Subhash Chandra’s collapsing house of cards

The 1990s media maverick spent the last few years repaying debts. Can he bounce back?

WrittenBy:Tanishka Sodhi
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It’s easy to spot an egotist.

They use excessive amounts of flattering adjectives to describe themselves; they often address themselves in third person; they consider their intellect a gift to the world; they have armies of yes-men. And – this one is important – they believe the answers to the biggest questions in the universe lie in their life experiences.

Subhash Chandra Goenka, head of the Zee Group, is all that, and more.

Now 72 years old, Chandra is best known for introducing India to something we hate to love and love to hate – content. He founded India’s first 24/7 private news channel and private satellite TV in the 1990s, the first of what would be a multi-crore industry in India. 

He was also one of India’s only media moguls; the Jains and Birlas are, unlike him, family-owned. And, more exciting still, he was a self-made media mogul – he loves to tell the story of how he came to Delhi at the age of 17 from small-town Haryana, with just Rs 17 in his pocket. Chandra went on to diversify into a bouquet of unrelated businesses: packaging, tubes, amusement parks and infrastructure. 

That last one would cost him dearly. It wrecked the Essel Group empire and, more worryingly, most of his stocks were pledged as collateral against loans taken by the group’s companies. 

On his website, Chandra describes himself as a visionary, a philanthropist, a leader, the father of Indian television. And in his five-decade career, everything is transactional. The advantage of having an empire this vast, and a portfolio this diverse, is that there is a currency for almost every business opportunity. 

News is transactional too, and Chandra knows that well. From Zee News, DNA and, to a lesser degree, Wion, he allegedly got two things that helped him greatly: power and clout. 

“Through news,” a former CEO of Zee Media told Newslaundry, “he could influence government policy.”

But Chandra’s house of cards has now collapsed. The man who went from Rs 17 in his pocket to a Rs 30,000 crore empire has spent the last few years repaying debts. Uglier still, he’s also been detaching himself from the very empires he built. He’s no longer chairman of Zee Entertainment or Zee Media. 

He’s also, arguably, no longer the media mogul who reigned supreme in the 1990s, and he has no one else to blame. Chandra’s ambitions exceeded his ability. Every time business started to settle, he, by his own admission, grew impatient. He craved a challenge and spent his life taking them on. Some flourished. Others collapsed, emptying his pockets and adding creases to his forehead.

At present, Chandra has mentioned the “mayaverse”, an Indian version of the metaverse, and his plans to take the news business to new heights. But the only thing in the immediate future is Zee Media’s landmark merger with Sony Pictures – which hinges on multiple issues like Zee owing Rs 83 crore to IndusInd Bank.

So, how does a media tycoon fall from grace? And how did he get there?

Subhash Chandra did not speak for this story. We called and messaged him multiple times over the past three months. Shortly before publishing this report, his aide said Chandra could not speak for the story since he was “in Vipassana” for the next three days.

We also emailed Chandra a detailed questionnaire and will update this report if he responds.

I - Impatience and expansions

In December 2021, Chandra’s eldest son Punit found himself in uncomfortable circumstances. He was forced to clarify to the media and stakeholders that his father had not fled the country, tweeting that Chandra was “very much in Mumbai at home”.

This story began two years ago.

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