Rajeev Chandrasekhar is less bombastic than the man who runs his most famous investment. The businessman-turned-media owner-turned politician has been in the headlines in recent months for being one of the principal investors in Arnab Goswami’s Republic TV. But where that channel thinks of itself as the conscience of the nation, Chandrasekhar is clearer about what Republic is doing.
“I think the mandate in the newsrooms of the media brands I have invested in is very simple,” Chandrasekhar said, in an interview to Scroll.in. “You have got to have a large share of the market. You have to do what you have to do to get a large share of the market. That’s my only brief. If that happens to be a slight leftist slant in a market that requires a leftist slant, they do that, if it requires a certain slant in another market, they do that.”
Republic TV is only the most recent of Chandrasekhar’s many media investments. The Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament, who is also the National Democratic Alliance’s Vice Chairman in Kerala, owns shares in Malayalam television network Asianet News, newspaper Kannada Prabha, TV channel Suvarna News and Radio Indigo, and rumours suggest he is considering an investment in TV9.
Asianet News, his oldest media holding, comes up a lot while discussing Republic TV. This is because Goswami and the rest of the channel seem more willing to question the stances of the Opposition and even students at Jawaharlal Nehru University than holding the BJP-run Centre to account. Asianet News, however, is generally seen to be Leftist. This allows Chandrasekhar to say his own interests are simply in successful media companies, not ones that push a specific line – even though he is a leader of the BJP-run NDA.
“I’m an investor and editors of our channel run the channel,” Chandrasekhar said. “I’ve been told my Kerala channel, Asianet News, has a leftist point of view. That’s the journalists of that product. The Kannada channel has a different point of view, an anti-establishment point of view, whoever the establishment is. Republic has a different point of view, and people have accused it of being pro-BJP, mouthpiece of the BJP. That is for the editor to explain. It’s not for the shareholder to explain.”
Chandrasekhar insists that he prizes credibility as much as his emphasis on gaining market share, claiming that he would obviously not employ journalists who would blatantly lie. But when he asked how he judges credibility, as a check against those simply pandering to echo chambers to build an audience, his answer is somewhat circular: Credibility comes from the size of the audience.
“For us, it’s about looking at building brands that are credible,” he said. “Credible is important from the size of the audience, and that the audience believes in it. That is the only measure of it. What is the other measure? I don’t want to slip into this easy trap of having three people decide what is credible...Large audience will only come if they believe in that brand. There is no way you can be a compromised brand, and a brand lacking credibility, and at the same time have a large number of people following you.”
Prima donna editors
Chandrasekhar dismissed the suggestion that brands like America’s Breitbart News, a right-wing news organisation that has been known to spread fake news, make it evident that simply having a large audience is not the same as being credible. He insisted, at one point in the interview, that his brands are different because he puts real journalists in charge, who can be held accountable. But he also insisted the era of the editor deciding what to cover in the news is over.
“There has to be a realisation among a lot of so-called prima donna editors that they are not the custodians of what people want or don’t want or they think they want or don’t want,” Chandrasekhar said. “With digitisation and the complete disintermediation of the audience and the news, people are now directly demanding a, b and c because of what they want. Some editors don’t like that...but that is the future. The future is not one wise man or two wise men sitting and sort of saying, thou shall be given this knowledge because that’s what you need.”
And what if that wise man refers to himself as The Nation?
“My point is this issue that one man or two men or a woman knows what you want, is done with,” he said. “It went out whether you’re a politician, whether you’re in media, whether you’re a businessman, it has all gone out the door. Today, anything can be challenged.”
Which brings us to an email that leaked out of Chandrasekhar’s office in 2016. The email, first reported on by Newslaundry, was sent from the office of the Chief Operating Office of Jupiter Capital, the holding company through which Chandrasekhar invests in media firms and others. The email, sent to the heads of Chandrasekhar’s various media companies, said all editorial talent must be “right of centre”, “pro-Military,” and “aligned to Chairman’s ideology”. The Chairman here is Chandrasekhar. The email was withdrawn the next day.
“First of all, it is not my email. I have investigated it after it was reported to me, and it has nothing to do with anybody in my team. The theory that has been put out there is that this is a disgruntled employee who is trying to do a hatchet job on someone. Regardless of that, it’s not my time and effort to waste something on that. The performance of our media investments is reflected by what they do.”
Does he take issue with people saying Republic is a BJP mouthpiece, in part because of his connections to the National Democratic Alliance?
“I have worked extremely hard to create a track record of public service that is out there for everyone to see,” he said. “Now if Republic coming in and taking this line or that line is the only way you can make a narrative fit is that there’s a grand conspiracy of this guy being in the NDA and him having business interests and him warmongering and Republic being at the centre of this conspiracy, if that makes you satisfied then go for it. I’m not going to stop you from doing it.”
The Wire injunction
But he is trying to stop people from doing it. Chandrasekhar went to a Bengalaru court in March and convinced it to order news website The Wire to take down two articles about him, which Chandrasekhar claimed were defamatory.
“Look, I won’t say much on this except to say if a political person uses a platform to slander me, I have the right – please remember one thing, every one of us has rights. Just because I am a media investor doesn’t mean I surrender my rights. If you slander me, and say a deliberate lie, and you are a political person, not a journalist, then I have the right to do what I do. Which is to take you to court and let us adjudicate that dispute in court.”
The political person Chandrasekhar is referring to here is Sachin Rao, the author of one of the articles that has since been taken down. Rao, who is said to be part of Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi’s core team, wrote a piece pointing out that Chandrasekhar is a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence while also investing in a company, AxisCades, which has a manufacturing contract from the Ministry of Defence.
“There was a person there, one of the persons who wrote that article was a political guy,” Chandrasekhar said. “I have fought for freedom of expression, I have fought section 66a, nobody went to court, I did it. I have absolutely no problem with anybody criticising Republic, I have absolutely no problem with anyone criticising me. But don’t do something that is so blatantly wrong, of connecting dots that don’t exist and then characterising me in a manner that is absolutely wrong. Then to say, freedom of expression and I must not do anything. That is unfair. What have I said? Let’s discuss this in court.”
David and Goliath
But Rao’s wasn’t the only piece that was taken down. Chandrasekhar’s defamation case also included another piece by journalist Sandeep Bhushan, which made similar connections between the MP’s Parliamentary standing, his media investments and his business interests. Chandrasekhar admitted that he might have let his lawyers do too much.
“The second piece sort of got dragged along with it,” he said. “The action was against the platform. In anything today in defamation, the way the legal is setup that is how the lawyers take you. The lawyers take you in that direction. I am not a lawyer.”
He goes even further, admitting for the first time that taking action against The Wire might have been counterproductive.
“I think I wanted to essentially exert my right to defend myself,” he said. “Unfortunately in India today the only way to defend your rights is through defamation. There’s no other way of doing it. Did the other party use that beautifully to spin it as some David and Goliath manner and raise money and all that? They probably did. In hindsight would I have not allowed the lawyers to drag me in that particular direction? Maybe. I would have explored some other ways of doing this.”
Other organisations, like Newslaundry and the Indian Express, also covered some of the same material as the Wire articles did. But Chandrasekhar said he only proceeded against the website because one of the pieces was written by a political person, which is not the same as if it were by a journalist.
If political involvement in journalism is the problem, then does Chandrasekhar not see a contradiction when he, a politician, funds a number of news organisations including Republic?
“If a political person uses a platform to slander me, I have the right to defend myself. I have no problem with the politicisation of the ownership of Wire. I have no problem with who’s invested in Wire. Did I say there are five businessmen including Nandan Nilekani who has invested in Wire? Did I say that? So then? I’m saying, limited point: Why should everything be a grand conspiracy. If you say something blatantly untrue about me, I have no right to defend myself?”
Chandrasekhar is referring to the Independent Public Spirited Media Foundation, which counts Infosys co-founder and former Congress candidate Nandan Nilekani as one of its anchor donors. The IPSMF has provided grants of Rs 3.74 crore to the Foundation for Independent Journalism, which publishes the Wire.
Chandrasekhar sees a deeper problem with the narrative about his business interests conflicting with his role as a politician. He believes an approach like this will only keep business people out of politics, or encourage them to hide their investments.
“Look, technically as an entrepreneur and an MP, if you say an entrepreneur cannot sit on any committee then entrepreneurs will not be in politics,” he said. “By that token, I will not be on the committee on tourism, I will not be on the committee on finance, I will not be on the committee on anything, because some company in my investment portfolio will be doing something somewhere,” Chandrasekhar said. “We must not allow true entrepreneurs to get browbeaten out of politics. If it is to be kept hidden, if you want business interests to go underground, it will go underground. Are you telling me today if a Member of Parliament comes and discloses all of his interests as an entrepreneur, that is bad?”
Chandrasekhar insists that he can’t tell his companies what to do, that they are free to invest as they wish. At the same time, he says they will not invest in anything that would directly seem like a conflict of interest for him, such as manufacturing weapons or tanks.
“This defence narrative also has crept up from somewhere,” he said. “Where is the investment in defence? I have invested in a series of technology companies…all of them are technology investment. Now today there is no technology company that does not do work with the government. It suits everybody fine to characterise that as some defence. It’s not like I’m selling aeroplanes or tanks or weapons.”
Criticism and Twitter
Still, he insists he is open to criticism and happy to take questions on uncomfortable issues. Indeed, the brief his office emailed before the interview said he was open to questions on the legal action taken against The Wire, his alleged conflict of interest and the leaked email. Chandrasekhar says public life means being open to taking criticism, something he does on Twitter as well.
“I think Twitter is good, but with all good things that technology provides, there are downsides,” he said. “I don’t get too bent out of shape on that. I think you have to accept that the moment you put a platform out there that is public, and you put yourself out there you have to accept that you will take a lot of flak, you will take a lot of negatives, you will take lots of trash....I don’t like just nonsense, but if people say what is your view on Republic or I want to engage with you on your role in NDA in Kerala, I have no problem with that. The day I entered public life, I realised you have to deal with healthy scepticism with a healthy sense of patience.”
When pointed out that, despite this healthy sense of patience, his Twitter account has blocked this reporter’s account, Chandrasekhar is surprised.
“How come? It must have been something to do with Wire. I don’t know, my team does share the use of my Twitter account. So we shall unblock you.”
Corrections & Clarifications: An earlier version of the piece said Chandrasekhar “inherited” ownership of Asianet News. Chandrasekhar retained ownership of Asianet News, as a result of regulatory restrictions, after selling the rest of Asianet Communications – a company he bought in 2006 – to Star TV between 2008 and 2014. The piece has also been updated to include additional details about the Wire’s funding.