This writer was a former editor-in-chief of dna, a newspaper owned by Mr Subhash Chandra, his performance ever under the proprietor’s legitimately hawkish if educative watch. I must say it feels good, for a change, to be sitting in judgment of my ex-boss. Mr Chandra’s autobiography is co-authored with a journalist, who is also a columnist for the paper. How helpful such an association would be to the reader is a matter of speculation.
Mr Subhash Chandra is a pioneer in TV, packaging and entertainment; but perhaps not in the English language. As he told this writer once, “English is not my mother tongue.” Why then has he ventured into seemingly anti-national territory? -- if the current debates are anything to go by, Mr Chandra is firmly on the nationalist side. It is in keeping with his ambitious nature. English gives him respect, which explains the continued and troubled existence of his newspaper as well. By respect I mean clout; a visiting card in the corridors of power. Mr Chandra is familiar with every inch of these corridors as his book shows, and he flaunts his card(s) with relish.
Mr Chandra started out at a very young age. He was hardly 17, when he began transporting grains from his village in Hisar in Haryana to the Delhi markets, travelling mostly alone, and wholly in charge of his trade and his extended family. That takes courage. And Mr Chandra has it in plenty. From those tough days, he has come far, owning close to Rs 30,000 crores in disposable income. As Mr Chandra describes himself — never a modest man even on a Sunday — “he is the wrong man at the right time.”
In the light of what he has chosen to write or reveal, this epigram too only sounds like truth. If he were the wrong man at the right time, he wouldn’t own a business empire whose milestones seem to have been accomplished by political patronage. Though Mr Chandra is a BJP party member and is ideologically affiliated to the RSS, the fact that, by 1992, he was running a Rs 1,000 crore business owes much to the Congress governments and the patronage of the Gandhi family. He is, of course, no longer on good terms with the family.
Whether it’s the contract for the export of Basmati rice in the early 1980s to the former Soviet Union, thanks to bribing Dhirendra Brahmachari (Rs 2 crore on the face of it) to get right of way to the then ruling Gandhi family (Sanjay Gandhi, whom he had painstakingly befriended having died by this time in an air crash) or the seed capital for his TV business (a shortfall of $400,000 that came to him, on the recommendation of Rajiv Gandhi, from an “anonymous” NRI) Mr Chandra has perfected the art of seeing bribery as facilitation fees.
To his credit, he mentions these facts. But he mentions them in such a way that he absolves himself of all blame. In his defence, the system itself is corrupt. But Mr Chandra is not unduly troubled by it. Like a good businessman he sees it as part of the capex. He is not conflicted putting it down in words at this stage in life when he is in an unassailable position. The short point is that Mr Chandra is the right man at the right time.
But no matter. The undertow of self-entitlement in his words often translates into a sense of martyrdom and outrage. Many have cheated him. He did no one wrong. The few times he did, it was strategy. In business, strategy is forgiven, because profits are the goal. Ethics don’t come into it.
Unfortunately, these morally ambivalent qualities fattening his bottom lines also flatten his attempts at putting it all down in words. Mr Chandra has a very convenient, self-rationalising way of looking at reality. It’s not easy to argue with his overall narrative of himself as a great businessman because that is what he is. He is one of the richest men in India. And unlike most other billionaires, Mr Chandra has made all his fortune in his own lifetime. He is a first generation entrepreneur, and a fully embedded one at that. For instance, he talks of having imported a mobile caravan from England and staying in it for months while he built the Essel entertainment park in Bombay. These are admirable qualities in a businessman, and Mr Chandra fairly bursts with enthusiasm for these himself.
But the real story is all in what Mr Chandra has not said. Truth is the first condition for biographies. When Nirad C Chaudhury or Mahatma Gandhi write about themselves, you see the forging of their souls in the smithy of their struggles.
Mr Chandra’s book reads like a prolonged pat on his own silk-suited back. Most of his life, he has spent in outwitting every one. This, of course, has to be. Otherwise he wouldn’t be more successful than most people. But to write about it with a sense of 360 degrees is beyond his rudimentary writing capabilities.
In the absence of an exploration of one’s deepest self, which is generally the problem with Indian autobiographies – and I have in mind recent ones like Natwar Singh’s and Sanjay Baru’s -- the work comes out like a list of one’s achievements, a detailed treatment of one’s curriculum vitae, and a few grouses. Is that the purpose of autobiography? The words here don’t ring true, because they are afraid to reveal the fraught ugliness and beauty of one’s being. At the end of the book, we don’t know Mr Chandra any better. Neither does he.
In his book as in his real life, Mr Chandra eludes himself. When, for example, he has a falling out with his spiritual guru, he says he wept. It comes across just as a word. Mr Chandra wept. It takes a lot for someone like Mr Chandra to weep. But the complex process of his tears acquiring the salts of his life is not emotively clear. For sure, the real Chandra is around somewhere in these pages, in the white space between words, perhaps. Or in the narrow margins. A man of tumultuous passions, generosity, greed, impulsiveness and ambition. The smell is there, just about. Like stale fragrance rising from a dress. But not the physical sense of a life fully explored.
For a man who instinctively translates the world into commodities and currencies, Mr Chandra is in constant need of assurance of his own self worth. If the world holds it back, then he would accord it himself. This book is an effort in that direction. There is absolutely no sense of having seen the worst of oneself, met the stare of the monster inside, and come out crawling from the cave, broken and bleeding, but a better man for all that.
That is one half of the book.
The other reads like a brochure for Mr Chandra’s group. Here’s Mr Chandra drumming up noise for himself on his infrastructure plans: “A growing country was welcoming the participation of the private sector in infrastructure. While I was considering various options, we were introduced (Just like that? All brackets mine) to infrastructure entrepreneur Arun Lakhani by my long-time friend Nitin Gadkari, now the Union minister of road transport (a fortuitous coincidence, no doubt), in 2006. Lakhani had won a concession for building highways in Maharashtra under the public-private partnership model (PPP)... we teamed up with Lakhani and invested in his company. Our journey in infrastructure sector began with this venture.” Further down, he says; “The order book of the infrastructure company could exceed $20 billion in the next three to five years.”
And what would that take? More patronage. How does one get it? If my own experience with his newspaper is a reliable index, by using the media to unscrupulously do his bidding. Every publishing house is likely to have its own sensitivities. That is the nature of the media: it is a dangerous business because it has the power both to befriend and antagonise. In Guru Nanak’s words, the path is sharp as a sword and thin as a strand of hair. But with Mr Chandra there are only sensitivities.
In one of the self-justifying chapters of the book, Mr Chandra talks about the infamous incident of his TV editors (not) blackmailing the steel baron Mr Naveen Jindal. And in retaliation, the number of stories his media arms have carried out against Mr Jindal is quite mind boggling. Mr Chandra passes over these violent eruptions, which might appear to a neutral observer as an excess of abuse of his powers. Mr Chandra has every right to feel he has been framed.
But to convert his sense of wrong in direct proportion to the media units he owns amounts to their abuse. The license for that was not granted when he was allowed to float a satellite or a newspaper. This is not just a stray incident. I remember having to put in my papers once because of a blackout of all news regarding Mr Arvind Kejriwal. There are other incidents like this, but this is not the place to tell them.
Is it right to expect searing honesty in a book? The counter question is, why has Mr Chandra stepped into a domain that demands great strength of character; attempted an act that can be likened to a surgery one conducts on oneself without anaesthesia?
In chapter after chapter Mr Chandra sees himself as an astute judge of people and situations — with a few exceptions, of course. Yet the truth is no group is likely to have seen such high churn at the top level of management. The paper I worked for, for example, had seven – or was it six? — editors in nine years. What explains that kind of serial killing, if Mr Chandra claims to be the manager he is in his book?
There is a dismissive reference to Mr Aditya Sinha, one of his editors, caught unaware amidst the Jindal scam. As a result of a FIR that Mr Jindal lodged, Mr Chandra had to appear in police stations, an experience he is not likely to forgive or forget. Mr Sinha, meanwhile, had been writing against the Congress government led by Dr Manmohan Singh. Apparently, the party said they might extend help if Mr Chandra did away with Mr Sinha’s services.
Mr Chandra complied with great alacrity. But neither the Congress party, nor anyone else came to Mr Chandra’s rescue. Mr Chandra felt humiliated. The fact nevertheless remains that he had no qualms in doing away with his editor to save his skin. To hire and fire like this and then to speak of high values like nationalism and the pioneering spirit of his enterprise in the same breath is therefore a bit rich. Mr Chandra is like any other average human being: meretricious and meticulously self-preserving. His overriding objective is to create wealth without beauty. The tacky programmes on his channels are proof.
Mr Chandra’s autobiography could have been the confessional for expiating his little (?) sins. That would have justified his right to step into the domain of words. He fails. Because, no matter how successful you are, if your words are not true, you have no business to put them down on a page.