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‘Technology + Democracy = Our Future’

‘I have been very upfront about my disclosure of wealth. I run politics that is clean and transparent’

An entrepreneur turned politician, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, is driven by public interest. Passionate about technology and governance, Chandrasekhar in an interview with Suman K. Jha talks about his pet causes and the many hats that he dons.

Edited excerpts:

Q: You have been a telecom pioneer; an entrepreneur; and a Rajya Sabha MP. How has the shift been, and what has been the journey like?

There is a common thread that binds everything that I have done. In telecom, for instance, India will be marking 25 years of telecom reforms in 2018. I signed a licence that was among the first licences that transformed the Indian landscape.

In the last 25 years, I have spent 10 to 12 years in telecom and I spent about 12 years in politics and I think I have brought essentially the same set of drive to both.

Q: You are a businessman and a politician. Is there a conflict of interest somewhere?    
I think just like lawyers, union leaders or journalists, there should be lot more businessmen and women in politics. There is a legitimate concern that those in business while joining politics will bring along certain business objectives and they may compromise with the public service and the public life which a conventional politician is supposed to have. I have been very upfront about my disclosures. I run politics that is clean and transparent.

Q: You are also known for actively taking up social causes, be it ‘One Rank One Pension’, be it the cause of the girl child, or the Adhaar and privacy debate. How do you manage all this?  
I have to be careful to explain to you that there is a thread that connects it, it is not random. I am focused on things that I am very passionate about. I am very passionate about the cause of veterans that’s because, I am sort of a veteran myself. So, it came naturally to me.

The areas that I have focused on are technology and urban governance. Urban governance because I have lived in the city of Bengaluru for about three decades, that has been home to my family and I think I owe it to that city to protect it from the exploiters; and to transform it and to fight for it while technology comes naturally to me because this is what I have done all my life.

Bringing technology into public debate is what I have done from the very first day of my political career.  I was the first one to talk about the 2G scam, I was the first one to talk about the spectrum auction, I was the first one to highlight the need for bringing in technology into governance as it is the best way to transform governance and bring transparency. We are reaching 75 years of our existence as an independent country. Democracy 2.0 should be on the bed of technology, embedded in governance.

The issue of protecting our children came as a consequence of me being a guardian MP of Bengaluru. When a young couple came to me and told me about a horrific incident, I realised that parents, no matter if they are rich or poor, are extremely vulnerable when it comes to crime against children. Therefore, three years ago I got into that. I have been able to attract the attention of civil society, of the government, and of the media to the problem.

Q: You are also an investor; your investment in Republic is much talked about. So how did that happen?  
I have been the subject of more love and affection after Republic (laughs).

Some years ago, I found myself having an investment in a news company. Eventually, that grew into two broadcast platforms — digital and print; both doing reasonably well and very credible in their markets of Karnataka and Kerala. Two years ago I saw various options including acquiring things in Telugu and Tamil and came to the quick realisation that English is the common link language of the South and actively started exploring a greenfield English broadcast / digital venture.

It was never going to be a TV channel. For me it was a media tech investment and as things happen in industry, I met Arnab (Goswami). I had a good relationship with him since the 2G scam days as I was the man in the Parliament and he was the guy on television making things difficult for the accused. He was thinking of a venture and I like backing gutsy entrepreneurs. You may like him or dislike him but you will agree to the fact that he is a very gutsy entrepreneur and I like that. I like people who are unique and very well defined. It was very important for us to see that it was a tech-driven media and then we met about a year ago. We discussed, and we have what we have.

Q: So, are you happy with the evolution of Republic?   
I am much focused on audience expansion and revenues and on that count for a three-month-old channel, Republic has done fabulously well. It exceeded my expectations. I have never seen this kind of explosive expansion of audience and revenues as well. From my point of view, I am quite happy.

Q: There is a perception that Republic is quite close to the Modi dispensation and acts like a mouthpiece of the government. So, does it affect you?
My role as an investor is extremely disciplined especially whenever I invest in media entities. We invest in a brand and we invest in editorial teams and in this case, the editorial chief is Arnab Goswami and he is also a shareholder. There are hardly any occasions for me to define the editorial lines. So, if someone says that Asianet news in Malayalam is a Leftist channel and Republic is someone’s mouthpiece, then the only people who have to answer that is the editor of the channel. The only thing that I insisted on was that the government advertisement in any greenfield channel should be very low and Republic has done very well on this front.

Q: There was this controversy that you have told your editorial colleagues that the editorial line has to necessarily be pro-army, pro-nationalist and so on. Do you think that goes against the basics of journalism? 
I never did it. As with journalism, a lie said often, suddenly becomes the truth, especially, when people are desperately trying to create a narrative. When you want to create a narrative that ‘here is this money bag, who is a politician and has got a conflict of interest and a mouthpiece of the government’. It is a beautiful little narrative that fits somebody’s little imagination somewhere, except for a minor problem that it doesn’t meet the truth.

The reality in news is very simple — you can’t be somebody’s mouthpiece and have a significant market share of the audience.

Going back to the mysterious memo that was written that everyone should be pro-army and pro-governance — let me make it clear that I did not do it.

Q: Are you saying that you never tell your editor what line to take?
You can ask any of my editors. I don’t even engage with the editors on stories. If that was the case, if you go to my Twitter timeline, I get trolled in the morning by BJP folks in Kerala, in the afternoon, Congress guys troll me and in the evening by the Left. So, let’s say that I am equally loved by the political spectrum.

Even though I am a member of the NDA, my Malayalam channel broke a story of a scam by BJP in Kerala.

I think there is a desperate effort to cling on to some narrative that will impinge on the credibility of the new venture. Is it even conceivable that journalists of the stature that we have in Republic are going to take instructions? They do it because they believe in it and this is the one thing that I have discovered in my whole experience of Republic — that there are two classes of journalists — one that believes that all of the intellectual knowledge and wisdom vests with a small group and if you are a slightly far away person from this group ideologically or geographically, automatically, you are not as excellent or as great. This is a belief doomed to fail.

Q: You are a telecom pioneer, how do you look at the telecom industry which is said to be in distress, and is speculating consolidations?  
The consumers of  India want a very dynamic telecom sector that is constantly innovating. For instance, Reliance Jio will certainly not want the government to step in and preserve the duopoly of Airtel and Vodafone. We also don’t want Reliance Jio to disrupt the market so much that there is no competition. Some of the players in the telecom sector are crying wolf, I don’t see a sign of distress. In any case, if there is any distress, you have banking and insolvency laws where the creditors take over and sell it to somebody. So, I think what you are hearing is more of a reluctance to face the disruption but disruptive competition is the new normal.

Q: What should the government do to ensure fair competition and consumer’s benefit?    
I have written a letter to the Prime Minister which is in the public domain is that 2018 represents 25 years of telecom and government should come up with a new telecom policy let’s say NTP 18, which should focus on the consumer. All the policies have so far focused on licensing, number of players, but haven’t focused on issues relating to a consumer which is why for over two years, there was an embarrassing sight of call drops. The regulator was helpless, the government was helpless and you were reduced to Prime Minister and telecom minister using danda for telecom companies. We need a policy that talks about consumers, quality of service, the level of competition, access to innovation and choice. The last time Telecom Policy was done, was NTP 1999.  NTP 2012 wasn’t much of a policy. NTP 1999 never talked about the consumer and we are 19 years on from that policy. It is a good time for us to say that the principal stake holders are the 1.2 billion consumers and now we will start talking about their rights and expectations.

Q: What would be your advice to the mushrooming start-ups?   
There is a disturbing trend where people believe that this is a ‘get rich quick’ scheme. Startups are not about getting rich quickly; startups are about creating something and getting rich is a collateral benefit. I never got into telecom thinking that I will make money; I got into it because it excited me. So, for a 21-year old or so, the hype around making money is distracting. I urge start-ups to focus on your ideas. Build something for the satisfaction of building something. Wealth and fame shouldn’t be the reason for you to do this.

Q: Which are the sectors you think  are likely to grow in the next decade or so?  
I think all sectors are going to face disruption, all parts of the economy will see innovators coming in and changing the rules. I don’t go after sectors; I look at ideas which are heavily tech enabled and I look at people who can make a disruption. I have experienced this in my years as an investor that confidence level among the young generation is tremendous.

Q: What’s your life goal?
We should not waste any opportunity and I see every day as an opportunity. Some people call me a workaholic but it’s just that I don’t like wasting time. I like to talk about my week or my day and not five years down the line. I am having fun like this. I don’t ever look back; I enjoyed telecom for 10 years. I did work of 30 years within those 10 years. I fought, I prevailed, I built, I succeeded, I failed, I almost went bankrupt, brought a company back from bankruptcy. But what drives me today is when someone from Bengaluru comes and says that you are the only one who can give me justice in Bengaluru. I will continue to be a little bit of a disruptive force in politics. I will hopefully continue to build media investments. I am pretty sure we will be in Hindi soon and I think the number of people who have me on the speed dial or Twitter trolling list will continue to expand and so will people who respect my work.