Less than two years ago, the man who heads the media conglomerate which controls Zee TV and the DNA newspaper was under pressure, to put it mildly. Subhash Chandra was handling a counter-attack from Haryana’s Congress politician-industrialist Naveen Jindal whom his channels had begun to investigate after he had been implicated in the case of alleged irregularities in coal block allocations. After Zee News and its business counterpart began to do stories on the coal blocks allocated to him, Jindal had a sting operation done on the channel’s editors, and sued the media house for extortion. He was a ruling party member of Parliament. Chandra and his son Punit Goenka who is managing director and CEO of Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd were questioned by the police, had to take anticipatory bail, and the two Zee editors named in the case spent some time in judicial custody. Zee News counter-sued Jindal for defamation.

But elections have a way of flipping things completely around. Jindal and his party lost the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year and his mother Savitri Jindal and the Congress party lost the recent state elections in Haryana as well. In June, the Central Bureau of Investigation filed a first information report against him in the so-called Coalgate case.

There are politicians who dabble in media and mainstream media owners who dabble in politics. Jindal belongs to the first category, and Chandra, to the second. Jindal would probably not admit to owning any media and he has never been linked to the Focus TV channels in their shareholding, but his father-in-law owns a stake in them and they serve his purpose when needed. Certainly, they have batted for him long and hard in his fight with Zee.

Which category then has the advantage? The recently concluded Haryana elections are a good place to look for an answer. Apart from Jindal, the state has a clutch of politicians who are also media owners. How did they fare?

Gopal Goyal Kanda, a controversial politician from Sirsa, acquired a channel called STV Haryana News much after his election as an independent legislator in 2009. He became a minister in a minority Congress government, started an airline, and was named in a suicide note left by an air hostess in his airline, which led to a stint in jail. He is currently out on bail.

He fought this month’s state assembly election on the ticket of a party he has floated, the Haryana Lokhit Party, and the channel and its website were used to amplify his rallies. Earlier, too, while in jail, the channel was used to project his case. But this time, he lost by 43,000 votes to the Congress candidate.

Former Congress politician Venod Sharma, who broke away and floated the Jan Chetna Party and whose son Kartikeya Sharma has invested in both newspapers and TV channels including NewsX, lost in Ambala City, as did his wife Shakti Rani Sharma in Kalka. Their family controls at least three TV channels and two newspapers.

Savitri Jindal, mother of Naveen Jindal, lost by 13,646 votes in the Hisar constituency to a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate whom Subhash Chandra campaigned for. Chandra is a long-time supporter of the BJP, and hails from this district.

There is politician-owned media, and there is mainstream media with political leanings. The Haryana politicians who have TV channels belong to the first category. But it is the latter—if they have backed the right horse—who have more going for them.

The archetypal media owner-politician so far has been someone who occupies a seat in the Rajya Sabha, either as an MP nominated by the government of the day, or by a political party in the state. But in Haryana, the current example of a media owner dabbling in politics is Subhash Chandra. His story is strikingly different from that of other media owners we know. He owns a vast and profitable media empire—the second largest in the country—yet oddly enough his heart seemed to be in legislative politics in the Haryana district he hails from, Hisar.

Throughout September, Zee News and DNA told us that he was hoping for a ticket from Hisar (the stories are still there on the Web) and when he did not get it, they quoted him as saying he would have no time for such a commitment, but would campaign for the BJP candidate there. On polling day, on Focus TV Haryana, you saw Chandra questioning people inside a Hisar polling booth and losing his cool. When the BJP candidate Kamal Gupta defeated Savitri Jindal, Chandra was there to tell reporters that this was a victory of BJP’s policies and ideology and that the party would fulfil Hisar’s needs over the next one year. Spoken like a good party man.

For the BJP, a media owner’s allegiance is useful, particularly since in the case of Zee, there isn’t the slightest pretence of separation between Chandra and his media outlets. He strides across them, pressing them into service. They celebrate Narendra Modi. Last fortnight, a half-hour programme at prime time simply recycled a string of stories Modi told audiences at various times. And they skewer his detractors as they did when Rajdeep Sardesai was heckled in New York at Madison Square Garden. Part of the crowd saw him as anti-Modi, Sardesai lost his cool, and Zee News ran an amazing news item on him, his wife, his father-in-law, and NDTV.

Unlike professional politicians for whom maintaining media can become a liability when out of power, Subhash Chandra today heads a group whose flagship company declared 227 crore profit after tax earlier this month for the second quarter, enviable in the current media business climate. Last month, he launched his own talk show, the Subhash Chandra Show, in which he dispenses expansive advice to a studio audience on how to succeed in business.

Who has more influence then, a big-time media magnate who doesn’t get a ticket, or a politician who gets it and loses?

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.

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