About a week after the Indian media went to town touting Baba Ramdev’s “Covid cure”, his Patanjali Ayurveda walked back breathless claims that its was a Covid drug and said it would be sold as an “immunity booster”. Hyping up a concoction as a sure cure for a yet untreatable disease, only to turn around and admit that it’s merely a health supplement is like taking a flaming torch to a balloon.
For Rajat Sharma, though, it’s no big deal. “What does it matter if it is called medicine or immunity booster?” the chairman and editor-in-chief of India TV demanded to know on Twitter after Patanjali had punctured its own claims. Ramdev, the editor suggested, had done no wrong by touting Coronil as he had.
Soon as Ramdev launched the Coronil kit – consisting of the Divya Coronil Tablet, Divya Swasari Vati, Divya Anu Taila – on June 23, TV news anchors started the “miracle cure”. They aired lengthy segments nodding along as Ramdev held forth on the efficacy of his kit, priced at Rs 545.
It did not matter that, as Newslaundry had already , Patanjali’s claims about trialling the drug were questionable.
It was not until after the AYUSH ministry had clarified that the drug was unproven and directed Patanjali to stop marketing it as a Covid cure that TV anchors stopped their Coronil publicity blitz, sponsored, directly or indirectly, by . It didn’t help Patanjali’s cause that the Uttarakhand government any of its concoctions as a Covid cure and one of the supervisors its merit.
A week later, on July 1, the AYUSH ministry allowed Patanjali to sell Coronil as an immunity booster and it was immediately back on TV. Sharma ran a segment on his primetime show Aaj ki Baat that evening. It was full of praise for Ramdev “for championing ayurvedic medicine”.
Sharma played a segment from an with Ramdev, conducted at Patanjali’s Haridwar headquarters on July 1. In the full interview, running into 35 minutes, Ramdev expresses his disdain for allopathic medicine and lashes out at his critics. The India TV reporter, instead of asking hard questions about the controversy around Coronil, plays an enthralled spectator as Ramdev showcases his array of products. In the guise of a news interview, it appears to be a promotional campaign for Patanjali’s sprawling business empire.
Towards the end of his segment, Sharma again celebrates Ramdev and Coronil. “I just want to say this,” he says, “By making this medicine and showing a path, Swami Ramdev has not done any crime. He hasn’t looted anyone. After thorough research, he has made an attempt to help the people of his country. Only time will tell how effective the medicine is. But it would be wrong to question Ramdev for this.”
Sharma would have us believe that his fondness for Patanjali and Ramdev flows from his pride in ayurveda. Is that really the only reason?
Constructing a timeline of developments since last December involving Sharma, Ramdev and Patanjali seems to offer some answers.
On December 18 last year, Patanjali a bankrupt food company called Ruchi Soya Industries for Rs 4,350 crore. The next day, Ramdev’s company informed the it was restructuring Ruchi Soya’s board of directors. The new board was soon assembled. Three of its six members were independent directors. One of them was Rajat Sharma. He was also put on three of the five board committees, chairing the stakeholders relationship committee as well as the nomination and remuneration committee.
Also on the board were Acharya Balakrishna, Patanjali’s CEO and Ruchi Soya’s new chairman, and Ramdev as a non-executive director. According to , the board has met five times so far, with the last meeting held on March 27.
This means Sharma has a close association with Ruchi Soya and, thereby, the Patanjali group. As such, it runs against the norms of transparency for India TV to promote Patanjali’s products without disclosing its chairman’s association with the company.
And this isn’t restricted to the touting of Coronil. For nearly three months now, India TV has been airing a daily morning show with Ramdev called Corona Se Jung, Baba Ramdev Ke Sang. The show purports to help its viewers keep away the novel coronavirus through yoga. And Ramdev never misses a chance to advance his business. He did so at least three times last week alone.
A little over 17 minutes into the , Ramdev launches into a diatribe against Dawa Wale, referring to allopathic drug makers. They have been fooling and looting people in the name of selling medicines for blood pressure, diabetes, thyroid, cancer, he alleges, and they are doing the same now by selling expensive medicines for coronavirus. “Coronil has shattered their dream of making money,” he declares.
In the , while talking about “super foods” that boost immunity in a tuberculosis patient, he demonstrates his own company’s products. In the , he holds forth on the supposed benefits of his Coronil kit. None of these episodes ran a disclaimer about the India TV editor’s association with Patanjali either.
Newslaundry emailed Rajat Sharma questions about his association with Ruchi Soya and why India TV doesn’t disclose it while running news and other segments involving Patanjali. The story will be updated if a response is received.
Sharma serves as the president of the News Broadcasters Association, a forum comprising 77 television news channels in the country. As the leader of a large media body, the responsibility of ensuring propriety and ethical standards rests more heavily on him. Yet, India TV's practices seem to violate one of the fundamental principles in the : “Broadcasters shall, in particular, ensure that they do not select news for the purpose of either promoting or hindering either side of any controversial public issue. News shall not be selected or designed to promote any particular belief, opinion or desires of any interest group.”
By using his media pulpit to celebrate Ramdev and Patanjali without disclosing his association with them, Sharma doesn’t seem to live up to these values. Sharma claims to hold public figures accountable for their actions and words on his show Aap ki Adalat, yet doesn’t apply the same standards of fairness and transparency to his channel. India TV commands substantial viewership and the least it can do is to disclose its chief editor’s interest in any product it advertises to them. It does matter.
UPDATE: In a letter dated July 7, Ruchi Soya informed the BSE that Rajat Sharma was no longer on the company's board. Here's the full letter.
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