Man of the system: How Jagdish Chandra uses TV news to please the powerful

The Bharat 24 owner left the bureaucracy for the news industry. But he has built a reputation for protecting the establishment, not questioning it.

WrittenBy:Ayush Tiwari
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There is a video of Narendra Modi that his detractors regularly fish out. It’s an off-record tidbit from an interview with ETV news network, shot days before the declaration of the 2014 Lok Sabha election results. As the cameras prepare to roll, a crew member offers a glass of water to Modi, who crudely dismisses him with, “Jaldi bahar ja.” Get out, quick.

There is a revealing facet of the video that is usually ignored. It’s when the interviewer tells the prime-minister-to-be that his TV news network’s coverage of an interview Modi had previously given Telugu daily Eenadu – part of the ETV group – violated the Election Commission’s “silence period”, when candidates have to pause all forms of campaigning. That interview, says the interviewer, was a “brilliant decision”. “It sells 20 lakh copies in Andhra alone,” he says, referring to the daily. “We ran it four times, including on the night before the election. We even got a notice from the Election Commission.”

The interviewer is Jagdish Chandra, close to power and quick to please. Near and dear ones call him “Kaatil”, or killer, a sobriquet endowed during college years for his superior debating skills. A late entrant to the media space, Chandra has carved a space for himself in the country’s regional news industry over the past 14 years.

Chandra took voluntary retirement from the Indian Administrative Service in 2008 and joined the ETV group as CEO, taking control of 15 regional TV news channels.

Chandra now has ambitions to go from regional to national. In August, he launched Bharat 24, a Hindi TV news channel that calls itself the “vision of new India”. It was launched on Independence Day in the presence of I&B minister Anurag Thakur and Bharatiya Janata Party’s IT cell head Amit Malviya. As part of the promotion for Bharat 24, posters calling Modi “the man of universe” and “yug purush of the 2019 Kashmir revolution” were put up across Indian cities.

A Bharat 24 poster near the BJP office in Delhi.

Those who have known Chandra describe him as a workaholic with a knack for impressing the powerful. Born in 1950 to a family of Punjabi refugees in Rajasthan’s Bikaner, Chandra spent his childhood in the town of ​​Raisinghnagar, about 20 km from the border with Pakistan. He moved to Jaipur in the 1960s for higher studies and qualified for the Rajasthan Administrative Service in 1975. Fifteen years later, he was promoted to the IAS.

Today, Chandra suppers at Taj. He claims to run five kilometres on the treadmill every morning, and if he can't, prompts his driver to stop way before a destination and walks the remaining distance. In Delhi, one can find him at the Taj Mansingh Hotel in Chanakyapuri. In Jaipur, he is a fixture at Rambagh Palace, where I met him over lunch last week.

“Media has been my passion since the beginning,” said Chandra, dressed in black pants, a white shirt, and a yellow stole. “Even as a bureaucrat, I was often in the company of journalists. News brings more relevance and recognition, and so it makes you way more powerful than the IAS.”

The demonstration of this power occurred shortly after. As we slurped our American chopsuey, a man with a phone showed up with yoga guru Ramdev on the line. Chandra spoke to him on speaker and, once pleasantries were exchanged, asked him for an interview in the coming month, to which Ramdev obliged.

“IAS was totally satisfying. I have no regrets,” said Chandra, who never married or had children. “But news is life. And I’m a newsman.”

In bureaucracy, Chandra’s career ranged from holding the position of sub-divisional magistrate of Jaipur during the Emergency to that of transport commissioner of Rajasthan shortly before he retired.

A friend of Chandra’s who is familiar with his career told me he was a “very focussed bureaucrat who punched above rank and file”. “He had a special daring to achieve what he wanted,” the friend added. “And journalists grew close to him and he grew close to journalists because he was a great source for stories. His stories were useful to a particular set in the power circuit and could be used against a rival group, but they were always accurate on facts.”

It was in the innards of bureaucratic machinery that Chandra perfected a habit that he’s known for to this day – flattery, constant and unabashed. “Even in the 1980s and 1990s, he would send flowers and sweets to everyone who was interesting and influential in Jaipur,” the friend told me. “He was a peacock, unsurpassed in chamchagiri.”

Over the years, Chandra has successfully flattered high-profile politicians. They include former union minister Natwar Singh, Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje of the BJP and even incumbent chief minister Ashok Gehlot of the Congress. In an interaction with journalists in Jaipur’s press club in April, Gehlot made a cheeky note of this habit. “If I go to London, a bouquet of flowers from him will sometimes reach me,” he told the gathering, referring to Chandra. “If I land in Mumbai, I’ll get a bouquet that’ll say ‘Jagdish Chandra’. You should learn something from him. He’s a master of flattery.”

Such smooth buttressing, however, comes with a reputation. “Kaatil sahab would say it with pride that he was a man of the system,” the friend added, “and because of that, he was perceived as a corrupt bureaucrat. But I think he was only pragmatic. He did not care what others thought of him.”

Jagdish Chandra joined the news industry in 2008 after taking voluntary retirement from the IAS.

Chandra runs two news channels. He is CEO and chief editor of Bharat 24 and chief editor and managing director of First India News, a Rajasthan-centric news channel. He told me his editorial philosophy is simple: “news should be fair and independent but with intelligent support to the ruling government”. This is precisely what those once associated with him too told me. The bureaucrat-turned-media-owner believes that a media organisation should work with the government.

“We take the opposition along, but one can’t have a bias against the government,” Chandra explained. “Especially a state government, since they contribute more revenue to news channels than the Centre. Governments are made with the mandate of the people. The media must respect that.”

A look at the YouTube archives of First India News and Bharat 24 offer a clue of how Chandra puts this idea into practice. First India News is loaded with stories on Gehlot, his political party, and Rahul Gandhi. Bharat 24, on the other hand, is almost entirely dedicated to praising and lionising Modi, home minister Amit Shah and the BJP.

Khursheed Rabbani, a journalist who worked with Chandra in editorial and administrative roles between 2008 and 2018, told me “Kaatil sir” does not have a political affiliation. “He used to tell us that governments change, we don’t,” Rabbani recalled, “and that we had to be with the government. He believed that it was the media’s job to take government policies to the people.”

Bharat 24 is not a vehicle of investigative journalism. At our lunch, I asked Chandra a hypothetical question: say a reporter at Bharat 24 finds a clinching story that Amit Shah has misused the powers of his office. Would Chandra run it? His answer was an evasion. “We’ll evaluate it and make a decision on merit,” he told me.

Bharat 24 runs on what its chief editor calls the “patti model”. Patti is a reference to the news tickers on a TV channel. Every day, Bharat 24 staffers have to run at least a thousand unique tickers. For this, Chandra said he has a team of 4,123 correspondents across the country – one in every assembly constituency.

These figures are mindboggling. But Rabbani, who ran the control room at ETV where pattis were collected, claimed that what Chandra calls a “correspondent” is merely an “informer” in a city or town who was paid Rs 2,000 for a given number of pattis per month. Chandra prefers to call them "freelancers".

At ETV, Rabbani himself had a quota of 10 to 15 pattis per day. Other reporters and editorial staff had an “average patti rate” – their daily output of tickers was recorded.

The news in the patti could range from the ordinary to the bizarre: a politician’s movement; the change of seasons; evening showers; even  interests on home loans. “Once, when he travelled abroad, Kaatil sir called the control room and asked us to run a weird patti,” Rabbani recalled, “it was the rate charged by sex workers in the country he was in. It’s still remembered as one of the most controversial news tickers on ETV.”

When I asked the former bureaucrat to jog his memory about such a ticker, he said he did not remember. “But I did run one on fruit prices in Jaipur once shortly after shopping for fruits,” he quipped.

Chandra does not see any humour in the patti model. “Those who take the news ticker lightly are mistaken,” he told me. “Patti is the mother of news. It connects the common viewer to the world. I invented the model because I think TV news is always a live telecast.”

For all the fuss over patti, Chandra claims he only charged Re 1 every year during his eight-year-long stint at ETV. “Media is a loss-making industry,” he reasoned. “And I had told Ramoji Rao that it is a sin to draw a salary from a loss-making enterprise.”

Rao was then the owner of the ETV network, a substantial part of which later merged into Network18.

For all his eccentricity, Chandra’s former associates told me he has standout traits. “He is not anti-government in his editorial philosophy,” said Rabbani, “but he isn’t anti-minority either.”

In their time at ETV, Chandra pushed Rabbani to have his own show that explored problems facing Indian Muslims. The show came to be known as Adhure Khwab, or Unfulfilled Dreams. It ran on primetime slots on not only ETV Urdu but all ETV channels in North India that had Hindi programming.

Later, at Zee Hindustan, Rabbani anchored a show called Humaari Awaaz, or Our Voice, that explored similar themes.

“On both those shows, Muslims were shown in a positive light,” the anchor told me. “Kaatil sir even organised five conferences in Patna, Mumbai, Bangalore, Jaipur that discussed issues faced by minorities. I spoke at some of them. It was a rare sight: a 5-star hotel event that discussed the woes of the Muslim community.”

Likely then, the viewers of Bharat 24 will be spared the communal bile that is served regularly on Hindi news channels like Zee News, News 18 India and News Nation. Chandra claimed as much: “We treat Hindus and Muslims equally. Debates on our channel will be decent and dignified."

Aroob Aziz, who worked with Chandra as ‘Officer on Special Duty’ between 2010 and 2014, told me the former bureaucrat has a “soft corner” for minorities. “The impression I got when I worked with him is that he wanted to keep Muslim viewers happy,” said Aziz, who rounded up her ex-boss as “a good human being”.

Aziz’s praise for Chandra stems from his stern yet soft rapport with staffers. “He was a tough taskmaster who wanted everyone to be on their toes,” she explained. “If he received 300 emails in a day, I was expected to answer all 300 – every email within 20 minutes. The staff was scared of him but he did not shout at them. On the other hand, even if a spot boy invited him to his wedding, he would turn up.”

In early 2017, Chandra left ETV for Zee. According to Rabbani, after the Reliance group took over ETV’s non-Telugu properties in 2014 – which Chandra ran – the former bureaucrat had to answer to Rahul Joshi, the managing director of Network18. The two did not get along and Chandra put in his papers.

At Zee, he took over as CEO of its regional news channels and the daily newspaper DNA. The stint lasted only a year. In 2018, he took over First India News. “The channel was flailing but I’ve successfully turned it profitable,” Chandra boasted. “It is now the most watched news channel in Rajasthan.”

But the profits only turned in this year. According to filings with the union corporate affairs ministry, First India News International Pvt Ltd, the company that runs First India News, recorded an after-tax profit of Rs 1.2 crore in 2020-2021. In 2019-2020, it had recorded an after-tax loss of Rs 1.7 crore. In 2018-19, its after-tax loss stood at Rs 3.6 crore. This is not insignificant for a company whose share capital and reserves add up to only Rs 34 crore.

At First India, according to the company balance sheet, Chandra drew an annual "salary and bonus" of Rs 1.3 crore in 2020-21.

Aroob Aziz worked with Jagdish Chandra between 2010 and 2014.

If there is one politician Jagdish Chandra couldn’t flatter, it was the late BJP leader Arun Jaitley, who famously entertained a coterie of select Delhi journalists.

Chandra joined Zee in January 2017 and began spending more time in Delhi than Jaipur. This is where he sought to make his regional news model a national one.

Former Zee staffers that I spoke with said they were alarmed by Chandra’s interventions in editorial matters.

In DNA editorial meetings, which Chandra attended once in a blue moon, he would ask reporters to track top politicians down to the minute. “Once he suggested we put a camera on the tree outside Modi’s house,” recalled a journalist who was a fixture at the meetings. “He also directed a seasoned reporter to simply track everywhere Amit Shah went minute-by-minute, day in and day out. He wanted 20-25 pattis a day for the news channels from every reporter. It was ridiculous.”

One early run-in Chandra had at Zee was with DNA sports reporter Chander Shekhar Luthra. When Chandra came in, Luthra was avidly reporting on the operations of the Delhi and District Cricket Association, the governing body of cricket in Delhi. He chased stories of alleged corruption at DDCA, where Jaitley and his friend and India TV chairman Rajat Sharma held sway.

Interestingly, Luthra’s investigation into DDCA had the blessing of Zee founder and chairman Subhash Chandra, who relished dirt on Jaitley on the pages of DNA.

In Delhi, with an old telephone receiver connected perpetually to his cellphone, Jagdish Chandra began meeting senior BJP politicians with old-school bouquets. “He was really obsessed with being in the good books of Amit Shah,” recalled a former DNA staffer. “And whichever politician he wanted to impress, he would assign reporters to track them constantly and bombard them with bouquets.”

It was a sojourn to Jaitley’s residence that did not go as planned. Flowers in hand, the famed “Kaatil” was made to wait for over an hour. When he sent in his DNA card, a miffed Jaitley finally made an appearance.

“Jaitley asked him what exactly he was doing there,” said the former staffer. “He said, ‘Your paper is after me, and you come here with a bouquet?’”

In the month that followed, Chandra closely tracked Luthra’s work. According to the former staffer, he even pressed the resident editor to get rid of the sports journalist – a request that was turned down, thanks to Subhash Chandra. Then he went to the reporter directly, Newslaundry learnt, and asked him to meet Jaitley to “mend ways”. Luthra refused and asked him to mind his own business.

Newslaundry contacted Luthra to confirm the veracity of this information. “I don’t want to talk about such people who have nothing to do with journalism,” he responded, referring to Chandra. “I was doing my duty, which is to not do any dalali.

Bharat 24 plays on a large public screen in Jaipur.

Chandra’s stewardship of DNA was wrested back from him just four months after he got it. The daily was reeling from falling circulation and Chandra’s entry did not assuage the balance sheets. But it was his convoluted politics with its editors that ultimately led to his exit from Zee.

At the time, DNA was led by chief editor Dwaipayan Bose, brought in from the Times group, and executive editor Maneesh Chhibber, who had moved from the Indian Express.

The former DNA journalist I spoke with claimed that Chandra had a poor knack for running a serious newspaper. Soon after he launched the Hindi news channel Zee Hindustan in May 2017, the former bureaucrat announced to the DNA editorial board that the new channel’s team would also contribute to the daily.

“Maneesh told him that the staff of a Hindi channel could not write for an English paper,” the journalist recollected, “but Chandra was unfazed. He said what the Zee Hindustan anchors spoke on air, the other staff would simply write it down for DNA.”

This wasn’t the first time Chhibber and Chandra had clashed. Soon after Chhibber joined in 2017, Chandra summoned him to a meeting with a list of editorial staff at DNA’s Delhi bureau who could be laid off. Chhibber, however, showed up empty handed. According to the former DNA journalist who was privy to the conversation, Chandra began naming reporters who he wanted gone. “Maneesh told him no one was going to be fired without his approval,” the journalist added. “Chandra, who had by then handed pink slips to several staffers at the Mumbai bureau, told Maneesh that this was not done. But the latter stood his ground. Fortunately the Delhi team did not see any layoffs.”

Newslaundry asked Chhibber for comment on Chandra’s turbulent year at DNA. “I do not want to talk about my past associations,” he told me.

In June that year, CEO Chandra wrote to Chairman Chandra. In an email dated June 26, 2017, the CEO trashed DNA editors before the chairman.

The chief editor got the worst reviews. Chandra told the chairman that Bose was a “traditional Bengali editor” who is “not a newsman”, but a mere “designing and pagination man” who cannot deliver. At best, he wrote, he should be demoted to an “editorial advisor” in a “temporary parking spot”. Chibber too, he advised, should be done away with. The point of the email came at the end: CEO Chandra wanted to be the chief editor of DNA.

Not only was his request not heeded, chairman Chandra relieved the former bureaucrat of DNA’s charge altogether. “It was good riddance,” the journalist reminisced. “He wanted a photo of Modi or Shah on the frontpage of the newspaper every day. He nearly fired half of the paper’s staff. DNA was in a bad shape but Jagdish made it worse. He is not a journalist. He’s a salesman, a name-dropper and a peddler of gossip.”

In early 2018, Subhash Chandra politely nudged Jagdish Chandra to leave Zee. According to the former DNA journalist, it was his thorny relationship with other staffers, including anchor Sudhir Chaudhary, that triggered the move. The Zee management also felt that the CEO had failed to deliver on his promise of better revenue.

In a statement in April 2018, Zee acknowledged that Jagdish Chandra had been “instrumental in growing our regional channels,” but added that “his values are a mismatch with the seven core values of Zee Media”.

When I probed Chandra about his fallout with Zee, he told me the statement was a result of a “communication gap” with the group’s human resources department. “I have no grudge against anybody,” he said. “I’m still on friendly terms with Mr Subhash Chandra. One should buy peace at all costs. It is never expensive.”

Earlier this month, Bhadas4Media reported that the Reliance group was in talks with Bharat 24 to pick up a 33 per cent stake in the TV channel. Chandra, however, told me the information was “factually incorrect”, with the caveat that “no one knows what unfolds in the future”. For now, his TV news channel is only a Rs 45-crore startup funded by a “like-minded team of investors”.

Thrice a week, Chandra makes an appearance on The JC Show on First India News, where he shares his thoughts on political subjects, serving mostly bland pro-government views. On YouTube, most of his episodes receive anywhere between 2,000 and 30,000 views.

At 72, the former bureaucrat said he has the energy for another five years in the news industry. “When I was at ETV and Zee, I wanted to be seen as the owner. With Bharat 24, that has been accomplished,” Chandra smiled, counting cash to pay for our lunch. (He always pays in cash.) “The goal now is to live life better than the previous day. I do that through the news. Ultimately, love me or hate, you have to listen to me.”

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