When the history of media and business in Indian politics is written, the saga unfolding in West Bengal should make for a colourful chapter. A media empire that grew rapidly and started collapsing, just as rapidly, in April 2013, will feature prominently in this history. Behind the media empire, of course, was a shady finance company whose demise set the dominoes tumbling.
Since then, there have been several developments. Last fortnight, another episode of the story played out with the arrest of Trinamool Congress 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 late last year, after he named West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee as one of the people who could shed light on the Saradha scam.
Saradha, promoted by Sudipta Sen, ran a deposit scheme that has since emerged to be nothing more than a ponzi scheme. Ghosh ran the media arm of Saradha and edited some of its publications.
Meanwhile, Banerjee has been sounding more intemperate than usual as the CBI’s investigations in the Saradha affair 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 on the ruling party’s discomfiture. In the run-up to the 2011 elections, this media house sounded supportive of Banerjee. That changed after she came to power.
The amazing irony of the Sudipta Sen saga is that the man’s antecedents seem to have bothered nobody. Not Didi who was storming the bastion of the Reds, not the journalists who were signing up to staff a bewildering eruption of media ventures, and not even the sophisticated Aparna Sen, who was editing one of them, a magazine called Parama. 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, the result would look like this.
The politician, 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 TV channels such as Channel 10 and Tara Newz, and from the newspaper Sangbad Pratidin, edited by Bose. Ghosh, subsequently, has stated as much. Banerjee also benefited from coverage in two newspapers catering to the Muslim community, Azad Hind and Kalom, also owned by the Saradha Group and edited by a Trinamool Congress politician. Between them, they promoted the rallying cry of poriborton! (change) which became the driving force of the election campaign.
The ownership of some of the Saradha Group’s media entities has since changed.
Three media men acquired political careers as Rajya Sabha MPs of the Trinamool Congress—Ghosh, Bose and Ahmed Hassan Imran, the editor of Kalom. The first two have since ended up in jail.
Then there is Sen and his web of companies. Why does media figure in the plans of a businessman dealing in realty and 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 Sen was leverage with a political party that had come to power with a strong mandate. Through Bose, he worked out a deal whereby Pratidin was paid a monthly sum of ₹ 60 lakh to meet 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, though the protection eventually wasn’t enough.
Before Banerjee actually won the election, 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 from the bhadralok elements in West Bengal who were being won over by Banerjee’s campaign. Several artistes figured on his channels.
And finally, what of the media itself? 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 Sen promoted were the English daily Bengal Post, the Bengali daily Sakalbela, the Urdu magazine Kalam, the Bengali weekly magazine Parama, the Urdu daily Azad Hind, the Hindi daily Prabhat Varta, and the Seven Sisters Post. He 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, but describes the promise which made journalists join the organization: they had high expectations of bringing out a quality newspaper where the emphasis would be on hard news.
Journalists join because they want paying jobs. Most of them lost these, 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.
Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website thehoot.org. She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.