Rathikant Basu: Utterly unusual

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FIRST STIRRINGS:

With the charming Bhaskar
Ghose as his Secretary and the royal KP Singh Deo as his Minister in Information and Broadcasting Ministry, it was a propitious start for Basu in Doordarshan

AMONG my list of unusual civil servants, I was particularly keen to do a story on Rathikant Basu. This man had left the IAS when he had several years to go; also at a time when this was not a popular thing to do. But his departure was doubly remarkable because he straightaway plunged into the cut-throat world of electronic media where even finding one’s feet can be precarious.

Even today, after 17 years, Basu’s name evokes two diametrically opposite responses: admiration and envy.

““Oh don’t you know how he dumped the government and joined Rupert Murdoch”” is invariably the first reaction.

“No, but he brought the difference between night and day to television”” is the other reaction.

basun

Since I too was witness to Doordarshan’s metamorphosis in the early 1990s, I knew he was worth writing about. Rathikant Basu spent much of his early career doing nothing very spectacular besides being Ahmedabad city’s highly visible Municipal Commissioner. As his colleague and Gujarat cadre-mate Dipanker Basu, also a fellow Stephanian, put it, “every officer in Gujarat was expected to deliver but Rathi just did it a whole
side better than anyone else.”

Basu’s posting as the Director-General of Doordarshan, coupled with the dual charge of Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in 1993, conferred on him enormous powers, rarely exercised even by secretaries or ministers. With the charming and winsome Bhaskar Ghose as his Secretary and the royal KP Singh Deo as his Minister in Information and Broadcasting Ministry, it was a propitious start for Basu. Of course, he had the unenviable task of clearing DD’s Aegean Stables even as Amita Malik’s acerbic columns gave weekly bulletins on DD’s never-ending fiascos. But in the civil service it is said that it is better to inherit rot because whatever one does thereafter glows by comparison. And so it was with Basu.

Those were unusual times. The satellite TV invasion had just begun. DD had been in limbo for several months without a DG; litigation abounded, mostly against the selection of sponsored programmes. A CBI inquiry was making its rounds. No new programmes were being aired and the repeats of aged programmes had become unwatchable. An illadvised attempt to use the (now infamous) first-come-first-serve for selecting new programmes was
stillborn, landing the organisation into further litigation. All this was compounded by unrelenting bad press. Revenue from sponsored programmes and advertising was plummeting. Altogether, it was a perfect case for dumping the leftovers into the cold storage.

Against this background, the turnaround of DD could have been put on the backburner with no negative consequences. But, Basu was made of sterner stuff. He started with a slew of new programmes like Shanti, Newstrack’s India’s first daily soap, which became an instant hit. The launching of DDs first international satellite channel (christened DD INDIA with the choicest programmes selected from the National Channel, enraptured the South Asian diaspora. Within the country, 18 regional language satellite channels, carrying the contributions of local terrestrial DD stations, became a delight to watch.

Basu also embraced the press, something civil servants are taught to abhor. “Just don’t talk to the press,” was the training given to all government employees in those days. But, Basu did just the contrary. He promptly gave entry to every reporter, howsoever small, and was readily accessible to anyone. DD’s image got a makeover in no time even as top newspapers and magazines began recounting DD’s success stories.

Given the times, perhaps one of Basu’s best achievement lay in persuading the finest journalists in Delhi—Madhu Trehan, Vir Sanghvi, Karan Thapar, Raghav Bahl and Dileep Padgaonkar—to anchor DD’s current affairs programmes. Objective news became the new mantra as the bold and the beautiful entered the homes of middle-class Indians, bringing in a level of urbanity and sophistication they had never seen. What a far cry from those monotonous newsreaders, the beauteous Salma Sultana pink rose and all!

One of Basu’s bravest steps was to sign up with CNN to broadcast a co-branded channel called DD-CNN! Of course, Minister Singh Deo was hauled over the coals in Parliament, but his response was accepted at face value when he quite simply spoke the truth: the DG had full powers to source programming and had exercised authority! As Bhasker Ghose puts it, “”Basu had great clarity of thinking. He was a real go-getter but had astuteness to consider the long-term implications of every move.””

But even as Basu’s contribution and DD’s make-over made first-rate copy, it came with a cost which has been the nemesis of many a live-wire civil servant. Jealousy was palpable. Snide comments followed him everywhere; as always, those hurt more, given all the hard work that he put in. Unknown to him, rumblings had already stated behind the scenes.

It was January 1996. Basu was engaged in opposing a devious move which would have deprived DD of its exclusive rights to broadcast the cricket world cup being played on South Asian turf. DD’s appeal came up before the division bench of the High Court and everything was going in DD’s favour. But a day before the final hearing, Basu got orders to join instantaneously as Secretary, Department of Electronics. That left the door open to wheedle a compromise, one in which DD surrendered its exclusive broadcast rights and substantial revenue to boot.

RELEGATED to the Department of Electronics in the dreary CGO complex, Basu missed Shastri Bhavan and Mandi House where he had been the monarch of all he surveyed. But, visitors from his former world kept dropping in and offers to join private TV channels and media houses multiplied. Initially he rejected these overtures out of hand. But in May 1996 a new visitor turned up—Gene Swinsted, Star TV’s Hong-Kong based country representative. He made an unexpected request. He wanted Basu to travel to New York or London or any place of his choosing for an interview with Rupert Murdoch, Chairman of News Corporation, the parent company of Star TV. Basu told him in no uncertain terms that he was Secretary to Government of India and reported to no one less than the PM. He simply could not go rushing off abroad, not even on a personal visit. If Murdoch wanted to meet him, he would have to come to Delhi.

A month later, Swinsted called early in the morning to say Murdoch had come to Delhi and could a meeting be arranged? When they met at the Presidential Suite of the Hyatt Regency, Murdoch stood long and tall above him and asked Basu, ““What is your vision for TV broadcasting in India?””

Basu launched forth into what had become his passion: the growth of satellite channels and the need for a Direct-To-Home distribution service, somehow bypassing hundreds of unorganised cable operators who were fighting turf wars amongst themselves and harassing consumers. Even as he was outlining his vision for a DTH network, Murdoch occasionally slipped into his bedroom to make calls. Three hours later, as Basu was still holding forth, Murdoch returned from yet another foray into the bedroom, clapped his hands like a child and announced: ““The $500 million you estimated as the project cost of bringing DTH has been organised. Panamsat has been booked, as suggested by you. Encryption technology and set-top boxes are ready for shipment. Twenty-five international channels have agreed to form part of the first bouquet of channels. You can find other partners in India.”And, almost like an order, he asked, “Will you join me?””

BASU was dumbfounded by the speed of Murdoch’s decisionmaking and the proposition. As he put it, “”I was really speechless. I mumbled something about needing time, and was immediately ashamed of myself for dithering.””

He told Murdoch that he would convey his decision in a week. During the next few days, he consulted his wife, who was willing to shore up any decision he took. He also combed through the IAS Service Rules and consulted a senior lawyer. The legal opinion was that the provision about obtaining the government’s permission for taking up employment after retirement was in the AIS Pension Rules and those rules applied only to pensioners. So, if an officer after retirement renounced his pension, he could not be termed a pensioner. In effect, the rules would not apply to Basu once he relinquished his pensionary benefits. This interpretation was later confirmed by senior lawyer Ram Jethmalani.

With general elections round the corner in 1998, Basu snapped up a proposal from Prannoy Roy to create the first Indian 24×7 news channel.

But, even so, one of the first lessons of bureaucracy is to watch your back and buy insurance whenever you can. Precisely for that reason, Basu met I K Gujral, who was then the Minister for External Affairs and whom he knew socially. From behind an imposing desk in the wood panelled interiors of the Foreign Minister’s office, Gujral told Basu to accept the offer without a second thought. But Basu was still worried. “How do you think the government will react?” he asked. The reply was typical of the old man. “The government should only be proud. One of its officers is being picked up for an extremely prestigious job, instead of an outsider.” The next morning, Basu sent his acceptance and within no time the contract arrived. On June 30, 1996, Basu filed his application seeking premature retirement and waited in trepidation during the three-month notice period. On the afternoon of September 30, he walked out to join Star India as its first CEO. As Bhasker Ghose recounts, “Yes, at an unbelievable salary of half a million dollars a year!” But, Basu still harboured a few middle-class aspirations. He wanted the ultimate insignia to herald his arrival into Bombay. His Mercedes Benz arrived and performed that duty royally.

The initial change from the cosy security of a government job left Basu feeling lonesome and exposed. He carried with him four female officers from DD, but for all their elegance and charm they could not replace the comfort of running to a Bhaskar Ghose or securing the last word on the subject from his minister! Nonetheless, as CEO he had complete hire and fire authority and full financial powers; reporting only to Murdoch, who travelled between homes and offices all over the world. He virtually became a one-man show and, within a couple of weeks, the Star Plus team was well in place. He looked to NDTV for news and the Prime Channel and UTV, among others, for entertainment. The first half-hour band of Hindi programming commenced almost immediately after the English programmes. Meanwhile, from its very first week, NDTV’s daily English news programme became a runway hit. While Star Plus was thus gathering momentum, Basu began chasing the launch of ISkyB, the first DTH service to India. But unknown to him, storm clouds were gathering in Delhi. The then Cabinet Secretary fired the first missile for accepting employment without permission. Close on its heels came another peremptory shot, directing him to resign forthwith. Then another, demanding that Murdoch remove Basu forthwith from his employment! Selected newspapers got the front page headlines on a platter.

Fortunately, the private sector has its own conventions and style. Basu’s legal advisers told him to take no notice. The orders lacked the force of law, and that’s all that mattered. But the negative press coverage appearing day after day began to get insufferable.Basu revisited his mentor IK Gujral, by then the Prime Minister of India. All it took to halt the vituperative crusade was one phone call from the PM’s Principal Secretary. Meanwhile, the Hindi content on Star Plus was reaping unanticipated bonanza for Star group. Simultaneously, the ISkyB DTH project also began gaining momentum and was all set to make its debut. The press conference to announce the launch was scheduled for March 26, 1997. The international press had been invited. But, mysteriously, on the evening before the event, the government announced that broadcast in the Ku Band frequencies was prohibited. This, Basu believes, was instigated by Star’s competitors, aided and abetted by his band of detractors in the government. The ban came despite the absence of an enabling law—since the uplink was from Hong Kong and the satellite was American, it was nothing short of high-handedness. But nonetheless the launch had to be abandoned. As a face saver, the press was shown a demonstration of DTH using a C-band dish. Poor show, but all was not lost.

WITH general elections round the corner in 1998, Basu snapped up a proposal from Prannoy Roy to create the first Indian 24X7 news channel. It was a big gamble. The estimated cost was US$50 million over five years! But, undoubtedly, it would give Star all the eyeballs it could possibly crave for. Basu called Murdoch. The tycoon sounded thrilled but also apprehensive about the cost. Basu repeated it slowly and clearly, “It will cost $50 million over five years, or $10 million a year.” Murdoch could not believe his ears and retorted, “Less than a million a month for a 24X7 channel does not even merit a discussion. Just do it man,” he thundered, additionally offering support from Sky News, UK.

Rathikant Basu greeting the guests at the launch of Tara Bangla in 2000
Rathikant Basu greeting the guests at the launch of Tara Bangla in 2000

In a matter of weeks, Star News channel was ready to roll. Basu then used his ace of trumps! He invited Prime Minister Gujral to launch the channel! And Gujral agreed. Star News became the first and only private channel to be launched from 7, Race Course Road. While endless imitations came and went, Star News remained the benchmark for many years to come. Meanwhile, the fight for DTH continued in the courts with the government claiming that it was planning a comprehensive broadcast law, even producing a hastily put-together draft to stall things. But, as it happens, the government changed and a new minister for I &B took over. He too pushed for a law until Pramod Mahajan replaced him as the minister. Basu’s meeting with the flamboyant and media-savvy Mahajan left no doubt that the minister favoured DTH. But even so, a Group of Ministers was appointed to go into its ramifications. The broadcast law has not been heard of since.

Basu could not help recalling that for all his success, he had joined Murdoch to fan out DTH. But his lone battle against the system began telling even on his booming enthusiasm. He sounded Murdoch out, telling him that DTH’s clearance was getting increasingly difficult. Murdoch’s response was typical of the man.

“If it is not difficult for you and me, it is not worth doing. There are plenty of others to do the easy things!””

Basu then changed track. Star TV’s partner Zee TV had been Star’s main competitor. Armed with a win-win offer, he proposed that Star and Zee channels merge into a single company, dividing the equity 50:50 between the two holding companies. Basu met Subhash Chandra in Hong Kong and Murdoch in London. Fortunately, both thought it was an excellent plan.

A joint meeting in London ended in a businessman’s handshake. But at Subhash’s insistence, it was decided to conduct a valuation of their assets through an international consultant. Unexpectedly, the valuations turned out to be adverse for Zee. Although Murdoch was willing to go back to Basu’s original proposal of 50:50, Subhash was not agreeable. The merger plan was aborted and ended in Zee buying out Murdoch’s stake in the company.

It was a blessing in disguise. With the end of restriction on Hindi content, Zee TV could now be easily overtaken by Star. While the old rivalry over DTH continued, the illfated merger plan yielded a valuation report that might not have come into sight otherwise. The Star News channel had been valued at $300 million. Murdoch had spent just about $20milllion until then. He had been compensated fully, simply by Basu riding the horse of pure entrepreneurship.

HAVING failed to realise his DTH dream, Basu began to tire of the continued struggle against the establishment at Delhi. He approached Murdoch and requested to be relieved. Murdoch asked him what he proposed to do next. “I want to start a clutch of regional language TV channels on my own,” said Basu.

Murdoch agreed with three conditions: He would invest $1 million in Basu’s new company in exchange for a 5 per cent share in the equity; Basu would continue to be on the payroll of Star and draw his salary and perks until the end of his five-year contract; and, Basu would not start any Hindi or English channel for the next two years. On January 1, 2000, Basu set up the office of Broadcast Worldwide Private Limited at the World Trade Centre, Mumbai. He assigned the preparation of a business plan to Ashok Wadhwa’s Ambit Corporate Finance and started raising funds for the new venture.

The media explosion in India was just beginning. Raghav Behl’s muchhyped IPO for TV 18 had fired the imagination of sponsors on the look out for new investment options. As soon as it was known that Rathikant Basu was starting a TV network of his own, he was besieged with offers from potential investors. The initial requirement of Rs 18 crore was soon subscribed, and the date for launch of Tara Bangla was set for April 28, 2000. Basu roped in a friend from his DD days, iconic film star Amitabh Bachchan, to launch the channel in Kolkata. Along with Bengali film personality Aparna Sen, it could not have been a more stunning event. Precisely at 7 pm, Bachchan pushed the button and the first transmission of a private Bengali TV channel burst forth from a teleport in distant Thailand. Basu’s cup of joy was filled to the brim!

Basu won the 2008 Kolkata bid for the ICCR cafe. Naming it Café Thé, he now spends his afternoons checking the quality of tea and fine-tuning the recipes of the delicacies on offer.

By 2004, Basu replaced the original Tara Bangla with two new channels, the first 24X7 Bengali news channel Tara Newz to provide unbiased and immediate news, and the first 24X7 music channel Tara Muzik to promote and preserve Bengali culture. The latter became the most popular music channel among Bengalis worldwide, especially in neighbouring Bangladesh. In 2007, Basu created the first multinational TV platform in the world, TV South Asia, with participation from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh, all from the non-governmental sector. The project was presented at an UNESCO conference in Sao Paulo, at a session chaired by the UN Secretary-General, who personally acclaimed the initiative. By the time he sold off Broadcast Worldwide Limited in 2011, Basu had successfully created the largest private TV network in Bengal. If there is such a thing as media diplomacy, Basu had pulled it off.

Basu still remains active and engaged. Having developed a taste for high-end exotic teas, he secured the bid for the Tea Board’s Tea Centre in Mumbai, which he ran for six years in preparation for his ultimate retirement. But not before winning the 2008 Kolkata bid for the ICCR cafe. Naming it Café Thé, he now spends his afternoons checking the quality of tea and fine-tuning the recipes of the delicacies on offer.

Basu is fond of entertaining his friends, both at his cafe and at his home in Kolkata. He now plans to return to his adopted roots in Gujarat, to stay in a tiny house he had built in Gandhinagar—which he considers as his home—in the early nineties. He misses his wife, who succumbed to a botched-up surgery in 2006. He will continue to visit Kolkata to look after his café and hopes to start another in the Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar circuit. His ultimate dream is a European destination like Helsinki! Basu has not drawn any pension since his voluntary retirement, but lives comfortably. As he says, ““the good things in life are anyway free!”

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One thought on “Rathikant Basu: Utterly unusual

    shibu said:
    April 8, 2015 at 9:41 PM

    Thanku mam for sharing such a interesting inside story.perfect script for a hit bollywood movie

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