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The Great Paper Chase

The Hindujas may have established a cable distribution network, but the dream of owning a journal continues to haunt them

The Great Paper Chase
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THEY never give up, do they? Ten years ago--long before the Singhanias, Ambanis and Thapars tried their hand at it--the Hindujas were already talking of bringing the International Herald Tribune to India as proof of their intent to enter the print medium.

And now, long after the Singhanias, Ambanis and Thapars have burnt their fingers in the newsprint minefield, they are still talking about it. Says Ram T. Hingorani, publisher of Inprint, the Hindujas' inktank: "Several proposals are in the pipeline, but nothing has been decided.

Admittedly the country's antiquated publishing laws and pushy domestic newspaper lobby have shanghaied the London-based group's efforts to hop for partners abroad for a joint venture, but it has been ogling other options none the less. Because, as Malvika Singh, associate publisher of the Business India group, puts it, "The media is a very sexy business to be in."

'The tightly-knit, publicity shy, conservative Sindhi NRI family, one of Britain's richest, may not be seeking pleasures of the sensual kind--just a nice, friendly press--in keeping its plans, or at least rumours of them, alive. It has been on the other side of the gun for long. But whether legislation will be loosened and whether vested interests will relax their hold to allow them to bring in the IHT remain in the realm of speculation.

It also defies logic as to why the Hindujas would want to set foot in an arena where its compatriots from the industrialist world have been humbled. For, the Singhanias, Ambanis and Thapars found that running The Indian Post, The Sunday Observer and The Observer of Business & Politics, and The Pioneer respectively, wasn't as easy as running Raymond's, Reliance and JCT But as Sudheendra Kulkani, the Hindujas' vice-president (media), maintains: "Nothing that we do or plan to do is, or will be, influenced by the experience of others."

That, however, doesn't explain the hectic activity within the usually secretive group to acquire print media interests in the past year. There were protracted discussions with Blitz Publications to acquire the tabloid. Russy Karanjia's bulldog of a newspaper had fallen on bad times and needed resuscitation. The Hindujas and Karanjia--all close friends of the late Shah of Iran--got talking. Discussions in London proceeded smoothly till Karanjia insisted on remaining editor in perpetuity. His son-in-law Karl Mehta, however, denies that negotiations ever took lace or that Blitz is up for sale.

The Hindujas didn't ponder over that dead-end for long and briefly turned their attention towards The Sunday Observer. The once-thriving weekly had become a blot on the Ambanis' track-record after they took it over from Jaico publishers. Rumours that the family was irked with the paper's mismanagement began doing the rounds, but when the Hindujas offered , to take charge, the Ambanis refused. The paper, they said, was just a drop in their Rs 7,000-crore ocean.

The NRIs then focused their gaze on the London and Bombay editions of the fledgling Asian Age. The paper's franchisees in the two cities--Suresh Nanda and Mid-Day publisher Tarique Ansari respectively--had backed out in the face of mounting losses. Editor-in-chief M.J. Akbar played along till his cash-flush collaborators-to-be insisted on a revamp of the daily's editorial board with a Hinduja at the helm.

Next was the Indian Express. At the height of the Indian Express feud last year, the Hindujas allowed rumours to circulate that they were willing to take over the Vivek Goenka side of operations of the multi-edition daily even though Ramnath Goenka's adopted son had at no time shown intentions of selling out. The reason for the Hindujas' silence soon became clear. Advising the Manoj Sonthalia faction in the family war were Arun Shourie and S. Gurumurthy, old bugbears of the family.

Surprisingly, the Hindujas' efforts thus far have been limited to acquiring an already established publication though market rumour has it that they spoke to a former editor of Tile Times of India to launch a new newspaper. There is now talk of starting a sports magazine--to realise the family's longstanding interest in that area--and an investment magazine.

For the moment, though, the Hindujas' print interests are confined to bringing out What's In, a leisure and entertainment guide to complement the group's cable television operations. Says Asish Chakravarty, CEO of IN Network, which looks after the cable, channel, print and film divisions of the Hindujas: "We could have launched a clone of any of the satellite channels. But we realised that there was not much to be gained from it. So we decided to establish a great distribution network. Because unless you're able to reach your audience, you are nowhere."

The Hindujas wooed cable operators with huge sums of money, gave them expensive equipment, connected them to a handful of nodes and connected the node to the hub. First they wired up Bombay and followed it up with Delhi. By year-end, they will have cables crisscrossing seven other ties, 26 in all by the middle of next year. Wasn't it Rupert Murdoch who said, 'those who control the ground, will control the air'? The Hindujas did just that," says analyst Ashok Wadhwa of Arthur Andersen.

This the Hindujas did at great cost. For the first phase of their media operations--comprising cable, channel, film and print--Rs 500 crore had been set apart.

"Their USP is that they have access to unlimited amounts of money," says Pradeep Guha, publishing director of the Times of India group. "Anybody who puts in this kind of money has to be serious."

Adds media analyst N. Bhaskara Rao: "Cable is the forerunner of multimedia. It's going to be big business in terms of value addition." With the cable system they now have in place, and with the fibre optic system they intend to install when the clearance comes through, the Hindujas hope to provide telephone services, interactive services, idea conferencing, electronic data transfer and a host of other facilities to subscribers. Multimedia, in short.

That's smart thinking for an otherwise mysterious group. The public face of the Hindujas is Srichand Hinduja; but the man who is widely believed to be the brain behind the group's media ventures is Kamakrishna P. Hinduja, son of Frakash Hinduja, the third of the four surviving brothers who looks after the family's Geneva operations.

Remi, as the 20-year-old is known, is said to be in the mould of the younger Ambanis and Thapars and it is he, with his western education, who drew up the blueprint for the cable, channel and print ventures. Why Remi decided on a high-profile strategy for a so far low profile group is a matter of intense speculation at the group's head quarters. Some feel that it was inevitable. "Like Reliance in the '80s which had become too close to Rajiv Gandhi, the Hindujas are identified too closely with P.V. Narasimha Rao. The media ventures are like an insurance," says an editor.

In any case, political observers say the Hindujas have cultivated politicians across the spectrum in case Rao finds the going tough in the coming general elections. If all those friendships fail to bail them out in difficult times, there is always the channel, the cable network, and, who knows, a newspaper or two.

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