Lunch with BS: MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a politician and an entrepreneur

Illustration by Binay Sinha
As we peruse the menu at Café Delhi Heights in New Delhi’s Chanakyapuri, I wonder if Rajeev Chandrasekhar would be forthcoming with his responses to my questions about Republic TV. The Rajya Sabha MP, once an independent candidate and now elected to the Upper House as a Bharatiya Janata Party member, is also one of the major investors in the controversial news channel. Once he orders arrabiata pasta and lemonade, he places his elbows on the table and smiles. “Republic TV is purely an investment. I wanted to invest in an English news channel and Arnab (Goswami) has a successful track record with an appetite to win,” he says. “I certainly did not want to enter the English media space and play catch-up and Arnab brought that edge with him.”

As the pasta he ordered and my salad is served, he pushes the food around his plate and almost forgets about it while talking to me. When I insist that he eat his pasta before it gets too cold, he says he’s trying to watch what he eats. “The elections in Karnataka completely threw me off my regime and I’ve put on so much weight because of that,” he laughs. He rarely sheds the disposition and discipline of a navy officer’s kid, sparing only these sparse moments during the hour-long lunch for the tone to be light. But it is his other two lives — that of a politician and an entrepreneur — that dominate most of our conversation.

Chandrasekhar was working in Silicon Valley in the 1990s when Rajesh Pilot, then minister of telecommunications in the Congress government, invited the young techie to come and set up a cellular business in India. “He was my father’s student and told me that the government was opening up the sector for private investment. “The rest, as they say, is history,” he says. The irony that his entry into the Indian telecom industry was a result of a chance meeting with a popular Congress politician is not lost on him. It was in 1994 that Chandrasekhar donned the hat of a businessman, setting up BPL Mobile under the umbrella of the BPL group that was founded by his father-in-law, T P Gopalan Nambiar.

But it was Jupiter Capital, an investment company Chandrasekhar founded in 2005, that introduced him to the media and entertainment industry, and eventually, to news. Later, when he sold the bouquet of Asianet channels to Star, the latter did not want another news entity in its portfolio. So Asianet News “was spun off as a separate entity, which I got almost for free. This is how most of my investments have worked out — with a twist of fate”, he explains.

His two lives seem to be at loggerheads now. The politician, especially one who is affiliated with the ruling party at the Centre, is also the owner of a channel that seems to have strongly divided opinion in households and newsrooms. Most investors put up a Chinese wall to avoid conflicts of interest. “There is no question of a Chinese wall when these are two separate buildings altogether,” he says firmly. “I never get into the issues of what a particular editor’s likes or dislikes may be. If you take my role as an MP out of the equation, there are no questions anybody would ask me, just like no one asks Rupert Murdoch why he invested in Fox.” 

But he says he takes it in his stride. “Having an interest in media necessarily opens you up to criticism, amplified even more because of social media. Previously, there used to be letters to the editor. Today everybody and his uncle have an opinion about what the media platform is doing, made only easier by tweeting it to me and a 100 other people,” he adds wryly. “What I wasn’t prepared for was the intensity of the attacks that were directed at me and my family at a personal level. Political parties started holding press conferences where they would talk about my wife being part of a company that was in a fictitious default — all that I did not expect. But I have put it down to life’s many experiences.” But his wife, Anju, his 18-year-old son and his 17-year-old daughter were not as prepared for these “attacks” as Chandrasekhar himself was. “But when I am in Bengaluru, my priority is not to tackle these attacks. I am more focused on Board exams and college admissions,” he laughs. 

He pauses to finally take a bite and a sip of the lemonade. Unfazed by diners on the other tables whose interest seems to have been piqued by the mention of BJP and Republic TV, Chandrasekhar the politician takes over. “I know there is a lot of cynicism about anyone in public life, and that is unfortunate”. He recalls an incident when he had to visit his son’s school for an event. “My son told me not to reveal my identity as a politician. That really stumped me,” he says. But it was also an opportunity to change things. He began mentoring young professionals and invited them to work with him. “But it was the LAMP (legislative assistants to members of parliament) Fellowship that truly surprised me — when I saw young people genuinely want to work with parliamentarians and learn about policy,” he says. 

At times, his professional and outward persona seem at odds with the party he represents. “Look, even as an independent member, I was ideologically aligned with the BJP. But I had the freedom to disagree on certain issues, which I don’t have now,” he says. Chandrasekhar was a strong voice from the camp supporting privacy as a fundamental right, which was opposed to the government’s position. But he is quick to clarify that he does not feel encumbered by being a part of the ruling party. “There is no organisation that I know of where 100 per cent of the members believe in 100 per cent of the things. I think viable, cohesive organisations are those in which people believe in a few fundamental values.” 

What are these core values? Pat comes his response: “Country before everything else. Citizenship is also about one’s duty towards the nation, and not purely about entitlement.”

“I also believe that this ruler-citizen governance model needs to be much more contemporaneous. The new model needs to be one of public service and public duty,” he adds. “I feel economic reform, and not some kind of fake socialism, is the only way to get a sizeable Indian population out of poverty. This is, for me, the destiny that this nation deserves.” But where does his contemporary politics fit in with some of the patently non-progressive views of some members of his party? “There was a lot of scaremongering about Hindutva and Hinduism when I decided to join BJP, and I came from a secular background where I did not even know my caste till recently. The truth is that there is, in fact, no single view of Hinduism — it is different in every part of the country. The party recognises that heterogeneity,” he says. 

The biggest change for him has been his time in Parliament. “As an independent, I could speak about anything and would be given three minutes for it. Today, I am part of the party apparatus and I can speak about things the party asks or permits me to speak about,” he says. The advantage is, of course, that he now gets 15 minutes to speak if he is permitted to do so. 

What does he think his role will be during the 2019 general elections? “Just like I was part of the Karnataka campaign as soon as I joined the party, the leadership will use my strengths in 2019 too. They did not make me an MP for not doing anything,” he says. Does he have any specific ideas though? “I think in 2019, the choice is going to be very stark. Do you want this process of transformation and clean governance to continue, or do you want a motley crew of leaders who are purely united by this pathological hatred for PM Modi?” 

Our time is almost up — the new MP has to rush to another meeting. He walks out without any assistants ushering him out — an entrepreneur wearing a politician’s hat.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel