Saradha's media legacy

BY SN| IN Opinion | 28/11/2014
Who gains and who loses from a media stable created during the almost simultaneous ascent of a little known businessman and a politician attempting to overthrow an entrenched ruling party?
Mamata Banerjee gained the most, says SEVANTI NINAN

Sevanti Ninan

When a history of media and business in Indian politics is written, the saga unfolding in West Bengal should count for a colourful chapter. A rapidly constructed media empire collapsed from April 2013 onwards, and there have been spurts of development since. Last fortnight another episode of the media-related allegations of the Saradha scam played out with the arrest of Trinamool Rajya Sabha MP Srinjoy Bose, and the attempted suicide of Kunal Ghosh, a former MP of the same party until he was deprived of his seat last October, after he named Mamata Banerjee as having been aware of the Saradha goings on.

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee has been sounding more intemperate than usual as the CBI investigations close in on more people in her party. Her outbursts are being reported with considerable glee by the Telegraph, and the TV channel ABP Ananda has found grist for endless panel discussions in the ruling party’s discomfiture.  In the run up to the 2011 elections this media house sounded supportive of Mamata Banerjee. That changed after she came to power. 

The amazing irony of the Sudipta Sen saga is that antecedents bothered nobody. Nobody seems to have sought them enough: neither the crumpled sari-wearing Didi who was storming the bastion of the Reds, nor the journalists who were signing up to staff a bewildering eruption of media ventures. Not even the sophisticated Aparna Sen who was editing one of them, a magazine called Paroma.  Nobody asked, but where did he come from? What is his wealth grounded in? 

If one were to attempt an analysis of who gains and who loses from a media stable created during the almost simultaneous ascent of  a little known businessman and a politician attempting to overthrow an entrenched ruling party, it looks like this. 

The politician, Mamata Banerjee, perhaps gained the most. In taking on an entrenched party which had long had its own media platforms, as well as access to state publicity  budgets, she got huge mileage from  the TV channels like Channel 10, and Tara News, and from the newspaper Pratidin. Kunal Ghosh, subsequently, has stated as much. Also from two newspapers catering to the Muslim community, Azad Hind and Kalam. Between all of them they promoted the rallying cry of Poriborton! (change) which became the driving force of the election campaign.

Three media men acquired political careers as Rajya Sabha MPs of the Trinamool Congress—Kunal Ghosh, Srinjoy Bose, and Ahmed Hasan Imran, the editor of Kalam. The first two have ended up being arrested. 

Then there is Sen and his web of companies.Why does media figure in the plans of a businessman dealing in realty and then floating a deposit taking schemes? He promoted several media ventures, not one or two strong influencers but a whole basket of publications in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and English, almost a dozen properties including TV channels. Not all were specific to West Bengal. He also promoted an unusual venture, the Seven Sisters Post catering from  Guwahati to the entire North East. Its editor gave the newspaper a strong literary section.

Perhaps what all this media gave him was leverage with a political party come to power with a strong mandate. Through Srinjoy Bose he worked out a deal whereby Pratidin was paid a monthly sum of Rs 60 lakh to meet the costs. The  reporting on this case over the last two weeks has suggested that in return Bose gave him the assurance of  protection from the Central and State governments.

Before the election was actually won by Banerjee Sen invested in her, by investing in media. Enshrined on Youtube are the series of interviews Channel 10 did with her, conducted by Ghosh.  She got to have ample say, and the campaign got other facilitating coverage as well. 

Apart from the political insurance, Sen’s publications and TV channels garnered some measure of readership and viewing support of the bhadralok elements in West Bengal who were being won over by Mamata’s campaign. Several artistes figured on his channels. But all of it was short-lived, the protection ran out when the government at the Centre changed, and Sen lost much more than he gained, ending up in jail. 

And finally, what of the media? Who gains or loses there from a short-lived proliferation? It was estimated last year that about 1,400 journalists lost their jobs when many of the ventures shut shop. Until then the publications he promoted were the English daily Bengal Post, the Bengali daily Sakalbela, the Urdu magazine Kalam, the Bengali weekly magazine Paroma, the Urdu daily Azad Hind, the Hindi daily Prabhat Varta, and the Seven Sisters Post. It had acquired Tara Muzik, Tara Newz and South Asia TV. 

Seema Guha, a Delhi journalist who worked for The Bengal Post from its inception in June 2010 till it folded in April 2013 wrote a colourful account thereafter in The Hoot of her experience, she describes the promise which made her and others join: they had high expectations of bringing out a quality newspaper where the emphasis would be on hard news.

Journalists joined because they wanted paying jobs. Most of them lost them, but  this failed media empire had an interesting sequel: in the case of Channel 10 and Tara and a couple of newspapers some employee welfare associations went on to take over and run the show on their own, attempting to crowd source the funds needed. A year and a half later, that experiment continues.
(Another version of this column appeared in Mint on November 27, 2014.)
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