National Interest: Mere paas media hai

The fixer-businessman's new badge of honour and disgrace

Besides political connections, there is one equally significant common thread linking the owners of chit fund companies currently under the scanner in the east. They are all media owners as well. Many have a footprint across media and languages. Further, there are other common factors within their media businesses. For none of them, is media a major or core activity. Most of them make losses in their media businesses. For all of them, media has also been an afterthought, after they had made their money in other businesses, mainly chit funds, mining, real estate or simply politics. They obviously saw media as a small investment relative to the size of their businesses. What is more important to the people of India, and for us, a small but expanding community of Indian journalists, they also saw media as a force multiplier. A mere adjunct to their businesses, a small hole in their balance sheets, but an investment that was monetised in other ways. It secured you political patronage, protected you from the police and regulators, helped you fix your rivals and, as in the case of the head of the media ventures owned by the Saradha group, got you a seat in Rajya Sabha. One thing it rarely made you was old-fashioned profits.

The Saradha group set up several news channels, besides newspapers in Bengali, English, Hindi and Urdu. The group in the Northeast it was looking to invest in belonged to another unconventional owner, an occasional politician, Matang Singh, who appeared from nowhere to become a minister in Narasimha Rao's cabinet in Chandraswami's heyday and disappeared equally mysteriously. If he and his wife Manoranjana Singh made any money running the media business, we do not know, but it seems unlikely. Rose Valley, Tower Group, Shine Group, Rahul Group, Chakra Group and G Group, all under the scanner now in Bengal, have the same basket of interests: chit funds, real estate and media. In resource-rich east-central India, where a mining lease is the ticket to status, clout and a private Cessna Citation, even an Embraer, a media appendage has now become a necessity.

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