NETS TO ROPE IN law-breakers are being cast far and wide by the Modi government, with renewed force in its second innings. At one side, bunches of corrupt Income Tax and Revenue officials have been shown the door. Bigger sharks are also getting into the net, like P Chidambaram; and the highly protected media entities are not left behind either. Co-founders of prominent news channel NDTV, Prannoy Roy and his wife Radhika Roy, are in serious trouble over charges of financial crime – namely, of creating shell companies in tax havens abroad and channeling slush funds back to India. The funds were put into these entities by as-yet-unidentified “public servants” who could be either corrupt politicians or bureaucrats of the same kind.
NDTV and CBI Investigations
A week ago, the CBI has registered a case against the two as also company CEO Vikramaditya Chandra and a retired IRS official Narayan KVL Rao, charging them with conspiracy, cheating and criminal misconduct. Their arrest and trial could follow. Running a media establishment requires tonnes in funds. Reason why either big business houses with huge reserves are there in the media, or those (politicians) who have made easy money though foul means step in, to enable them do more manipulations with the clout they have as media barons.
Exceptions are the long-established media houses whose managements are retained by families through generations. The Hindu, for instance, a traditional family of Brahmins, which does not own or operate any other business; or The Times of India, which has other business interests too – operated by a family of Jains, its money having come in the past from Calcutta-centered jute business. In normal course, media business is not a paying proposition. The huge lot of vernacular media is known for the poor salaries they pay and making a mess with the lives of their staff.
NDTV – The Past and the Present
NDTV came into being in 1988, doing a professionally excellent job, to start with. The group of news channels’ reputation hinged on Prannoy Roy, who had already earned name and fame as a psephologist, who did assembly and parliament election analysis and opinion polls as also exit polls during poll seasons with remarkable skill; first for Doordarshan.
In recent years, NDTV came under a shadow after senior editorial a were meant only for bringing or ploughing back funds from abroad in an unlawful and criminal manner. “These transactions were sham and the aforementioned funds were invested by unidentified public servants through NDTV and later laundered back to India through multiple layers of complex transactions and shell companies,” the CBI is reported to have stated in the FIR.
A strong political link is suspected in the whole transactions from abroad. Perceptions are that some highly corrupt politicians in the UPA were involved in these shady deals, but their names are yet to be revealed. There are also hints that the trail will lead to the Congress party leadership, with which Barkha Dutt and others closely liaised both for professional and other matters during the UPA periods and later too.
NDTV still has respectability for the professional way it is conducted, but is a shadow of its former self. When it started, it overtook Doordarshan and emerged as the principal English news channel for urban viewers. In later years, under anchoring by Arnab Goswamy, TimesNow caught up with NDTV, and gained more prominence in metropolitan regions like Mumbai. Arnab later switched over to Republic TV started by Bengaluru-based businessman and BJP Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar. Several Hindi TV channels today have larger shares of the viewership in a nation where some 90crore out of the total 1.35billion population watch TV.
NDTV, started by Prannoy Roy without heavy fund inputs by Corporates or business houses, faced financial constraints from Day One. In simple terms, it was a bold step forward by Prannoy and his team. TimesNow, on the other hand, is owned and operated by the Times of India group based out of Mumbai – the market leaders in English journalism in India. The CNN-News18, which was originally known as CNN-IBN, with Rajdeep Sardesai in the front, is run by Network 18 Media and Investments Ltd controlled by the Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries group since 2014 – after the Modi-led NDA came to power at the Centre.
The Media and Modi
All along, the Modi government adopted a no-nonsense approach towards the media, unlike the Congress-UPA periods when there were controls, but not firm controls as is happening under the NDA period under Modi. To start with, PM Modi stopped the long-existing practice of taking an army of journalists alongside officials during PM’s official visits abroad. Other than Doordarshan and AIR hands, no journalist generally accompanied the PM on his visits. Media houses back home could not afford to ignore the PM visits either, due to the high-profile events as in Madison Square, where Modi also made it a point to regale locally entrenched Indian diaspora.
Modi has his reasons to keep the media at an arm’s length. He never ever addressed a press conference after becoming PM over five years ago. For a change, just before the results of the 2019 LS polls were out, Modi sat with party chief Amit Shah at a press meet in Delhi to say the BJP-NDA would be returning to power. Modi spoke no word, other than for brief pleasantries, and let it to Shah to do the talking.
Modi was vilified after the Gujarat riots of 2002, and what followed was a season of the Indian English media zealously hounding out the Gujarat strongman at every turn, for reason and no reason. The first alert to the media came, which stopped them in their tracks is when Modi was named as the PM nominee of the BJP at the party’s Goa conclave exactly a year before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Its hints were coming a while earlier too, when Modi held a large Sadbhavana campaign in Gujarat, seeking to promote communal harmony and to erase his image of being a Hindu chauvinist. Yet, no one thought till 2013 June that Modi would outwit the seasoned party parliamentarians in New Delhi like LK Advani, MM Joshi and Sushma Swaraj. It was the support that Modi won from the Nagpur-based RSS and Sangh Parivar that helped Modi get nominated by the party for the PM post.
The RSS used Modi to win over the backward sections of the population, Modi himself belonging to a community (largely of traditional seed oil extractors and traders) which was put in the OBC bracket since around the turn of the Century last. Till then, he was, by label, a ‘forward caste’. Modi, a smart politician, is using this change of label to the hilt, winning votes across states for the BJP. Once Modi’s name came up for the PM post in a forceful manner, much of the Indian media abruptly ended their anti-Modi campaigns. The Congress party, which wielded strong influence in the media by virtue of being the ruling party for six decades, was caught napping. There still were rare instances of the Indian media keeping up their campaign against Modi – the Hindu and to a lesser extent by the NDTV.
The professionalism of Prannoy Roy did not allow NDTV to engage in Modi-BJP bashing as an art, though it mostly identified itself with the Congress, thanks to the eminent role played inside the channel by those like Barkha Dutt and likely funds support from Congress-related entities to the channel. The Hindu used secularism as a stick to beat Modi with, though there are perceptions that it did shadow boxing with Modi for other reasons too. N Ram, who leads The Hindu from the front is a leftist who had been with JNU as a student in the company of Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat.
Like the respectable The Hindu, NDTV also displayed pro-Left leanings. It’s well-known that Prannoy Roy’s wife Radhika is sister of Brinda Karat, senior CPIM politician and wife of CPIM politburo member and former party general secretary Prakash Karat. Another Modi baiter, writer Arundhati Roy, is related to Brinda and Radhika, making the Left axis in New Delhi formidable. It is into this wheel that the Modi edifice is now putting a spanner into.
Notably, the Securities and Exchange Board of India had issued an order barring Prannoy Roy and Radhika Roy from wielding any control or holding positions in NDTV for two years after the cases came up. General understanding is that the NDTV flouted several financial transaction rules in the sweet comfort that the UPA governments led by the Congress would not act against the channel. Then came the political change in India. Several other top brass, who made hay when the UPA sun shone bright over their heads, like P Chidambaram, are either in trouble already or could be fixed in the second term of Modi.
The first term of Modi saw only investigations going on and on. Corrupt bureaucrats remained untouched. They, rather, turned more corrupt as no action was being taken by the government. From village panchayat office to the highest echelons of bureaucracy infested by IAS officials, the bureaucracy is seen to be taking bribes at every turn.
Removing a few officials alone will not change the scenario for the better. More energetic follow-up of action against the corrupt politicians and bureaucrats and other errant institutions is a pre-condition to the ushering of a New India, which the PM spoke of at an event abroad the other day. Talks alone will not suffice, as he should know by now.