associate of Radia said that Gupta was “amenable” to hearing ideas from the public relations firm, “maybe because we represented Mukesh.” He hinted at an obligation, but I was unable to substantiate whether one existed.

Gupta denied that either Chidambaram or either of the Ambanis were ever off limits. “Many of these are people I’ve known for a very long time,” he said, “The test comes when you face a story about any of these people. Has any such story ever stopped? My submission is no.” He added that the idea that he would “go out of my way to find something against somebody to prove to someone that so-and-so is not my friend is stupid. They aren’t the only ones you can describe as my friends. In fact, frankly, my wife tells me if you get hit by a truck, how many people will come and feed you mashed banana in this world?”

As an example of fairness, Gupta recounted how, after the Express published leaks from the Liberhan Commission report, mentioning sources within the Home Ministry at the time Chidambaram was in charge of it, Chidambaram sent Gupta an angry letter through a secretary and broke off relations for a while. But the Liberhan leak story didn’t directly have anything to do with Chidambaram, just his ministry.

The long-term staffer felt that people within the Express perhaps “perceived” that the Ambanis and some other subjects were not to be touched, and so they “sort of self-censored themselves to accommodate that.”

In at least one instance, it seemed that the paper’s reporting mirrored Gupta’s professed opinion on a subject. At the peak of the Lokpal Movement in 2011, as the media debated the importance of Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal’s outrage against corruption, the Express appeared to have a definite perspective on the issue. In an informal 16-day survey of the paper published on the media blog Sans Serif, the reporter Pritam Sengupta listed 45 stories critical of the movement that ran just as it was gathering steam, in April 2011. He observed that “Words like ‘illiberal’, ‘fascist’, ‘dangerous’, ‘self-righteous’, ‘self-appointed’, ‘authoritarian’, ‘dictators’, ‘Maoist’ and—pinch yourself—‘missing foreskins’ have spewed forth from the paper’s news and views pages to convince the world why the movement is the worst thing to have happened for Indian democracy.”

Gupta said he didn’t agree that his paper gave the movement a “rough treatment,” although he himself wrote columns critical of some aspects of it. “Somebody asked me at that point,” he told me, “‘You’re anti-establishment, why are you opposing the Lokpal movement?’ I said because that’s the establishment now, when the actual establishment is so weak. When everybody agrees on something you have to think about it.”

Gupta told me he was never so “hands-on” that his own opinions would alter what reporters worked on, and that there was “sufficient cushioning between me and the rest.” He said, “I will not contest the fact that if I was in any newsroom it would not influence journalists’ minds.” He added that “I do not believe there was any situation ever” where anyone who disagreed with him would have “regretted” it. “The odd person with whom I got really cross at some point,” he said, would have fallen foul of him on “an issue of facts.” The senior Express editor I spoke to agreed that “we wanted to be a zero-denial” newspaper—and that under Gupta they came pretty close.

“Everybody sees motives in everything, right?” Gupta said to me during our second interview. He had just pointed to a sofa opposite me, describing how the former national security advisor JN Dixit had sat in it on the eve of his death. “His last meal was at our home,” Gupta said. “I said, ‘Mani, why are you looking so stressed?’ He said, you know, ‘Shekhar, tum milo do-ek din mein, tassali se baat karoonga’”—Meet me in a day or two and I’ll tell you properly. “‘But one thing I will tell you, it takes you a lifetime learning the ways of this benighted city. And by the time you learn that, it’s too late to be of any use to you.’”

 

FOR THE MOST PART, Gupta was able to strike a balance that preserved the Express’s anti-establishment identity while avoiding the “India Enraged” tone. Reporters may have whispered about particular slants or stories, but the paper under Gupta and his lieutenants had, in comparison to its rivals, solid beat-reporting and a greater depth of news coverage, all delivered in much more readable copy.

In 2012, however, a front-page Express story created something of a storm in a teacup, and drew Gupta more flak than he had perhaps ever received before—in part, because it carried his byline (a joint byline, it was his first on a reported piece since he had become editor). The story ran on 4 April, with a triple-decker headline across all eight columns: “The January Night Raisina Hill was spooked: Two key Army units moved towards Delhi without notifying Govt.” The story hinted, though did not explicitly allege, that the government had feared a possible coup attempt by General VK Singh, then the army chief.

The story was widely discussed and criticised, and spurred direct, high-profile attacks on Gupta’s wealth and influence. Singh responded a few days later, calling the piece “absolutely stupid.” (A few weeks earlier, Gupta had met Singh at his official residence. They had discussed the possibility of a Walk the Talk over breakfast, but the meeting didn’t end well and the proceedings ended on a sour note.)

A year later, the Express published another eight-column headline for a story citing an army inquiry that discovered  how a “unit set up by VK Singh used secret funds to try and topple J&K Govt,” and to try to block the appointment of the army chief’s eventual successor. Singh began waging a social-media campaign against Gupta, calling him a “UPA stooge,” and accusing a company started by Gupta and his wife of being involved in the “Commonwealth Games (read scam).”

Although Singh, now a minister of state in Narendra Modi’s government, had tweeted that he had “more to say and share (with proof),” he did not respond to my multiple calls and messages. His close associate Kunal Verma, who co-authored Singh’s autobiography, was unable to provide any documentation to prove these claims, even after weeks of follow-up. Gupta’s rebuttal—that he had started the company in question, Greenpine Agro, with the idea of getting into commercial floriculture, but shut it down in 2010 using an early-exit scheme (the company had done no business for the previous three years)—checked out in the records of the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, which showed no evidence of a connection to the Commonwealth Games.

Perhaps more rankling was the media reaction to the story on troop movements. In an interview with Open magazine, Vinod Mehta, the editorial chairman of Outlook, excoriated Gupta. He called the story a plant, “a mistake of Himalayan proportions,” and the “mother of all mistakes.” Mehta suggested that the piece “cast a slur on the entire Indian Army.”

Gupta considered this a bridge too far. Mehta’s statements “had to be countered,” he told me. “He was saying that my paper’s story was wrong without checking the facts. And second, he was saying—forget me—my colleagues, my reporters had taken a plant, that too of those dimensions. And third that we had ulterior motives in this.”

He argued that “not responding to that would’ve sounded like accepting it.” An Express lawyer sent a ten-page legal notice to Mehta, Open magazine, its editor Manu Joseph, and Mehta’s interviewer, Hartosh Singh Bal (who is currently political editor at The Caravan). In it, Gupta threatened to sue for Rs 100 crore each for the three reporters who co-authored and contributed to the story, the Indian Express, and himself.

Gupta tried to convince Mehta of the validity of the story at a meeting over lunch. He told me he argued: “You can say Shekhar Gupta is an idiot; you can say Shekhar Gupta has no news sense; you can say Shekhar Gupta exaggerated story—jo marzi keh do. But I just want you to say that you had no confirmation whether the story was right or wrong … Now you’ve heard it from the horse’s mouth: the story was absolutely correct.”

Still, the allegation that the story reflected a preferential relationship between Gupta and a powerful source with a vested interest persisted. A person from the Express newsroom who was involved with the story, as well as a senior investigative journalist for another newspaper who had also been approached with the same tale of troop movements, told me separately that Chidambaram, then the home minister, and Nehchal Sandhu, then the director of the Intelligence Bureau, had pushed the information.

Gupta said he was proud of the story, and that he would give me a complete account of how he learned of it, but off the record. He explained how he was not the first person in the newsroom to get the story, and that his information came neither from Sandhu nor Chidambaram. (Sandhu refused to speak to me. When I asked Chidambaram if he was Gupta’s prime source, he replied, via text message, to “Please ask Mr. Gupta.”)

Contrary to what people say, Gupta told me, “the government” didn’t want the story out. “We faced an extreme amount of pressure to stop the story. Extreme pressure. Until the last moment. I thought, if I pitchfork myself in then I’m sort of a larger fish. And also, in any case, if there’s attack, I will draw that. I will be a sizeable decoy, it will come to me.”

Gupta faced the music, doggedly insisting on the story’s importance and defending his treatment of it. Besides the Rs 500-crore legal notice, his reactions belied a growing confidence in his own, unimpeachable, importance. A person who worked with Chidambaram told me that the home minister had pushed for Gupta to be nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 2009 (Chidambaram denied this). Two former Express staffers also mentioned that Gupta was either in the running for or at least interested in a seat, usually reserved for journalists, which was eventually awarded to HK Dua.

“Nobody’s pushed me and I’ve never pushed it,” Gupta told me when I asked him about the Rajya Sabha. “And frankly, I see zero temptation. If somebody had offered it to me I would not hesitate one second before saying no, but I don’t want to feel more important than I should because nobody has offered it to me.”

“Frankly, I’m surprised about the sex appeal of a Rajya Sabha membership,” he said. “My answer is, very simply, what is it that a Rajya Sabha membership can do for me? It can’t pay me more than I get paid, than I earn right now. Even right now, it cannot give me more access than I have. It cannot give me a bigger voice than I have. What can it do for me? Nothing.”

 

[ IV ]

 

ABOUT THIRTY KILOMETRES, as the crow flies, from the gleaming towers of Gurgaon is a small Haryana village called Saanp Ki Nagli. There is nothing notable about the place except for a graveyard enclosed by an old sandstone wall. Near this is Gupta’s farmhouse, to which I had arrived for our first interview.

Gupta came to open the large steel gate for me, dressed in his trademark outfit: a khadi kurta with sleeves rolled up to the elbows, a churidar pyjama, and New Balance shoes. He could be any middle-aged man out on an evening stroll—except perhaps for the Montblanc pen clipped to his breast pocket.

Gupta was surrounded by an entourage of dogs—his entire family dotes on them—mostly rescued strays. He introduced some by name: Bhoora; pampered Cleo; and Ghotu, who had been born on the farm and given away to a neighbour, but returned a couple of months later. Laughing, Gupta told me that whenever anyone quit the Indian Express and later returned, “we would say Ghotu is back.”

“This is what Subramanian Swamy calls my ‘three farmhouses’ in Sohna,” Gupta waved a hand out as he referenced the BJP leader’s accusations about his wealth, before taking me on a tour of the 6.4-acre estate. It wasn’t the typical Delhi “farmhouse”—a mansion set in neatly manicured, landscaped lawns—but more of an actual farm, with a comparatively modest house and stands of wheat and pulses; mango, guava and mulberry trees; and some vegetables, which he takes home to Delhi and either gives to friends or sells.

It was mid October, a few days before state elections in Haryana. A tractor worked away as we sat and spoke for about four hours, taking intermittent breaks for Gupta to brew a total of eight cups of Twinings English Breakfast tea, which he takes with very little milk and no sugar. I was treated to freshly plucked mausambi from the orchard.

“I have been getting calls from people for the past few weeks,” Gupta said, telling him that I had been asking about him. “I told them, I am also a reporter. If he is doing an honest job, I should meet him. If he’s doing a hatchet job, I can’t stop him.” The sun was already setting as he sat down with his first cup of tea, and began to tell me about his childhood.

Gupta was born in Delhi, on 26 August 1957, but his father, Vishambar Dayal Gupta, came from Nuh, a village just a few kilometres from this farm. He was a low-ranking government employee, often shunted from post to post, and Gupta spent his youth in small towns across Haryana, including Sirsa, Palwal, Panipat and Rohtak. His father’s only ambition, he said, was to be a gazetted officer, which he managed to achieve just two months before retiring. His mother was a housewife, who spent most of her time looking after her two sons, who were often ill.

Gupta showed some early promise in his small-town schools, earning two double-promotions in the lower standards, he told me. But in his first two years of a bachelor’s degree in zoology, botany and chemistry from Panjab University in Rohtak, Gupta just scraped by. “Clerk ka beta toh clerk hi banega na”—a clerk’s son will naturally become a clerk—he recalled his father saying. But he scored well in his last two years, and graduated in 1976, when he was just 18 years old.

Gupta was done with the sciences, however, and an alternate path presented itself by accident that same year. He had gone to the Panjab University campus in Chandigarh to rectify a misspelling of his name on a final mark sheet. Coming out of the registrar’s office, he saw a notice for an entrance exam for the university’s journalism programme. He took the test on the spot and got in. Before he was 19 years old, he had earned a graduate degree in journalism. He even cleared a writing test for jobs he was technically too young to hold, including, most disappointingly for his mother—a government post as a public relations officer at the Indian Council of Medical Research.

In 1977, while pursuing his journalism degree, Gupta came to Delhi for a traineeship at the Times of India’s news and sports departments. He remembered how he got one of his first professional bylines: It was January, and he asked a senior colleague if he could cover the annual Beating the Retreat ceremony after Republic Day. The newspaper sent its music critic on the assignment instead, but Gupta watched the event on television at an aunt’s house, and filed a story anyway. When he saw the two versions, the senior editor Girilal Jain decided to run Gupta’s story.

After his traineeship, Gupta became an assistant editor at a publication named Democratic World, edited by Thomas Mathai. Many journalists from other publications wrote for it under pseudonyms. Gupta met the real “Ashutosh Rais,” a regular contributor, when the man came to collect a payment. Rais turned out to be TN Ninan, Gupta’s future boss at India Today.

The press corps was still reeling from the Emergency, and there weren’t too many newspaper jobs in Delhi. Gupta returned to Chandigarh, where Neelam Jolly, his girlfriend and future wife, was studying. Late in 1977, Gupta said, he landed a job there, on the Indian Express’s local sports desk. He quickly expanded the ambit of his beat, however. Over the next few years, he scooped two plane crashes in Punjab, and covered several other important stories.

Around 1980, Gupta caught a break when Arun Shourie, then the Indian Express’s executive editor, came to Chandigarh because his aunt needed treatment at a medical institute there. Shourie did not know anyone in the city. He asked the local bureau for help, and met Gupta, who had contacts at the institute. “Wherever I went, he was there, wearing his fleet shoes,” Shourie told me. “He knew everybody.” Shourie was impressed with Gupta’s “resourcefulness,” and suggested to the Express’s editors that they appoint him the correspondent at the paper’s north-east bureau.

In 1981, Gupta became the correspondent based in Shillong. Two years later, another Express reporter, Hemendra Narayan, happened to be passing through Assam’s Nagaon district when he witnessed the beginning of a massacre of several thousand Muslims. He filed a story, and the next day, Gupta, who knew the terrain, quickly arrived on the scene. An administrative officer who was in Nagaon at the time told me Gupta was “moving around with” KPS Gill, then the state’s inspector general of police, and VS Jaffa, the local commissioner. By the time Delhi-based journalists such as Satish Jacob reached the area, Gupta had a head start. He had a better grasp of local politics, as well as keys to the local telegraph office, where he said he had learnt how to “cut tape” himself, to speed up his dispatches.

This sort of doggedness marked Gupta’s entire reporting career. He told me that his ambition is fuelled primarily by a desire to chase the next good story. “I think the story is the biggest force. Every story, every news story, drives you,” he said. “Every story has its own fuel. It has its own risks, challenges. And I was very fortunate. God’s gift to me has been a good story.”

Manini Chatterjee, who worked with Gupta at Express, said Gupta distinguished himself from the very beginning. Satish Jacob, who later covered many important stories for the BBC alongside a young Gupta, said he was “very bright and very quick” in the field, and had a “natural gift of being a reporter.” The long-term staffer at the Express, who was also with Gupta at India Today,told me, “Nothing was too small for him, and he moved everywhere. He has a phenomenal memory, he said he doesn’t need to take notes.” The staffer said he was skilled at meeting “people of all kinds.” Gupta preferred a conversational style of interviewing, and relied mostly on his memory rather than on notebooks—though the staffer said sometimes he would ask other journalists in the field to reconfirm details.

Gupta was as capable at gaining the trust of his sources as he was at networking with mentors and colleagues. “One should never treat people one meets as sources, and sources like condoms,” he told me. “Each person you come across is a relationship, because they keep resurfacing in a reporter’s life.”

 

IN 1983, Gupta got a call from India Today. Its editor-in-chief, Aroon Purie—who would become a close friend of Gupta’s—wanted Gupta to join his team in Delhi.

India Today was then the best news magazine in the country, and jobs there were highly coveted. The atmosphere was ruthless. Sometimes there was more than one person on a single beat, promoting fractious newsroom competition. One such relationship arose between Gupta and one of his senior colleagues, Prabhu Chawla. The animosity, even today, is fierce, although Gupta described it to me simply as a “healthy rivalry.”

One of Gupta’s first assignments at India Today was in Punjab, where he reported from Amristar on Operation Bluestar. The army had imposed a curfew before it assaulted the Golden Temple, and some journalists left the city for Delhi when it was announced. This included the photographer Raghu Rai, who was travelling with Gupta. Gupta and a handful of other reporters stayed on, and he got Rai to leave his camera with him.

During the course of reporting the story, Gupta continued to expand his network. This June, in one of his occasional “First Person, Second Draft” columns in the Express, he reflected on the friendship he struck up at the time with General K Sundarji, who commanded the operation. “We became friends, fellow travellers on the strategic conference circuit,” he said, despite the fact that the general relished pointing out what Gupta later referred to as “a truly idiotic blunder” about artillery fire he had made in his Bluestar coverage.

When we spoke, Gupta characterised himself as quite “reckless,” with little regard for his personal safety during his early reporting days. During his first decade at India Today, he covered the Sikh massacre in Delhi; the Tamil separatist movement in Sri Lanka, where he met the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s leader, Prabhakaran; the disintegration of the Soviet Union; the uprising and killings at Tiananmen Square; the Gulf War; the emergence of international Islamic extremism; and many other dream stories for any reporter. He wouldn’t do some of the things he did back then, he said.

At one point, Gupta said, he received a “fat offer” from Time magazine, but after doing a cost-benefit “matrix analysis” that involved “assigning a money value to everything,” he instead started taking on more editorial responsibility at India Today. He started the magazine’s books section, which was later handed over to Tejpal. By the time Tejpal joined India Today, in the late 1980s, “Shekhar was already a star,” he told me. When TN Ninan quit the magazine as executive editor in 1988, Gupta said, there was a generational shift, with everyone moving up a step. By the early 1990s, he was a senior editor for the magazine, and the executive editor and publisher of the regional and international publications of India Today Group.

When Viveck Goenka approached him in 1995 to lead the Indian Express, Gupta was initially hesitant. But, he told me, his friend and colleague Surendra Pratap Singh convinced him that if he didn’t take the job up now he would only be weighing a similar offer a decade later. “Why not do it when you are 38 years old,” he reasoned, “rather than 48?”

 

[ V ]

 

AFTER MONTHS OF RUMOURS over the past year about Gupta’s imminent departure from the Indian Express, his long, chatty farewell email to his colleagues on 2 June was no surprise. In it, he praised the paper’s proprietor and staff, then paraphrased his “friend and mentor” General K Sundarji. At the general’s farewell parade, Gupta recalled, “when cameras caught a hint of mist in his ever-smiling eyes. He said he didn’t know whether to sob or smile. Because he was leaving behind the world’s finest army that God gave any human the gift of leading.”

In Gupta’s case it was not god but the Goenka family, in its absence, that bestowed the gift of the Express upon him. Gupta built up the paper’s lean corps of reporters and editors, having been handed what was effectively absolute control over it in the late 1990s. And he was rewarded handsomely for his years of service.

If Indian news businesses are still largely family-run empires, journalists are its foot soldiers and top editors its generals. Struggles for succession usually take place within a family, and editors remain, at best, key brokers of power and information. But Gupta transcended those limits, and succeeded as few outsiders have. He not only consolidated editorial operations, but, in his capacity as CEO of the Express Group after 2001, also helped streamline the business, guiding it through major structural changes and making it profitable. He was, by all accounts, an acting king, guiding the paper’s long-term strategy while also building a growing name for himself.

“As I see it from a distance,” Tejpal told me, “he delivered, because Express became profitable. If in reviving the paper even he made money, and not just the lala, I don’t see what the problem is.” He continued, “There are a hundred entrepreneur-editors in this country, whom I call lalas, who’re worth thousands of crores, who run media companies. Nobody says anything about them. We are okay with it. But if a Shekhar Gupta makes money, just because he was once a reporter, ki is ne kyun kiya”—it’s a question of why. “Arre baabu usne kiya na, apne dum se kiya. Apna mehnat se kiya”—He just did it, through his own will, his hard work. “Why are we so happy when the lala makes tens of thousands of crores, and we are happy to suck at their fountains?”

Gupta was offered the position of CEO after about six years of running the paper. He told me he consulted his former bosses, Purie and Ninan. Both were encouraging, but Ninan counselled caution, and suggested that Gupta hire a good chief financial officer “so that people couldn’t say a journalist took charge of the company and ruined it.” Gupta stepped up to the position (he hired a CFO some years later). He used the title of CEO for a few years before informally dropping it; he preferred to be known as the editor-in-chief, but continued to function as the company’s chief executive too.

“I think the most important decision was to consolidate the company, consolidate publishing,” he told me. In order to run a tighter ship, he focussed on efficiency in staffing and production. He brought in a management system to streamline workflow and also trimmed the staff: from 4,700 when he first joined, to 1,900 by the time he left, he said. “But it’s been completely bloodless,” Gupta said. He explained that the company’s total wage bill increased, meaning that the “average salary has gone up, so we have much higher skilled people who are much better compensated.” He claimed that under his tenure, the Express paid the best salaries in the industry and had the most employee-friendly contracts.

Besides investing in reporters who could knock out several solid stories a day, Gupta brought in people close to him and elevated them into senior positions. His secretary from India Today, Usha Uppal, slowly grew into the position of senior vice president. Gupta also brought in Harcharan Singh, who used to be his personal banker at Punjab & Sind Bank in Chandigarh and who eventually became the top financial officer, so as to ensure, Gupta said, that no cheque issued by the Express would ever bounce.

One person I spoke to, who served at the president level position with the Express Group, said he felt the Goenkas were entirely uninvolved in the business under Gupta’s reign, and suggested that Gupta was reluctant to be transparent outside a small circle, from which this person was excluded. He said he had asked Gupta for access to the company’s financial records “a couple of times” and been promised a review meeting to look at them, but claimed that the meeting never took place. “At those levels,” he said, “after you’ve asked twice, you get your message.” (Gupta said he could not comment on this without being given further specifics of the source’s claims.)

 

“THERE HAS TO BE SOMETHING so terribly wrong with a society,” Gupta wrote, in a September 2001 column, “which, even when it celebrated its finest wealth creators, is more proud of their spartan lifestyle than their riches.” In the column, Gupta contrasts the media’s celebration of Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy’s “middle-class lifestyle” with the “real tragedy” that “even the decade of reform has failed to produce a couple more Dhirubhais.” Ramnath Goenka claimed to have been content with his lota; Gupta told me his mantra is a Spanish proverb Shourie had shared with him: “Living well is the best revenge.”

In recent years, Gupta has occasionally found himself on the receiving end of criticism of his wealth. On Twitter, critics such as VK Singh and Subramanian Swamy asked probing questions, though without substantiation of any wrongdoing. Last year, Singh tweeted about a property in Delhi’s diplomatic enclave that he claimed Gupta had bought for over Rs 50 crore. Gupta told me the apartment, on Malcha Marg, was valued far below that figure. “In fact,” he said, “if he pays me twenty crores for it, I’ll give it to him with a Mercedes.”

There are people closer to Gupta with questions too. “Shekhar has made more money than most of us can imagine,” one of his journalist friends told me, in one of my many meetings that “never happened” with journalists and bureaucrats who “never spoke to me” but always mentioned Gupta’s riches. When I asked my source how Gupta had done so, he smiled knowingly and replied, “Not by editing.”

Speaking to property dealers and neighbourhood home-owners, I compiled a list, which may not be exhaustive, of properties reportedly owned by Gupta or registered in his name. There is the Delhi house near IIT, and the farmhouse in Saanp Ki Nagli, which Gupta said he purchased from Maneka Gandhi’s family in 1995. Two villas (one a 1,005-square-yard plot) in EMAAR-MGF developments in Gurgaon. Also in Gurgaon, a plot in DLF’s Alameda project and a house in the National Media Centre. The Malcha Marg apartment. A house in Asiad Village, which Gupta gifted his daughter after she got married (the ceremony was at Arun Jaitley’s official residence). He also partially funded his son’s residence in London.

Gupta wasn’t reticent about the details of his real estate. I asked him about the two EMAAR-MGF villas. “I don’t own a villa,” Gupta said. As I flipped through my notebook to look for the plot numbers, he added, “I don’t own one yet.” He later clarified that he does own one property, and that the other is still under development—the land rights have not yet been transferred to him.

“Shekhar and other people like Shekhar have become quasi-entrepreneurs,” Tejpal told me. “He is not a full-on entrepreneur. Thirty crore, forty crore, it’s a lot of wealth for a journalist. For an entrepreneur, it’s not a lot of wealth.” He agreed that Gupta had made his wealth “not by editing,” but added it was “by being a smart entrepreneur … He made money because he took some good business decisions.”

To act on the kinds of business decisions he was making, however, Gupta would have required a certain amount of capital. He was, to be sure, one of the best-paid editors in India. If the contents of a document I accessed with “analysis” of his tax returns from 2009 to 2014 are to be trusted, Gupta’s annual salary over that period, with some fluctuations, was in the ballpark of Rs 10 crore. When I read out the contents of the document, Gupta said he would not discuss his compensation. “I’m not confirming or denying,” he said. The Indian Express Limited’s annual report for 2010 listed his remuneration at just over Rs 8.5 crore—more than six times that of the company’s second highest paid employee, Raj Kamal Jha, who earned Rs 1.25 crore.

To put this in wider perspective, according to Bennett, Coleman and Company Limited’s 2014 filings with the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, the Times of India’s editorial director, Jaideep Bose, was paid under Rs 2 crore last year, and the  group’s CEO, Ravi Dhariwal, earned under Rs 6 crore. The Indian Express Limited’s MCA filing for 2013–14 did not include salary amounts, but if the analysis document I accessed is correct, Gupta’s income from the company that year was higher than the combined salaries of the Times of India’s editorial director and CEO, at a little over Rs 9 crore.

“Maybe you have to blame my employers for being too generous,” Gupta said. I asked him about the gap between his and Jha’s salaries, and pointed out that he decided the salaries for his subordinates. “That’s right,” he said, “but someone else decides my salary. I work on that basis. And whoever decides has to make a calculation on what he’s getting, and if he’s being overly generous then it’s a question for him, not me. My job is to earn money, work as hard as I can and pay taxes.”

One particularly large source of income mentioned in the document, accounting for Rs 36.67 crore, is Gupta’s “capital gains” (explained as “profits made on sale of shares or properties”) for the year 2009–10. Gupta told me that year’s gains had to do with the restructuring of the Express Group in 2008, when the Bombay High Court approved a demerger of its real-estate and fourth estate branches. After the demerger, an ICICI subsidiary bought a 49-percent stake, worth Rs 358 crore, in the real estate company, Indian Express Newspapers (Mumbai) Limited, which owned the Express Towers.

In 2006, Gupta had received a 9-percent stake in the parent company. According to the Express’s corporate legal director, Vaidehi Thakar, this was “a reward for his long contribution as the company’s editorial and management head.” The rest of the company remained with Viveck Goenka and his first wife. After the demerger, the ownership of the two new companies had to mirror that of the original one. So Gupta held a 9-percent stake in both IEN(M)L and the Indian Express Limited, which took charge of the publishing businesses. By the end of the 2009 financial year, Gupta and Goenka’s individual holdings in IEN(M)L came down to stakes of about 2.5-percent each, as ICICI bank invested in the company and bought up shares. According to Gupta, this dilution of his minority equity in IEN(M)L reflected as capital gains in his 2009–10 tax returns.

There are smaller sources of income listed in the analysis document as well. “Professional income” and “income from other sources” (the document suggests the latter could be mostly income from interest), fluctuate between Rs 20 lakh to Rs 72 lakh per year. Without scrutinising the document, Gupta said that these could be income from television appearances and, possibly, income related to speaking engagements and rents from properties.

Finally, the analysis document lists “investments made,” ranging from Rs 19 crore to Rs 73 crore each year. “Think of how long I’ve worked,” Gupta said. He pointed to the fact that these were cumulative figures, including investments carried forward from previous years. He also noted that the document did not list his liabilities, providing an incomplete picture of his finances. “All this stuff is disclosed to the tax man, and sent to the tax department,” he said.

Gupta didn’t seem particularly fazed by these questions, though he was a bit taken aback. “Nobody can ever find a paisa,” he said, “which will either be a surprise to my taxman or to any of my employers.”

 

AROUND THE TIME GUPTA BECAME CEO, two senior management employees at the Express told me, someone named BS Raman would come to Express Towers for a few hours everyday from the nearby Reliance Industries’ office in Makers Chamber IV. These employees said Raman was performing due diligence on behalf of the Ambanis, though neither of them knew whether this led to any sort of investment. Raman, now a director with Jindal Power, confirmed that he used to go to Express Towers from the Reliance office, but said it was to help the Express Group with some bank troubles. He said he was asked by his office to help Viveck Goenka’s company.

Gupta wasn’t sure if it was Raman or a man named Shamit Sheth who used to come over from Reliance, but said that it could have been at the behest of Goenka, to help clean up the Express Group’s books. I asked Gupta if Reliance, or any other company related to the Ambanis, had ever invested in the group since he had taken over—he said it had not.

Yet Gupta was keen on expanding the Goenkas’ media kingdom, and there had been discussions, before 2008, of taking the publishing company public to raise capital. It hadn’t worked out, Gupta said, mentioning the market collapse of 2008. “I’d say that we missed the bus in 2003, 2004, when HT and others got listed. But we were not ready then.”

Before the demerger in 2008, Gupta hired the auditors PwC to help him clean up the books at the Express, and worked over the next two years to make the Indian Express Limited presentable to any potential investors. Gupta wanted to take the company further both editorially and financially, which would have required outside capital. “If there was a chance of Express growing exponentially, or if there was a chance of growing the brand—Express is a great brand—that would’ve been a tempting thing,” he told me. After 2010, there no longer seemed to be any obvious business-related obstacles to making an attempt.

While the Goenka family and Gupta appear to be on good terms, it is possible that the relationship between them began to hinder Gupta’s ambitions at and for the paper. In November 2010, a divorce agreement was finalised between Viveck Goenka and his first wife, Ananya. “As far as I know,” the long-term senior staffer at the Express told me, “Ananya was always anti-Shekhar. Because her husband was too laid-back. She felt bitter that the empire is taken over totally”—by Gupta—“as if he’s the owner.”

The same year, the Goenkas’ son, Anant, returned to India after earning a journalism degree in the United States. He joined the Express Group in 2011, and is currently its Wholetime Director and new media head, whose responsibilities include overseeing the online edition. Until Anant joined the company, Gupta was, as the senior television editor said, the “maalik” of the business. With Anant now the heir apparent, some people sensed a tussle of egos between the two.

“I feel Shekhar was very wrong how he treated Anant,” the long-term staffer said. “I mean, an owner’s son is an owner’s son. You don’t put him in a room next to a photographer. Not even the chief photographer—somebody else’s room in the basement.” The staffer said Gupta did not introduce Anant “properly” to the celebrities who met the staff during the Express Addas—one of Gupta’s innovations, which involved informal conversations with prominent figures from politics, industry and the arts. “You don’t introduce him to the staff, apparently,” the staffer continued. “I mean, some respect is due.” Gupta “sort of put him down,” the staffer said, and that “must have rankled with Anant.” They said Gupta also did not give “any kind of prominence” to the internet operations that Anant was heading. “So, Anant must have worked on his father. And there were others, there must have been other people who felt that he was getting away as owner.”

I was told by one person who used to be in senior management at the Express that, after Anant joined the group, the young scion approached some former employees to get their perspectives on Gupta’s management style. When I contacted Anant Goenka, who is now 28 years old, he said he didn’t want to discuss “an ex-employee.” I mentioned that Gupta was not merely an ex-employee, having run the paper for nearly 19 years and the group for around 13. “I can tell you about people who worked with the Express for 25 years, and I won’t even talk about them,” he said, sounding confident, almost victorious.

The “real break,” the long-term staffer said, came when the Goenkas brought in a new CEO, George Varghese, who had worked with Viveck in the group’s senior management in the 1990s. Gupta announced the appointment on his birthday, in August 2013, and formally stepped down as CEO. Even though he hadn’t used the title for years, this move did create a new sphere of power and, possibly, scrutiny . A senior journalist told me that at a lunch with Anant and Varghese sometime in the past year, both mentioned that Gupta had “made a mess” of things on the business side.

Several people told me that Gupta had been in touch with Purie at India Today from at least around the time that Varghese joined the Express.

Gupta did not discount a future relationship with the Express. He said he had “nothing but affection” for Anant. “I know the usual thing people would say,” he acknowledged, but added that “he has treated me with the fullest respect. Even now, we meet.”

I asked him if he had unfulfilled plans for Express. “There are always plans that you can fulfill with much greater resources,” he said. “There are many things to do, which I had not had time to do,” he said. “I’d just worked almost 40 years nonstop. Full time: 24 hours, 365 days a year. So I just wanted a little more flexibility in my life, and the freedom to do a few more things.”

Reflecting on his decision to leave the Express, Gupta said, “I think it was just my own sense of restlessness. That’s god’s own truth.”

 

[ VI ]

 

UNLIKE AT THE INDIAN EXPRESS, which had remained at its core a relatively traditional newspaper, there had been innumerable changes at India Today since Gupta’s first stint there in the 1980s and 1990s. Its parent company, Living Media, had launched 24-hour television news channels, started a radio network, started publishing a daily newspaper, and become a multi-crore, multi-platform media empire. The magazine itself had inspired, and then been challenged by, a new set of publications, including Outlook and The Week.

But one thing hadn’t changed at India Today: Aroon Purie was still the company’s inheritor and czar. Now over seventy years old, though, he needed more than just an editor to help him; he needed someone to look over Living Media’s business operations, and also deal with the political pressures of running such a large media network.

On 3 June this year, Purie announced that Gupta would be joining the India Today Group, in the position of vice chairman, the following month. “In his new role, Shekhar has promised to liberate me from day-to-day operations so that I can work to guiding the group into a future of great promise, growth and excitement,” Purie wrote in his email to the staff. “Shekhar, welcome back.”

Exactly two months after Gupta joined the company, Purie sent out another email, announcing that Gupta would be an editorial advisor while Purie himself looked after the daily operations of the magazine and group. “Shekhar, a dear personal friend, remains passionate to the India Today Revamp Project and will support me and the team,” he wrote. But Gupta, he added, would also be able to pursue “his creative and entrepreneurial interests”—an arrangement that was “to our mutual benefit.” Gupta told me that, at that point, he had not even signed a contract to take up this new position formally.

Gupta said he realised he was making a “mistake” by promising his entire time to the group almost right away. He had visited Shourie sometime in July, and the two had agreed that “yeh shaadi galat ho gayi hai”—this marriage was a mismatch. Gupta repeated these words to Purie. “The reason for which I was leaving the Express—to give myself more time and mind space—was again going to be lost,” he said. “And did I really have to work for a fat salary?” On the surface, the separation seemed amicable. (As of last month, Gupta still went to India Today for weekly meetings, and, in Purie’s absence, headed them.)

But over the short duration that Gupta was associated with India Today full-time, Delhi’s rumour machine worked overtime to pump out unverified tidbits about his rough transition. Whether or not any of them were true, their volume revealed the avid interest among the capital’s press corps about the doings of this wildly successful member of its ranks. Gupta dismissed each one of these rumours when I brought them up.

Despite the many accounts of Gupta lining up investors for Purie—inluding the Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, Uday Kotak of Kotak Mahindra Bank, and the financial mogul Deepak Parekh—Gupta told me an investment “was never sought from me and I never promised. And that’s not in Aroon’s nature.” Purie did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Gupta, I was told by a journalist who had been at the India Today group and still had close ties to it, had also promised Purie that he would bring Jha and Shankar over with him to head India Today and its affiliated newspaper, Mail Today. “I’m not a one-man army,” Gupta said, “I greatly value my colleagues.” But, he claimed, he never asked either of his former deputies to join him, because he wasn’t “setting up anything.”

Several people did move with Gupta, and I was told by several sources that their annual salaries ranged from Rs 30 lakh for associate editors to close to Rs 90 lakh for top editors. I spoke to one of these senior editors, who said the people  who had followed Gupta did receive marked raises, but denied that the salaries were anywhere near so high. But these rumours created anxiety in the India Today newsroom, especially as the new staffers hogged stories and desk-work, producing more cover stories in the months since they arrived. Outside the newsroom, about ten India Today veterans vented their frustrations at a farewell party in late August for Kaveree Bamzai, who stepped down as the editor of India Today to make room for Gupta. (She rejoined after Gupta left the post, with higher pay and as an editor-at-large for the entire group.)

Purie was displeased with a cover story, which proved to be factually flawed, about a missile abandoned in China, by Manu Pubby, an Express hire. According to another journalist from the group, at one of Gupta’s initial editorial meetings at Mail Today, there was tension between him and the paper’s senior editors over a story on the Economic Survey of India, leading to an unpleasant start to the relationship. A journalist who was in the editorial meetings told me Gupta said he would be a “fly-on-the-wall” but soon started trashing story ideas, even criticising some put forward by Purie. The tension between them was “palpable,” the journalist said; reporters wrote in each other’s notebooks during editorial meetings that the two were having a “turf war.”

According to both the person with close ties to the group and the lobbyist I spoke to who knows Gupta well, Purie’s daughter, Kalli, had misgivings about Gupta’s prominence in the family-run business and asserted control of its television stations and web publications away from him.

Kalli Purie refused to meet me. When I asked Gupta whether there had been any rift, he laughed and said, “No, absolutely not. In fact, I pulled Kalli Purie’s leg that once a week you have to take me out to lunch and pay, because I defend you so much—I could easily have the whole world hate you.”

 

IN THE RUN-UP TO THIS STORY GOING TO PRESS, journalists I hadn’t approached contacted me for information about my “hatchet job” on Gupta, asked me whether The Caravan was facing political pressure to withhold the piece, and dug around for the “dirt” I had supposedly uncovered. All the buzz seemed a bit overblown for a semi-retired editor, but was of a piece with what I had discovered about the width of Gupta’s network, and the loyalty and curiosity he commanded.

During our multiple interactions over phone, email and text, Gupta always seemed to have up-to-the-minute information about who I was interviewing about him. At one point he said that he knew a crucial person hadn’t responded to my request for an interview, and suggested, somewhat patronisingly, that if I contacted him now, Gupta could nudge him into giving me access. In another context, when I asked Gupta about his people skills during our second interview, he noted that his policy was to never harbour a grudge. “I don’t even feel bad if people leave me to work elsewhere,” he said, and then quoted a villain from a Bollywood film: “Hamaare aadmi charo taraf phailay hue hain”—my people are spread out everywhere.

For all the access Gupta has enjoyed over the past two decades, he doesn’t have a newsroom to run today—at least not yet. He is in no hurry, he said, and would not be “stampeded into anything.” While he would “not do anything unless I’ve thought it through and planned it,” Gupta told me he would look for “healthy investments …  I’m deeply suspicious of foundation-funded journalism, as much as I might be suspicious of corporate-funded journalism. A foundation has an agenda as much as a corporation has an agenda, right? So to that extent the healthiest agenda is profit. It’s an idealistic situation, but self-sustaining profit, yeah. Media—large, small, whatever—must pay for itself.

“And whatever I do—now that you know that I’m not exactly poor—I will put some of my own equity,” Gupta said. “It’s very easy to get money from somebody else, start something, but it will be something very idealistic.”

It remains to be seen what kinds of investment Brand Gupta might attract. He told me that whatever he decided to do, he was attached to the print medium—“the cockroach of journalism”—and also to long-form writing. But it seems safe to assume any future project will play more to his strengths as a networker and commentator than as an editor.

In the introduction to a forthcoming compilation of his Walk the Talk interviews, Gupta described the show’s origins. When he left India Today for the first time, in 1995, he tentatively tried to venture into television—a medium then just opening up to private players—and approached Prannoy and Radhika Roy. The Roys were at Star News then, and had known Gupta for years. Radhika had been on the Express’s Delhi desk when Gupta was in Shillong, and often received his late-night reporting calls.

Gupta had been on camera a few times before, but the Roys said he wasn’t ready for television yet. They came around “a couple of years later,” Gupta wrote, after he began “National Interest,” to pitch a weekly news show. Gupta, who was already editor of the Express agreed to appear on Nationwide, as a pundit. But he had to go out and buy ties specially for the appearances as he didn’t own any, nor knew how to knot one.

In 2003, the Roys they approached Gupta again for a show on their channel, NDTV. He agreed to anchor a weekly show, but only on certain conditions. He must be allowed to roll up his shirtsleeves, forgo a tie, and conduct interviews while walking. Raj Kamal Jha suggested the title.

Towards the end of our first meeting, at his farm, Gupta’s phone rang. He introduced himself, then said, “Hi, Aamir.” It was the actor Aamir Khan. Gupta told him a new season of Walk the Talk was on the air, and that he would like to fix up an interview in Mumbai. He suggested they do it soon, as by December there would be a glut of Khan coverage before his next big film release. He had emailed the actor earlier, he told me, after hanging up.

By that time it was almost nine at night. Gupta’s wife offered me some vegetable and fruit from the farm to take home, which I politely declined. Gupta was headed back as well, to his house in Delhi. He told me to follow his car, to help me navigate my way out of the village and onto the highway to the capital.

Corrections

1. In the print version of this article, the name of the Editor of Indian Express, Unni Rajen Shanker was incorrectly spelt as Unni Rajan Shankar. The Caravan regrets the error. 

2. In the print version of this article, Panjab University was incorrectly spelt as Punjab University. The Caravan regrets the error.

3. In the print version of this article, it was incorrectly mentioned that Ratan Tata’s Walk the Talk interview with Shekhar Gupta in November 2010 took place in Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai. The interview was recorded in Taj Wellington Mews Luxury Residences in Mumbai. The Caravan regrets the error.

ALMOST EVERY YEAR for nearly two and a half decades, Shekhar Gupta hosted a party on Diwali.

In 1990, when the tradition started, he was a senior editor at India Today magazine. His home was one floor of a house in a colony near the Indian Institute of Technology in south Delhi, and the party was a modest, intimate affair—a few friends, relatives and colleagues, some of whom lived alone, celebrating the festival with him, his wife, and their two children. There was serviceable, fusty catering, sometimes from the India International Centre, and the guests doubled up as bartenders.

In 2003, after an eight-year period during which he became first editor, then CEO, of the Indian Express, transforming it into the capital’s most influential  newspaper, Gupta bought a large house in the same neighbourhood. The party grew with him. A scrum of official vehicles—red beacons flashing, sirens wailing—choked the narrow street outside. As their wards hobnobbed, National Security Guard commandos would eat together in an area set aside for staff. The “entire local thana” would be present because of all the VIPs, someone who attended the parties since the early 1990s told me. Cabinet ministers, top bureaucrats, intelligence officers and senior cops mingled with famous journalists. High commissioners clinked glasses with leading intellectuals and industrialists. “If you wish to rub shoulders with the political, business and media glitterati of Delhi and Mumbai,” an article on the capital’s “A-list” in India Today told readers a few years ago, “get invited.”

Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, including LK Advani, Sushma Swaraj, and the late Pramod Mahajan, were regulars, as was the Congress stalwart and two-time finance minister P Chidambaram, a close ally of Gupta. The BJP politician and current finance minister, Arun Jaitley, would also stop by. Even Sonia Gandhi could occasionally be spotted in the crowd of about two hundred people shuffling in and out, helping themselves to food from the five-star ITC Maurya hotel.

An omnipresent newspaperman in the age of celebrity television anchors, Gupta wheeled through his parties with determination. He’s “a social terrorist,” a senior television journalist told me. “He will look at you for five seconds, shake your hand, then look at who’s the next person coming in. The party is just to show off who all he knows.” The Congress politician and former cabinet minister Mani Shankar Aiyar called the soirées “social climbing efforts.” He said Gupta “acquires his influence” at such events and is “quick to accept” invitations. At someone else’s party, Gupta “cut me dead and he walked away,” Aiyar recounted. “It was very uncomfortable. And I never mentioned it to him.” (He added, “I am sure he will avidly read every comment about him here, so let me get my own back this way.”)

As his Diwali bash turned into an essential way station on the capital’s social circuit, Gupta gained ever greater access to the country’s elite. Many of those present at his parties appeared at one point or another on Walk the Talk, his popular weekly interview show on NDTV. In the introduction to a forthcoming anthology of these interviews, Gupta writes that he spoke to more than five hundred “stellar guests … including heads of states, top politicians, film and sportstars, scientists and beauty queens, 14 Nobel Laureates so far in different fields.” The growing guest list—of the parties and the series—was a measure of how far he had come. The son of a minor bureaucrat, Gupta became one of the best-connected, and richest, journalists in the country, with an annual salary that sometimes exceeded Rs 10 crore, or roughly $1.6 million. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan, for journalism, in 2009. Perhaps no other reporter has been as successful in pairing a warm, down-to-earth manner with the sort of hard-nosed ambition it takes to achieve proximity to power.

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Krishn Kaushik is a staff writer at The Caravan.

READER'S COMMENTS

14 thoughts on “Capital Reporter”

Long yet good article to read if one is interested in life story of Shekhar Gupta. I am great fan of this man . I prefer Expres to any other news paper and have read his book on national interest. Vinod meheta ,Arun shourie are other two print journalistswhom i luv to read and watch on tv. thanx kk for this story.

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