Raghav Bahl: felled by his own philosophy?

That he did not expect Mukesh Ambani to formalise control is evident from the Think
India Foundation set up last year and his plans for it.
VIVIAN FERNANDES looks back at the trajectory of the company Bahl built. PIX: Mukesh
Ambani (L) and Raghav Bahl
Posted/Updated Monday, Jun 02 11:43:11, 2014

The acquisition of Network 18 Group’s news-and-
entertainment broadcast and digital media properties by a
trust of Mukesh Ambani and Reliance Industries, marks
the end of an entrepreneurially-driven intrepid first-gen
business that was a proxy for the animal spirits unleashed
by India’s economic reforms in 1991.
Manoj Modi, a confidante of Mukesh Ambani, has
apparently assured Rajdeep Sardesai, CNN-IBN’s editor-
in-chief, that he will have a free hand. Sceptics will say
these are feel-good platitudes that are uttered in the
afterglow of a successful hunt. There is the danger of
editorial freedom being whittled down in homeopathic
doses. If Rajdeep stays on he will also have to fight the
perception that independent journalism and the Ambanis
do not go together.
(The author has subsequently sent the following: ”While
the conversation did happen, I would like to clarify that
Modi urging Rajdeep to carry on does not suggest a
guarantee of editorial freedom.”)
The Ambanis’ earlier foray into newspaper publishing in
the late 1980s had an unhappy ending. They were under
relentless attack by the Indian Express Group in their feud
with Nusli Wadia of Bombay Dyeing during V P Singh’s
tenure as the prime minister, when they launched the
Business and Political Observer. They introduced good
HR practices like tax planning for journalists - a novelty -
which meant that for the first time journalists were being
paid salaries that attracted tax. But they also brought in
editors who were fixers and power grabbers and the
organisation degenerated into feuding factions.
The present media venture is also happening under similar
circumstances. Mukesh Ambani and the Reliance Group
have been the targets of the Aam Aadmi Party leader
Arvind Kejriwal’s rants against crony capitalism and their
proximity to Narendra Modi, during the recent election
campaign. Even former West Bengal governor
Gopalkrishna Gandhi said quite unexpectedly in an
address to the Central Bureau of Investigation that
Reliance was a parallel state. The venting of these
allegations by CNN-IBN and CNBC-TV18 – channels he
had a beneficial interest in (now he has control as well) - is
said to have hurt Mukesh Ambani and may have triggered
the conversion of the debt he had given Raghav Bahl into
equity. That was a transaction that happened in 2012 when
Bahl approached Ambani to bail his group out. It had no
political overtones then and was seen as mutually
beneficial, since Reliance was getting into high speed data
telecommunications, for which he would need news and
entertainment content.
It is quite possible that the Ambanis do not want to repeat
past mistakes and are keen on building a new media
business that can measure up to the standards of BBC,
CNN and Al Jazeera. With assured financial backing, and
the habits of running a tight ship imbibed from the
previous management, Rajdeep can be ambitious (if he
decides to stay on). He should invest in reportage and
bolster the bureaus so that viewers get to know what is
happening around the country and their underlying
causes. (I am talking of the stuff that helps the audience
make informed decisions and not just things that grab
their eyeballs). The channels under his charge should be
news arbiters and not platforms for thinly-researched
debates or sound bite exchanges.
Lingering doubts about the rope editors will be given stem
from Reliance’s diversified business interests and its
lovelock with power. Will the firewalls between the
management and the editorial collapse in a crunch
situation? Will the news editors be allowed to remain
filters (who pass even unwelcome news through if it meets
the test of integrity) and not become censors?
Under Raghav Bahl these firewalls held. There were
occasional breaches like the withdrawal of a Forbes India
story about C B Bhave’s nixed second term as chairman of
the Securities and Exchange Board of India under pressure
from then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s office.
There were also differences over coverage of Narendra
Modi’s election campaign. Raghav believes that Modi is,
like him, a champion of an open economy and a necessary
corrective to the previous government’s profligate
entitlement philosophy. There was a buzz that he had gone
soft on Hindutva. But I know Raghav is a liberal. When I
assisted him with his book on China and India, in which I
wrote a chapter on Gujarat under my name, he allowed me
to write about the 2002 riots so long as I had facts in
support. My sense is that he disapproves of the
‘secularism’ of the Leftists, which indulges Muslim
communalism while being intolerant of the Hindu variety.
Journalism was Raghav’s second love. When we started
with India Business Report (I joined in January, 1994, the
second journalist to be part of his team, and quit in June
2012), he used to anchor the Sunday show by the same
name. He had won the contract from BBC World but did
not have the resources to execute it. So he partnered with
Business India TV or BiTV. The alliance did not last long.
He split in a few months. BiTV was setting up a channel
and wanted Raghav’s TV18 to be the exclusive programme
supplier. But Raghav did not want to be tied to one
company; he wanted to diversify the risk. Most of us went
with Raghav even though financially Business India was a
better bet. Raghav thought TV18 would be a software
supplier to various channels. He quickly realised it
was low-margin job work.
Raghav was particular about quality. We used to haggle
over scripts into the night. The exercise was consensual; he
would try to convince and not over-ride. His weekly de-
briefs were awaited with trepidation. We also went to
ridiculous lengths. I remember getting the central AC of
Kailash Building (I think) in Connaught Place switched off
while interviewing Dhruv Sawhney of Triveni Sugars for
BBC’s India Business Report to cut out the hiss!
With business development occupying him, Raghav had
little time for hands-on journalism. But he did not give up
trying. His Saturday show on CNBC-TV18, 55 minutes,
used to be so exacting on us editors; we would start
fretting about it from mid-week. We were relieved when he
could not keep up with it! Many years later he tried doing a
daily nightly news wrap up on CNBC-TV18 called Business
At Ten but had to give it up after a couple of days. After
coming to grips with the fallout of the financial meltdown
in 2007-08, he wrote a book on China and India, which
was published in the English-speaking world by Allen
Lane, an imprint of Penguin, for which he collaborated
with me. And after striking the deal with Mukesh Ambani
he set up Think India Foundation to promote pro-market
thinking in a country that was firmly left of centre. He also
anchored a series of policy-related shows under the Think
India banner.
Raghav’s first love was entrepreneurship. Being at the
acme of wealth creating effort it brought together diverse
talents: people skills, ability with finance, deep domain
knowledge, street smartness, a sunny disposition, self-
discipline and determination. Without these attributes a
first-gen entrepreneur will burn out after the initial burst
of energy. Though his father was an IAS officer, I have
never seen Raghav use his connections. I remember him
waiting in the ante-room of the director general of
Doordarshan, in connection with a programme called
Business AM, a daily, weekdays-only, business show on
Doordarshan, which was broadcast at 6 in the morning! It
was Doordarshan’s first wholly business news show, and it
was outsourced. The timing was rather perplexing.
When a start-up venture grows into one of India’s biggest
news and entertainment networks within the span of a
decade and a half, without the backing of a business group,
it will be frequently short of cash. TV18 was always in and
out of the woods. It suffered a near death blow in the mid-
1990s, when ABNi (a Singapore-based business news
channel), for which it was the sole supplier in India,
merged with CNBC, because advertising in the East Asian
economies could not sustain two business channels due to
the Asian financial contagion. This led to a bloodbath in
TV18. A large number of people were sacked. At that time
TV18 was run like a family. Most of the sacked persons
were very good at their jobs and had least expected to be
culled. But they were also the best paid and the company
could not afford to keep them on the rolls. Those who
faced the axe were murderously angry; the exercise was
merciless. They were all very young and into their first
jobs. Raghav had no option but he was coldly surgical
perhaps to prove to himself that he could be tough.
There were other tests, this time from the elements. At one
time, the TV18 office and studios in Kalkaji (Delhi) were
flooded. Then there was a fire which gutted the office but
happened fortunately in the early hours of the day, so no
life was lost and no one was put to harm. Some of TV18’s
highly motivated staff, including Senthil Chengalvarayan,
who built up CNBC-TV18 with his people skills, resumed
operations from Singapore. The rest worked out of
portable cabins from Noida, which is on the outskirts of
Delhi. Sector 16A or Film City is a hive of television news
activity but at that time it was quite a desolate enclave.
TV18 recovered from the blow inflicted by the closure of
ABNi. In Group CEO Haresh Chawla, Raghav found a good
fit. An alumnus of IIT and IIM, he had an analytical mind
and skill in finance. I do not think he cared for jazz about
journalism being the infrastructure of democracy. Being
from the Bennet Coleman group, he was into marketing.
So the 9 pm news was made ‘light-hearted’ with the last
five minutes of the one-hour programme featuring Vir
Das’s dreadful humour. It turned out to be an exercise in
light-headedness. Chawla was an ace negotiator. Both
Raghav and Haresh were made for each other and their
ambition soared. They tied up with marquee media brands
like CNBC-TV18 and CNN. Eyeing CNBC-TV18 juicy
profitability (operating margin in excess of 50 percent),
Prannoy Roy of NDTV launched Profit. But he was too
much of a socialist to make it a success. Raghav and
Haresh struck back by doing the equivalent of Prithiviraj
and Samyukta; they poached Rajdeep Sardesai from
NDTV and set up CNN-IBN!
But the true test of their mettle was Colors, a Viacom
brand, which became one of the top three general
entertainment channels within a very short time. This
genre is a graveyard of many channels. Real launched by
Turner is an example.
The liquidity unleashed by the global economic boom and
generous private equity funding, allowed the group to
expand furiously beyond the means to sustain the new
businesses. Some of this was a compulsion; a bouquet of
channels yields clout with advertisers and cable networks.
But some of the acquisitions like yellow pages made little
sense. Such was the ambition that a serious effort was even
mounted to publish the Financial Times in India. That was
when the financial crisis happened and inexpensive
funding dried up. Employees again took it in the chin. Two
installments of sackings happened. People were offered
generous compensation in the first round. I think the
compensation was not good in the second round (though I
cannot be certain).
Haresh Chawla apparently wanted to raise money by
selling cash-intensive channels like Colors. On hindsight
that was perhaps a better option. But Raghav believed that
the time was inopportune; he wanted to avoid a distress
sale. On this issue he and Chawla parted company. Money
was raised from Mukesh Ambani on conditions which
virtually delivered the group to him. Raghav thought he
would be able to pay back the debt. He never expected it to
unravel the way it did, especially when Network 18 and
TV18 had come out of the red. The terms on which he has
been bought out gives him ample fuel for new ambitions.
But it will leave a lingering sense of loss.
That Raghav did not expect Mukesh Ambani to formalise
control is evident from the Think India Foundation set up
last year and his plans for it. For amplification of views he
would have needed the news channels. He had also latterly
invested in a large and elegant office for himself.
This is how big fish behave. Raghav is feeling the cold edge
of the philosophy he espouses.