ALARM bells are ringing in Star TV's Indian office, but Rathikant Basu—the man in the eye of the storm—and his portmanteau team of erstwhile government functionaries are not showing their nervousness in public. "Worried? Not at all," says one Star TV official who was part of Basu's 'dream team' in Doordarshan.
Yet, Star's Hong Kong-based CEO, Gary Davey, flew to New Delhi in the wee hours of August 22 and called on Prime Minister I.K. Gujral. The 'panic' meeting set the rumours mills whirring. Will Star TV owner Rupert Murdoch drop Basu if things get too hot? Does the Indian government have the legal power to prosecute Basu if he refuses to comply with its directive that he should quit Star?
Says a former bureaucrat: "Star TV cannot be blacklisted on the grounds cited by the government. If Basu goes to court, the move will be thrown out." A legal battle will, however, be the last resort for Basu. Says his solicitor Raian Karanjawala: "We will wait and watch. Basu's case is watertight." The fracas had begun last October, when the ministry of personnel sent a letter to Basu, who was Doordarshan chief for nearly three years, questioning the propriety of his taking up private employment with a foreign company without prior permission. Basu's reply was that he was no longer answerable because he had decided to forgo his pension.
Has Basu's appointment backfired on Star? Sources in the know claim that NewsCorp, Star TV's holding company, is standing by Basu "for the moment" because the government's case seems to be "rather flimsy".
The government, on its part, is talking of tightening the rules that govern retired bureaucrats. But though Gujral is known to have personally cleared the letters sent to Basu and his employers, there's little the government can do. Strangely, it has taken the government an entire year to launch proceedings against Basu. The trigger apparently, was the appointment of S.K. Guha, former additional director, IB, as Star's liaison man. A notice is about to be served on Guha, as well as on all former DD officials who are now in Star TV.
Star TV officials accuse the government of a witchhunt: "They cannot compete with us on quality. So they are trying to prove that we are a rogue company. First the DTH ban, now these letters." Basu has reportedly presented his case to the prime minister in a personally delivered letter. But the problem for Basu is that a long drawn-out war with the government may hold little interest for Murdoch.