Rajat Sharma, the DDCA and the perks of a close friendship with Arun Jaitley

By ATUL DEV AND PRAVEEN DONTHI | 5 July 2018

On 2 July, Rajat Sharma, the chairman and editor-in-chief of India TV, was elected the president of the Delhi & District Cricket Association. Sharma swept the elections, defeating his closest competitor, the former cricketer Madan Lal by 517 votes, while his group of candidates won all 12 seats in the panel. The margin of the defeat was along the lines that Sharma’s group had reportedly predicted over the weekend before the results were announced—a fact that Lal referred to while claiming that “there is something wrong somewhere.” A day after the results were announced, Vinod Rai, the chairman of the committee of administrators—appointed by the Supreme Court to implement sweeping reforms in the administration of Indian cricket—said that the results may later be annulled for having taken place without a constitution endorsed by the court.

Before Arun Jaitley was appointed a cabinet minister in the Narendra Modi government, he was the president of the DDCA for close to 13 years. Sharma is known to have an intimate friendship with Jaitley that has continued for over four decades, since their days together in college. In the cover story of the 2016 media issue, Our Man in the Studio, Atul Dev and Praveen Donthi reported on Sharma’s path to becoming India’s most powerful editor-entrepreneur, and how his close relationship with Jaitley and Modi aided him in this regard.

In the following extract from the story, Dev and Donthi reported on Sharma’s interview with Jaitley, who was then the union finance minister, on his television show Aap Ki Adalat in November 2016, and other perks that Sharma has gained through the friendship. 

On 12 November 2016, just days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the momentous decision to demonetise all Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes overnight, Sharma’s interviewee on Aap Ki Adalat was the finance minister, Arun Jaitley. The economy had been thrown into disarray: 86-percent-worth of the cash in circulation had been annulled, replacement notes were in short supply, ATMs had not been recalibrated to dispense them, and people were waiting in line for hours, often days, to exchange or deposit old currency at bank branches. The full effects of the demonetisation had not yet become clear, but reports already spoke of farmers having no cash for seeds at a crucial time for sowing the winter crop, and shopkeepers and vendors seeing business suddenly evaporate. This was the first interview Jaitley had granted since the move, and there was no end of tough questions to be asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is an extract from the December 2016 cover story, “Our Man in the Studio,” by Atul Dev and Praveen Donthi. It has been edited and condensed.

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

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