May 31, 2020
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Star Crossed

Star TV boss Rathikant Basu tries desperately to save his job as the CBI gets ready to file cases against him

Star Crossed

IF recent developments are any indication, Star TV CEO Rathikant Basu's troubles have just begun. Reacting to a tip-off by the Department of Personnel & Training (DOPT), the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) is on the verge of registering two cases against the superannuated IAS officer. And given the momentum of the agency's investigations—the case came to the CBI on August 11—the high-pro-file former director general of Doordarshan may well find himself seeking anticipatory bail within the next fortnight, when the agency registers a regular case under section 13 (i)(d) of the Prevention of Corruption Act.

Basu may also find himself in the net of a disproportionate assets case once the agency starts investigating his investments. "Raids are a routine corollary to the registration of a case and these will show whether any assets have been collected disproportionate to his known sources of income," says a senior CBI official.

It's not just Basu who is under the CBI searchlight. Agency records name NDTV CEO Prannoy Roy as a beneficiary and the CBI is currently firming its case against him. Says V. Lakshmi Ratan, additional secretary, DOPT: "The case will be against both the bribe-giver and taker. Roy will definitely be in the CBI dragnet if the agency finds evidence against Basu." And the CBI's blotter of charges—though not new—can be potentially very damaging.

At present, the agency is looking into two allegations: that in 1990, Basu as director general, Doordarshan, took the arbitrary decision to place a news-programme, The World This Week—produced by Prannoy Roy's NDTV—in the 'A' category for the purposes of sponsorship and in the 'A Special' category for spot buys. This decision, according to this year's annual Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report, cost the exchequer a whopping Rs 3.52 crore.

The second charge: that Doordarshan, during Basu's tenure, agreed to pay WorldTel—which had the exclusive telecast rights for the Four-Nation Cricket Tournament at Sri Lanka—a whopping US $ 500,000. This figure was apparently negotiated directly between WorldTel chief Mark Mascarenhas and Basu. According to records available with the CBI, this was far higher than the revenue generated by Doordarshan by way of advertising. A subsequent study conducted by Nimbus Communications—which was given the contract for marketing the rights and selling commercial time on behalf of Doordarshan—showed that Doordarshan had gained a mere Rs 4.28 crore as advertising revenue. The CAG study, however, estimated the value of commercial time at Rs 10 crore. This, according to CBI records, led to an estimated financial loss of Rs 5.72 crore. In both cases, according to the CBI, the decision was taken by Basu, the then director general, without consulting the internal financial advisor. And in the second instance, also without conducting a proper examination of the marketing potential.

In the case of NDTV, CBI records show that Doordarshan gave the producers access—free of cost—to vis-News footage that was received by the Doordarshan Kendra at Bombay. The CBI dossier also shows that Roy was given microwave and satellite uplinking facilities without being levied the correct charges.

In fact, it was the I&B ministry's reply to the PAC last year—stating that "an informal understanding between Doordarshan and NDTV had been worked out free of cost"—that provoked the PAC to recommend a probe into the apparent nexus which existed between NDTV and Doordarshan.

That appears to be the CBI's charter. The agency's team—supervised by additional director, Gopal Chary and headed by Narendra Pal Singh, DIG, anti-corruption cell—responded with alacrity, summoning the relevant records from the I&B ministry and the CAG. It is now on the brink of registering a Preliminary Enquiry (PE) report. Says an insider: "It is a water-tight case, since the CAG has already done most of the ground work".

For now, the agency is concretising evidence to prove that Basu received "illegal gratification" for the "undue favours" that he made as a public servant. Statements of crucial witnesses in the ministry are being recorded and legal opinion from the law ministry has been sought. Law minister Ramakant Khalap has apparently given his approval, though a formal proposal seeking sanction to prosecute Basu has not yet been moved with the DOPT.

The CBI dragnet has also swept over other Doordarshan officials like Bimla Bhalla. Records in the possession of the CBI show that, apart from the favours shown in the case of The World This Week, Basu had also made similar concessions towards Roy in programmes like News Tonight and South Asia News Capsule. Records summoned by the CBI in the latter show that the rate at which payment was to be made to NDTV for this capsule was not settled when Doordarshan began broadcasting the programme. 

The confusion arose when the costing committee arrived at a fig-ure of Rs 50,000 per episode and NDTV claimed a payment of Rs 1.76 crore at the rate of Rs 81,000 per episode. In a letter to Doordarshan, NDTV stated that this had been agreed upon by the then OSD (news) Bimla Bhalla. The dispute over the payment has, however, not been settled till now.

AS a spill-over action, the CBI is also proposing to forward information — regarding instances of alleged foreign exchange violations committed by the I&B ministry during Basu's tenure as DG—to the Enforcement Directorate (ED). Records apparently show that the Department of Economic Affairs (DEA), under the ministry of finance, released an amount of US $ 20.56 lakh during 1988-96 for the production of The World This Week without going into the details of utilisation. This was done solely on the basis of recommendations made by Doordarshan. However, the CBI has discovered that neither the I&B ministry nor Doordarshan had conducted any such verification exercise.

That's not all. In what could be an equally damaging follow-up, the CBI is also examining details of other contracts that Doordarshan entered into with WorldTel; for instance, the US Open Tennis Tournament 1994, the French Open Tennis Tournament, 1994, and the World Cup Soccer, 1994. The agency has already asked the I&B ministry to release its contract file which will detail all the inputs that went into taking the decision in favour of WorldTel.

 The situation gets hairier for Basu since legal experts within the agency are almost unanimous that Basu's employment with Star TV—which, incidentally, has a tie-up with NDTV—on what is said to be a whopping monthly salary of Rs 15 lakh only three days after he left government service, establishes the fact that he was a beneficiary.

What has added teeth to this charge is the DOPT's recent offensive, accusing Basu of professional misconduct in "not taking prior permission" from the government before joining News Television India Ltd, a subsidiary of the Hong Kong-based Star TV. Insiders in the DOPT say that Basu's conduct in recruiting Bimla Bhalla and S.K. Guha—former officers from the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) and the Intelligence Bureau (IB)—is equally serious.

However, it's going to be an uphill task for the government to prove that both Bhalla and Guha were privy to sensitive information which was specifically relevant to a foreign media network. Guha, though a core intelligence officer, last posted as additional director in the IB, was handling operations in Punjab and the Purulia case, none of which would have any co-relation to media operations. Bhalla handled a purely administrative charge in the RAW and, according to insiders in the Cabinet Secretariat, did not have access to vital intelligence. "In the IB, there is restricted security and there is no charter to gather media intelligence which may help Star. This is just a bureaucratic backlash," says former IB official M.K. Dhar.

But that's one point of view. While Basu is seeking legal recourse (see box), the government on its part has hardened its stand. And the DOPT is all set to issue similar notices against 40-odd retired government servants—including former Doordarshan director generals Ashok Mansukhani, presently CEO with IndusInd Media (a media outfit owned by the Hindujas), and R.K. Singh, chief of ESPN's operations in India—who have allegedly violated service rules in taking up private employment. "It is definitely a violation of section 10 of the Service Conduct Rules and action will be taken," says DOPT's Ratan. But Basu's fate, linked as it is to the CBI probe, is far worse. For, "the law," as CBI director R.C. Sharma puts it, "will take its own course."

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