Book Review

Rs. 17 to billionaire : A saga of determination

by Shubhabrata Bhattacharya

He set off for Delhi from his home in Hissar with Rs. 17 in his pocket at the age of 17. The flourishing family business in the grains trade had gone bankrupt. Debt made his functioning as a trader difficult as credit was denied. The autobiography of billionaire entrepreneur Subhash Chandra, The Zee Factor: My journey as the wrong man at the right time (co-authored by Pranjal Sharma; published by HarperCollins) is a fascinating saga of determination and sagacity. It gives a rare insight into Delhi’s powerbroking and underscores the role chicanery plays in inter-corporate rivalry. It’s a must-read as a case study in business schools, not only in India but perhaps in the entire emerging world where regulations of yore have given way to a new jargon, “ease of doing business”.

Releasing the book, Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowledged his longstanding association with Chandra (whose family has an RSS background) and complimented him on his growth story, saying, “Risk is part of his swabhav.”

“I am not scared of jumping into situations that would scare others. I do not fear anything… I prefer to enter segments that others ignore… My entry into rice exports, broadcasting, packaging, amusement parks are all examples of this. I don’t mind failing if I know that I tried my best,” writes the man who launched India’s first private TV channel, Zee, on Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary in 1992 and gave India its first DTH, Dish TV, on October 2, 2003.

Two of his failed ventures—Indian Cricket League (2006) and Agrani (1994)—proved precursors to the IPL and successful satellite mobile telephony. “Life is full of crises, hope, challenges and enjoyment… the determination to do more, learn more, has stayed with me,” he writes. At the book launch, his comment: “If you adapt to change, success will come to you,” summed up his life story.

As a fledgling, he played a pioneering role in modernising food procurement in the late 1960s, as his suggestion caught the imagination of officialdom. The paradigm of FCI and Army’s purchase of foodgrains changed due to him. He also, perhaps, paved the roadmap for restructuring of loans by banks while seeking funds for his food business.

He strayed into the business of supplying poles for telephones with the help of powerbrokers in Delhi. He recalls his benefactor, BR Chopra, “At one time he was the chauffeur of Congress leader Jagjivan Ram. He used his political connections to get things done in Delhi.” The case study of Chopra cited in the book is not isolated: Delhi has seen many such rags-to-riches stories. Recently a prominent automobiles dealer, who once sold seat covers and accessories in a municipal market, celebrated his son’s wedding—the guest list read like the Who’s Who of Delhi’s power corridors. In the 1960s-70s, having used the benefits accorded to the small-scale sector, Chandra observes, “This sector depended a lot on government subsidies and tax exemptions. Most players in the sector were making money from exemptions, but not doing any real business.”

“Delhi has a culture of encouraging intermediaries. Most of them have worked in the government or assisted someone in the government. All of them claim to be well-connected, with deep understanding of how files moved in various ministries,” writes Chandra. He describes how he made contact with Sanjay Gandhi through one “Tripathi”. (The full name of this dramatis personae is withheld, perhaps, because he prefers to keep this contact anonymous. He mentions Anil Chanana—a name well known in power circles in the days of Sanjay and his Delhi Youth Congress chief, Jagdish Tytler. However “Tripathi” and one “Sharma” are provided the shroud of anonymity.)

There seems to be a factual error in this otherwise well-chronicled tome. Chandra says he used to visit Sanjay in a house in Nizamuddin where, he claims, Indira Gandhi had moved after losing power in 1977. It is history that Mrs Gandhi shifted to 12, Willingdon Crescent (now Madam Teresa Crescent) from 1, Safdarjung Road. Also, the people assisting Sanjay in those days were Raghu and JN Mishra. No “Tripathi” or “Sharma” are recalled by those who were close to the Gandhi family during that phase. At another point, Chandra says he met Rajiv Gandhi through Manubhai Desai, who, Chandra claims, used to host Rajiv in Mumbai. Sources, while acknowledging Desai as Rajiv’s acquaintance, wonder if the latter ever stayed with the former in Mumbai.

Chandra describes how he benefitted by becoming close to Dhirendra Brahmachari. He bid for exporting Basmati rice to the erstwhile USSR, with whom India had a rupee-rouble trade pact. He vividly describes his interactions with Rajiv and his close aide, Vijay Dhar, and goes on to narrate how, when he complained to Dhar that Brahmachari was making extraordinary monetary demands, the matter went right up to the then Prime Minister, who met him at her residence late at night. The fall of Brahmachari, whom Rajiv despised, can perhaps be traced to the brief chat that Chandra had with Mrs Gandhi. (Vijay Dhar was a prominent invitee at the book release function and he finds mention in more than one narrative of Chandra’s success story.)

There is an aside: having ousted the established supplier of Basmati to the USSR, Chandra faced trouble in Moscow when his rice was described as sub-standard. Apparently, the previous exporter was sending Parmal in the guise of Basmati. Chandra apparently changed tack—his Basmati (or whatever went under that name) was never rejected again. The money from sale of rice to USSR apparently fed the coffers of the ruling party.

Amitabh Bachchan’s role in Delhi’s power circles is mentioned. Chandra refers to the “Kashmiri Group,” comprising Arun Nehru, ML Fotedar and Dhar, which was at loggerheads with the group of RK Dhawan, Brahmachari “and some others”. He used this to his advantage when cornered by Brahmachari for funds from his rice export.

The book gives a vivid description of the setting up of Zee. Chandra’s handling of giants like Rupert Murdoch is detailed. And so is his relationship with STAR. Many icons in the media have been analysed and discussed.

Chandra has not only pioneered businesses, but has outstripped India’s
corporate world in what is popularly known as CSR

While writing on the telecast rights in cricket, Chandra describes how the BCCI, headed by Jagmohan Dalmiya, preferred ESPN-STAR Sports over Zee:”I realised I would need help for taking on Dalmiya. I happened to have very good relations with BJP leader Arun Jaitley. I have a good equation with him even today… I sought Jaitley’s help but he was cold and said, ‘I will see, Subhashji’ ”. Much later, I learnt that it was not Dalmiya but Jaitley who favoured ESPN-Star sports because he genuinely believed that the foreign companies are more honourable or professional than Indian ones. If Jaitley was in the government, as he is now, would his beliefs remain the same? Sometimes these genuine beliefs don’t fade away.”

Lamenting that he was “let down” by Jaitley and Rajiv Shukla, he writes, “I also knew Rajiv Shukla… he did not take my calls. I lost my cool… I don’t know how true this is, but some people allege that Rajiv is open to persuasion and can change his position based on practicality.”

“There are no permanent allies or enemies in the world of the BCCI,” writes Chandra while mentioning how he backed Sharad Pawar and ensured Dalmiya’s defeat, but that too did not help him in securing favours off the cricket field for Zee.

CHANDRA has not only pioneered businesses, but has outstripped India’s corporate world in what is popularly known as Corporate Social Responsibility. While corporates have grudgingly agreed to the government stipulation of devoting 2 per cent of profits for CSR, Chandra’s firms, going by the Vaishya practice of Dasaundh, puts aside 10 per cent for CSR. Ekal Vidyalaya—a concept of single-teacher school embedded in the community—has been promoted by him and the Prime Minister feted him at the release function for running 52,000 such schools, where a single teacher teaches children from Nursery to Class V. Apart from education, the foundation that runs Ekal is also diversifying into healthcare.

Chandra says that now that infrastructure is a vertical of his empire, he intends playing a role in the development of smart cities.

He concludes his book thus: “I remain a hungry person who ‘does not want to die’, who wishes to be remembered after current journey ends someday”. The saga of Subhash Chandra will indeed have no end.

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