Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not given to gushing, least of all about a journalist. But he outdid himself last week when he waxed eloquent about how television personality Rajat Sharma—a man who had no electricity in his home when he was growing up—was an example of how far people can come in this country. Modi talked of how remarkably different Sharma’s interviewing style was from that of other journalists, how consistent Sharma’s behaviour with politicians was, and how grateful he himself was for a chance to thank a man who gave him such a terrific platform when he was fighting an election.

Two enduring media personalities were in focus last fortnight and it is tempting to use their respective career trajectories to understand the limits of journalistic possibility in contemporary India. Sharma celebrated the 21st anniversary of his signature show Aap ki Adalat with an eye-popping cast of attendees which included not just the Prime Minister but also the President, Pranab Mukherjee. And Shekhar Gupta featured as a cover story in Caravan magazine that tracked his professional ascent, while seeming to try and validate the many elements of gossip which swirls around him and his recent career shifts.

Sharma is both the owner and the face of India TV, which he launched in 2004. Gupta moved on earlier this year after 19 years of helming the Indian Express as editor-in-chief, is now associated with India Today as an adviser, and has just launched his own multimedia venture.

Then there is a third figure who was revived in our consciousness by the profile of him, also in Caravan’s year-end media issue. A tenacious entrepreneur-turned-kingmaker Ramoji Rao’s media legacy is deeper, wider and more controversial than that of the other two. He founded the 30-year-old Eenadu empire, part of which has now gone to Reliance Industries Ltd. But it is in the nature of our social media obsessions that neither Sharma nor Rao trigger much excitement. It was the piece on Shekhar Gupta that predictably had Twitter agog.

All three had what you might call ordinary or humble beginnings. Ramoji Rao unlike Sharma or Gupta isn’t given to doing much talking but the two journalists flaunt the fact that they are self-made and that the country makes stories such as theirs possible.

One takeaway from the lives of these men is the role of entrepreneurship in their ascent and in the kind of influence they wield. Sharma launched Aap ki Adalat on Zee TV but then mobilized the resources to launch his own channel by 2004. There were ups and downs in establishing it but he was very pragmatic about going with what worked, be it sting operations of sex escapades, or stories on the supernatural. It was a tabloid news channel.

He did not just establish it, he also built an impressive office tower in Noida for India TV.

Rao began with chit funds and then progressed through an advertising start-up and a fertilizer company before venturing into publishing with a magazine for farmers, and then launching the newspaper Eenadu. He thought like a businessman, and pioneered local advertising, and eventually local editions. The multiple-edition Hindi newspapers in the country learned from him.

Gupta has until recently been an employee, albeit one with a substantial personal stake in Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd. Despite Caravan’s focus on his real estate acquisitions, his assets are scarcely comparable with the two other entrepreneurs mentioned here. Yet he was the man identified with the Indian Express in public perception, not the owners. Ultimately though, the platform was not his to retain. That is also true of his extremely brief stint at India Today as vice-chairman and editor-in-chief. If you don’t own your media platform the influence you wield can be transient. But if you are a sharp journalist another platform will come your way. Gupta returns to NDTV to resume his talk show. More importantly he is now set to become an entrepreneur, having acquired assets and allies.

Then there is the relationship with politicians as an ingredient in perceived influence. Arun Jaitley has been a friend of Sharma from college days, and there is the long and strong relationship he has with Narendra Modi. When the United Progressive Alliance was in power, Shekhar Gupta’s personal friendship with the Gandhis was constantly chattered about in Delhi gossip circles. In Andhra Pradesh, Ramoji Rao’s closeness to the Telugu Desam Party and his contribution to its ascent and consolidation are part of media history. But the first two were primarily newsmen as well, building the platforms they had to feature people across the political spectrum. A journalist who has influence primarily because of his closeness to politicians may find a seat in the Rajya Sabha, but these two went much further because they gave achievers a credible platform.

And conversely, does a media entrepreneur who chooses to ally himself with one part of the political spectrum retain his influence when the party he favours is not in power? Or does he pay a price? Ramoji Rao certainly did when Congressman Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy succeeded Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam as chief minister in Andhra Pradesh.

The Caravan profile talks of the hard-nosed ambition it takes to achieve proximity to power, Gupta’s belief in people as an investment, and so on. That would be true of not just Gupta, but of Sharma and Rao.

When a successful media person is also seen to be using political and business contacts as the currency of power, antipathy and envy begin to colour assessments and responses.

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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