How Reliance saved Eenadu and ‘Chairman’ Rao
By: Praveen Donthi
How Ramoji Rao of Eenadu wrested control of power and politics in Andhra Pradesh
On a cold day in December 1994, Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao, universally known as NTR, woke, of long habit, at 3 am. Once a movie star, the hugely popular NTR had changed the very character of Andhra Pradesh politics over the previous decade. He had founded the Telugu Desam Party in opposition to the Congress, and reaped rich electoral rewards through the 1980s. The TDP was now indelibly part of the state’s political make-up, and NTR himself had been its first ever non-Congress chief minister.
On this day, however, he had been out of power for five years. The state was in the midst of fresh elections, and forecasts from the first phase of polling were less than comforting for the TDP. NTR was 71 years old, and could no longer campaign the way he used to a decade earlier, when practically all of Andhra Pradesh turned out to greet him on its roads. He was in delicate health; he had had to leave out the interior regions of the state entirely during campaigning, and restrict himself to main roads of Andhra.
To swing the balance in his favour, NTR’s wife, Lakshmi Parvathi, had set up an appointment with Cherukuri Ramoji Rao, the owner-editor of Eenadu, the state’s largest-selling Telugu newspaper. Rao was widely credited with having helped NTR and the TDP into power. Eenadu sold 5 lakh copies a day, and dominated public opinion in Andhra Pradesh. Rao was the most powerful ally a politician in the region could have. He had also fallen out with NTR a few years ago, however, and the meeting now was “like bringing two egotistic bulls together,” Parvathi remembered. But NTR, who had become a legend by playing gods and mythical heroes on-screen, needed a newspaper on his side again. And so, that morning, he and Parvathi left home in their Ambassador, telling no one and taking no security with them, for the posh Chikoti Gardens neighbourhood of Hyderabad, where Ramoji Rao lived. It was 5.30 in the morning.
When they arrived, the main gate swung open, but there was nobody to open an interior gate. What followed were the longest ten minutes of Parvathi’s life, as her husband and she stood waiting to be let in. “His face had turned red with anger,” Parvathi said. “I regretted setting up the meeting. I kept thinking, how could he do this?”
Rao came and opened the gate at last. “I was walking on the terrace, so I got delayed,” he said, with no trace of apology in his voice. Parvathi, recalling the conversation twenty years later, said, “He wanted to humiliate NTR.” The two men spoke for twenty minutes, while Parvathi sat with Rao’s wife, Rama Devi.
When they walked out, Parvathi began to plead with Rao for his support, but he only said, dryly, “According to our survey, the majority will be five or six seats. Even if you come,”—to power—“it will be tough to sustain.” NTR, the most popular political leader to have emerged from modern Andhra Pradesh until then, nodded silently, and left.
Ramoji Rao is often called one of the country’s biggest media barons, and stories like these explain why he is considered, and perhaps thinks of himself as, the most powerful man in Andhra Pradesh. In the 1980s, with no prior political experience whatsoever, NTR had become the state’s chief minister within nine months of founding his party. Rao saw his role in that feat as so key that he sent NTR a bill for Rs 30 lakh for his services at the end of that campaign.
In the years that followed, Rao shadowed every chief minister Andhra Pradesh had, either as indispensable ally or bête noire. For four decades, he has played the state’s own Citizen Kane: the head of a newspaper empire that has dictated politics and government, often shaped collective opinion, and grown and shrunk dramatically over these years. Eenadu began with a print run of four thousand copies in 1974. Today, it is published from 23 centres, including Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Chennai, and sells over 1.8 million copies a day. It changed the very nature of newspaper readership in the Andhra region; at one point, it controlled 78 percent of the Telugu newspaper market. Competitors have come and gone; some, such as Jagan Mohan Reddy’s Sakshi, have succeeded in putting a dent in Eenadu’s popularity. But every Telugu newspaper has either made itself in Eenadu’s image, or gone bust. Throughout this picture, Rao’s ambition—often seen as grasping and opportunistic—runs like a distorting ripple. “But for Ramoji Rao,” said the political scientist G Haragopal, “the politics of Andhra would’ve been different.”
The empire which began with Eenadu’s publication launched its newest television channel on April 9 this year—ETV3, dedicated exclusively to serving the new state of Telangana. The ETV network, flagged off by Rao in 1995, began with one news channel, and grew to include fifteen, broadcasting in a variety of Indian languages. Most of the ETV channels are now owned by the Reliance Industries-controlled media conglomerate, Network 18, but Rao’s company, the Ramoji Group, still owns and operates its Telugu-language channels: ETV3 was launched by his grandson, Sujay, who turned up to conduct the inauguration in his school uniform. Rao was the first media owner in the region to make such a move, in spite of the fact that he always opposed the creation of Telangana, created by the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh this June. (TV9, the market leader among Telugu news channels, and ABN Andhra Jyothi, both offended the chief minister of Telangana, K Chandrasekhar Rao, and were blacked out in the state for some months after the state’s formation).
“Chairman anticipates everything,” Pavan K Manvi, dean of the Ramoji Academy of Film and Television, who has been with the ETV network since its inception, said. “When he was convinced that Telangana will be created, he got the idea to start a separate channel. We had the license three months before the bifurcation.” Manvi ran ETV’s regional-language channels until the Network 18 buyout, at which point the group started the Ramoji Academy and made him its dean. I asked him whose idea it had been to start and run so many channels. “All the credit goes to the chairman,” Manvi said. “He is a visionary.”
But Rao is also a pragmatist, and this, rather than his vision, explains both the growth of his business, and his success in navigating some of the country’s most dramatic political upheavals. Rao’s fortune was made in the business of chit funds, which fuelled many of his other businesses, including Eenadu and the ETV channels. Today, his first company, Margadarsi Chit Funds, is the largest operation of its kind in the country, with an annual turnover of Rs 7,600 crore.
He lives in his own personal Xanadu—a huge, glittering film studio complex outside Hyderabad called Ramoji Film City. Rao has a four-storied house here atop a hillock, which looks out on a helipad installed for visiting dignitaries. It is a flashy monument to his wealth, as well as to his self-fashioned status as a crusader for Telugu pride and honour. For the better part of his public life, this reputation was taken at face value.
The ghosts of Rao’s past only really came back to haunt him in the last decade, when his great adversary, the Congress’ YS Rajasekhara Reddy, known as YSR, came to power in Andhra Pradesh and began to compete with Rao on his own turf—the intersection of media and politics. Eenadu remains the state’s most popular paper, but YSR’s pursuit of Rao on his own turf—using Sakshi to discredit and expose Rao’s business practices—mauled him badly. Reddy’s death in 2009 has not ended Rao’s fierce rejection of the Congress party and its allies, nor his pragmatic courtship of politicians such as K Chandrasekhar Rao (known popularly as KCR). His alliance with Nara Chandrababu Naidu, the current chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, is one of long standing; when Naidu overthrew his own father-in-law, NTR, to take the chief minister’s seat in 1995, Rao launched his first television channel, ETV, right in the middle of the intra-party coup, and used it to broadcast hourly bulletins in Naidu’s favour.
“I did support NTR because I hated the hukumats from Delhi and believed in the concept of a United States of India where each state is autonomous,” Rao told Outlook magazine in 1997. “Unfortunately,” he added matter-of-factly, “NTR made a mess of it.” The “hukumats”—regimes—that Rao hates generally tend to be Congress governments. The senior journalist Kuldip Nayar wrote in his autobiography that when it appeared the Congress had won the 2004 general elections, Rao, “a self-made man and a friend for the last five decades, rang me up and asked me to do something to prevent the humiliation of India being ruled by an Italian.”
I spoke to over sixty people over a period of two months for this story, but was unable to get an interview with Rao in spite of repeated attempts to speak with him. Many of the Ramoji Group’s various businesses are headed by Rao’s close family members—but neither his son Kiron, the managing director of Eenadu, nor his wife Sailaja Kiron, the managing director of Margadarsi, responded to requests for interviews. Several employees of the Ramoji Group similarly refrained from responding to requests or questions. The political temperature in Hyderabad had dropped since the frenzy of manouvering that surrounded Andhra Pradesh’s bifurcation, and a sense of wariness prevailed among most people I spoke to. Rao’s associates, it seemed, were not exempt from the general chilling effect.
The sense of disquiet was widespread. When I visited Ramoji Film City this summer, there was a bustle of activity around a new white building next to the Ramoji Group’s huge corporate office. The structure, I was told, was once a warehouse where film costumes were stocked; they had had to build in ventilation quickly, to make the place habitable. Eenadu’s employees, who had so far worked out of Somajiguda, a neighbourhood in the heart of Hyderabad, would be arriving in a few days.
I spoke to Katta Shekar Reddy, the editor of Namasthe Telangana, which is the mouthpiece of KCR’s Telangana Rashtra Samithi, about Rao’s softening towards KCR, who now governs Hyderabad and its outlying areas, including the location of Film City. Rao has made efforts to placate both Naidu and KCR in the wake of a fierce political battle over the bifurcation. “One, he doesn’t want an open war with KCR,” Reddy said. “He’s already in a war with Jagan”—Jagan Mohan Reddy, the owner of Eenadu’s rival Sakshi, is the son of YSR, and head of the YSR Congress party. “Two, there are other fears from KCR. To escape 30 percent HRA, he shifted his Eenadu office to the Film City.” Several of my interviewees also claimed this: that Rao, in order to cut salary costs, had shifted the Eenadu offices into the Film City, in a rural area with a lower stipulation for housing rent allowances, among other things. “Tomorrow if KCR includes that under Greater Hyderabad area, he will be in a soup,” Reddy claimed. “The film city is everything for him now, and it is in Hyderabad. He can’t afford to upset KCR.”
K Anjaiah, a recently retired employee of the group’s packaging department, told me a story about Priya, the popular brand of pickles produced by the Ramoji Group, which seemed to encapsulate both the modus operandi of the Ramoji businesses, as well as the obsolescence of which his critics now accuse him. “A few years ago, ten tonnes of expired Priya pickles with new labels were sent in vans along with the Eenadu Sunday magazine,” Anjaiah told me. “The agents sold them. Because I was in packaging, I know that.”
“For the first time in his life, he is going against his nature, against his aggressive thought,” Katta Shekar Reddy said. “Now he has realised that he can’t dictate governments. They can only be friends who can get your job done.”
The Story of Eenadu begins in Visakhapatnam, the coastal city and naval base also known as Vizag, to which Rao made weekly business trips through the early years of his career. Speaking to the historian Robin Jeffrey in 1993, Rao recounted his newspaper’s beginnings, in a tale suffused with the flavour of a hero’s journey in a Telugu film. Decades earlier, on one of his flights into the city, he said, he found himself sitting next to KLN Prasad, the owner of the newspaper Andhra Jyothi. Like many newspapers of the time, Andhra Jyothi had no Visakhapatnam edition: instead, the city relied on early editions printed in Vijayawada, the state’s publishing and commercial hub, three hundred kilometres away. The “dak” edition only arrived late in the afternoon, and was read when people returned home from work. Rao, dissatisfied with this state of affairs, suggested to Prasad that he start an edition of Andhra Jyothi in Visakhapatnam, but was laughed off. Stung by the insult, he took up starting his own paper as a challenge.
Rao’s birth and early youth did not herald a future as a tycoon. He was born in 1936, in the Krishna district of coastal Andhra, into the Kamma community. Reports often describe Rao as the child of a prosperous family, but the truth is more complicated. In the biography Ramoji Chivaraku Migiledi (Ramoji: All That Remains), Rao’s estranged nephew Cherukuri Chandramouli describes his beginnings as humble; his family was poor enough that this raised concerns when arranging a match for him. Rao lived in Delhi briefly in the mid 1950s, working as an artist with an advertising firm and doing odd jobs during his time off. Gurramkonda Srikanth, a senior journalist who knew Rao in these days, visited him in Delhi, and could see that the young man was far from wealthy. “I saw him in a torn vest sleeping on a mat,” Srikanth remembered. “There was not even a table fan in the room.”
Things began to change in 1961, when Rao married Tatineni Rama Devi. His in-laws insisted that the couple live in Hyderabad, so he moved back from Delhi. The wedding money the couple received was used to float the company which would come to fund the Ramoji empire—Margadarsi Chit Funds. Begun in 1962 by Rao with two other partners, the company allowed investors to deposit small amounts of money in savings accounts with Margadarsi, which also qualified them to enter a prize lottery. Years later, Ramoji recounted an anecdote about this period to the journalist V Hanumantha Rao, who repeated it to me. “One Sardarji of a chit fund company came to the house he was staying in Delhi to collect money. Ramoji Rao asked him all about the business, and at the end said, ‘It is not chit fund, but cheat fund.’ Hanumantha Rao smiled. “But he came to Hyderabad and started the same business.”
The scheme was an instant success, and allowed Ramoji to start a series of successful businesses in the next few years. With the experience he had gathered in Delhi, he started an advertising firm called Kiran Ads in 1965. He followed this up with the Vasundhara Fertilisers company, which, in turn, led him to start his first publication—Annadata, a magazine for farmers. His next venture, in 1970, was an outdoor advertising agency he called Images.
“They all seem like big ideas now because of his success,” M Appa Rao, Ramoji’s wife’s brother-in-law, who headed Margadarsi’s Vijayawada branch when it opened in 1967, said. “But he would take up only those businesses that needed very little investment.” The only two really big firms in Hyderabad, Coromandel Fertilisers and the tyre brand Dunlop, signed on with Images because, Appa Rao said, he diligently worked towards securing contracts with them. “He would stand on the road and get their hoardings erected,” Appa Rao told me.
Rao tasted success with these ventures, but it was Eenadu which really set him on the path to power. Once the idea of Eenadu took root, he threw himself into making a newspaper that would serve Andhra’s northern coastal region. V Hanumantha Rao, then a reporter in Visakhapatnam with the United News of India agency, was part of its launch team. “He asked me for some statistics, like the number of central government employees in Vizag, which I gave him right away,” Hanumantha Rao said. When Rao went looking for an editor, Hanumantha Rao suggested that he poach ABK Prasad from Andhra Jyothi.
From Kerala, Rao bought for Rs 96,000 a second-hand printing machine that required composing of type by hand. He also leased, quite cheaply and for 33 years, an abandoned cinema studio on the outskirts of Visakhapatnam. “We had Margadarsi for money,” Appa Rao said. When I spoke to ABK Prasad, he said Rao also got hold of some of the Times of India’s business reports, but could not figure out how to apply their lessons to his own business. “But,” Prasad added, “he is a good manager and marketing man.” (Prasad had been offered the top post at the paper, he recounted, but an hour before the first edition went to print, Rao designated himself chief editor, becoming the first of the state’s owner-editors.)
On 10 August 1974, Eenadu, which means “today,” was launched, with an accompanying marketing blitzkrieg. Rao was determined to beat the competition by making it the first paper to reach readers before the break of dawn, using his own distribution system. Andhra Pradesh’s villages accounted for a fraction of newspaper sales in those days, so Rao pointedly targeted rural readers, sending hundreds of promotional posters to villages and starting a popular column called Rythe Raaju (The Farmer is King). The sanskritised Telugu of the older, statelier papers was discarded for a more colloquial style. The paper’s staff was largely made up of greenhorns, and ABK Prasad said that this was the thing that accounted for the paper’s “freshness.” That first front page mixed news of US president Richard Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate scandal (“Finally, Nixon exits”) with that of labour trouble in a small town, the closure of neighbourhood kirana shops in the East Godavari district, and the possible flooding of the Godavari river.
Significantly, the same front page carried three ads for small Visakhapatnam businesses—something that had never happened in a Telugu newspaper before. “Local advertising didn’t exist those days,” I Venkat, a director on the board of the Ramoji Group, who started out as a Kiran Ads employee and later served as Eenadu’s advertising manager, told me. “We went from shop to shop selling advertising and ended up creating a whole new generation of advertisers.” Many of Eenadu’s innovations over the years were driven by the understanding that advertising is the engine of a newspaper’s growth. The owners of the Times of India, the Jains, may have been the most prominent media industrialists to articulate the notion that the advertiser is the primary customer in the news business, but they had a precursor in Rao, who made both news and advertising hyper-local.
When launching the paper, Rao displayed an early talent for skilful political negotiation. He clearly had an understanding with the state’s Congress chief minister, Jalagam Vengal Rao, who was widely alleged to have interests in Margadarsi. Appa Rao told me that the chief minister had helped the paper acquire licenses to import newsprint.
In June 1975, Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency, an event that came as a blessing for Eenadu. The popular appetite for news increased, and the paper’s circulation touched 12,000; Rao successfully launched a Hyderabad edition in December of that year. (As he had done at the paper’s launch in Visakhapatnam, Rao recruited delivery boys three months in advance, and distributed free copies of the new product to select households in the city.) To help matters along, other newspapers in the state were struggling—especially the market leader, Andhra Prabha, which was published by the Express Group, owners of the Indian Express. “I don’t remember a time when we faced censorship,” Hanumantha Rao told me of this period, “maybe because of Chief Minister Vengal Rao’s blessings.”
According to Eenadu’s silver-jubilee souvenir booklet, which came out in 1999, by the time the paper made its debut on the rolls of the Audit Bureau of Circulation, in 1976, its daily circulation had risen to 48,339. In less than two years, it had become the second most read newspaper in the state. By 1978, it had launched an edition in Vijayawada, the seat of publishers who had once laughed at the idea of starting a newspaper in Visakhapatnam. In four years, Eenadu had become Andhra Pradesh’s undisputed number one.
“We backed the opposition parties for a long time but they were in no position to match her,” Rao told India Today in an interview in February 1983. He meant Indira Gandhi. “Two years ago, I seriously thought of launching a regional party myself and toyed with the idea for three months. I wasn’t sure it would work. So I gave it up.” Rao had attempted to convince Vengal Rao to start a new party, but it was in vain. “Ramoji Rao and I went to meet Vengal Rao. We said you start a party. He said, ‘I am unhappy but I can’t imagine leaving Congress,’” Nayar told me.
Rao spoke to India Today after the historic victory of the Telugu Desam Party, which had swept Andhra Pradesh away from the Congress, rulers of the state since its inception in 1953. Rao’s doughty opposition to the Congress, seemingly on principle, had been kept under wraps before this campaign, during which NTR made his sensational entry into Andhra politics. In later accounts, the story of the TDP often lists Rao among its creators, but this is only because of a masterful act of appropriation he executed after the party was formed.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to assume that Rao’s anti-Congress turn simply suited his business interests at the time. Between 1981, when Rao had no declared political affiliation, and 1983, by which time he was a staunch TDP supporter, the paper’s circulation rose from 1,98,000 to 3,37,000— “an increase of 70 percent in two years,” as Robin Jeffrey pointed out in the Economic and Political Weekly. “Eenadu didn’t respond much when the party”—the TDP—“was launched,” Appa Rao told me. “But he”—Rao—“is good at sensing the public mood. He could sense the wave.”
When NTR joined forces with a breakaway Congress leader, Nadendla Bhaskara Rao, to form the new party, Rao sent SN Sastry, a senior Eenadu journalist, to meet Nadendla and seek a telephone appointment with NTR. He was keen to set the terms of a relationship. When I met him, Nadendla recounted the conversation. “He told me that ‘Cinema people don’t fit into politics. NTR is in the habit of taking away even the shoes and towels from the producer. He is the kind who steals spoons from the dining table,’” Nadendla said. “I listened to him, and then I handed over the phone to Rama Rao, telling him the continued support of the press is important.”
According to Nadendla, Rao became close to NTR by plying him with “good food and good information”—the latter of which was collected from Eenadu’s statewide network of reporters. Then with a circulation of 3.5 lakh and a readership of 35 lakh people, and a network of 250 correspondents, Eenadu threw its weight behind NTR for the election, scheduled for January 1983. Its offices and teleprinters became the communication system for the TDP, and supporting NTR and his party became company policy. A journalist told Robin Jeffrey that the staff went along with the plan “for our salaries.”
As NTR embarked on a marathon campaign (in a modified 1938 Chevrolet van christened Chaitanya Ratham, or “Chariot of Valour”), a photographer and reporter from the paper travelled with him. Huge photographs of NTR, doing things such as shaving and bathing on the roadside, were splashed across the Eenadu front page, and came to be etched in the state’s collective memory. Several people, including Appa Rao, recalled that Rao was in the thick of things in the TDP fold, helping the party draft its manifesto even as Kiran Ads designed its hoardings, posters, badges, pamphlets and other publicity material. Sekhar Yelamanchi, formerly Eenadu’s chief reporter, was deployed to help write NTR’s speeches.
“We had a clear message—that the TDP and Eenadu were like brothers-in-law,” Boda Janardhan, who, at the age of 27, became a TDP MLA for the first time in those elections, told me. Four days before the vote, Eenadu published the results of an opinion poll it had held. It predicted between 175 and 225 seats for the TDP, and between fifty and eighty seats for the Congress. On 5 January 1983, polling day, Rao effectively turned Eenadu into a TDP mouthpiece by signing off on an impassioned front-page editorial that called on readers to “Create history in Telugu desam”—or nation.
The TDP bagged 202 of the 293 seats it contested. The India Today reporter Amarnath Menon wrote that “streams of visitors” thronged the Eenadu offices to congratulate Rao as soon as it became clear that the TDP was headed for victory. “And in the newspaper itself,” Menon wrote, “there is no doubt that the changing of the guards in the state has been something of a personal success.” On 7 January, the day Eenadu published the results, it ran the banner headline, “Telugu Desam A Super Hit!!” The defeat was a blow to the prestige of the Congress. In an article, Kuldip Nayar recalled: “Reacting to the defeat Mrs Gandhi said: Who says NTR has won. It is Ramoji Rao who has won.”
Behind the Rhetoric of Telugu Pride, carefully crafted by Rao’s publicity juggernaut for NTR, and often presented as part of a spontaneous regional movement, the TDP was simply a symbol of the political ascendancy of a Kamma elite long sidelined by the Congress, whose Andhra Pradesh strategy heavily favoured the promotion of the Reddy and Brahmin communities. Historically, the Kammas are an agricultural, middle-caste community, concentrated in the Guntur and Krishna districts, whose members became entrepreneurial during the Green Revolution.
“After the violent Telangana agitation of 1969,”—in which 370 people died—“capital was diverted to Madras,” the political scientist Haragopal explained. It was difficult to channel agricultural profits into manufacturing in Madras when this happened, thanks to political differences between the Tamil- and Telugu-speaking regions. As a result, “the surplus created in agriculture” by the Kammas, said Haragopal, “went into the film industry and then the media.” The intellectual and human rights activist K Balagopal once wrote that Eenadu “truly represents the social urge, interests and politics of this caste.”
NTR was Andhra Pradesh’s first Kamma chief minister, and his rule came to be called the “Kamma raj.” But his populism also made him unreliable for his community, and most papers in the state grew critical of him. Still, Eenadu maintained its support. “I haven’t taken a negative stand on NTR,” Rao told India Today in another interview, some years later. “You have to give some time for milk to turn into curd.”
The newspaper faced its own growing pains during this time, failing to make profits in spite of its stellar growth and rising influence. “Eenadu had grown so much that ad tariff became prohibitive because of the newsprint cost,” Raghu Cidambi, one of Rao’s former financial advisers, told me. “We were in a precarious situation as the circulation went higher every year. In 1983–84, we increased the tariff, but the circulation increased more than our expectations. Our economics took a hit.”
In the meantime, Rao, always enamoured of the movies, decided to start a film production company. Usha Kiron Movies was launched in 1983. I was told that Rao often called his scriptwriters in to write stories based on snippets of news that had caught his interest. Rao also started Ushodaya Shipping, a ship-breaking unit, in 1984 in Visakhapatnam, on the advice of Appa Rao. Both these ventures brought in some much needed liquidity.
Eenadu only really began to play opposition to NTR in 1989, when the TDP lost that year’s state elections. Post-election analysis blamed the former movie star’s style of governance for the defeat—he was called whimsical, autocratic and megalomaniacal. When the Congress returned to power in Andhra Pradesh, Rao dexterously retained a measure of his political influence, even as he attempted to destabilise the state’s numerous political powers so as to consolidate his own.
In a bid to grow Eenadu, Rao resorted to all kinds of aggressive marketing tactics, including the most popular of his innovations—the district dailies, or “minis.” These tabloid-sized local editions carried news specific to a single district, and were distributed along with the main broadsheet. “With them, we could just offer a local ad instead of printing it everywhere with high tariff,” Cidambi told me. “We were able to segregate advertisers geographically. It took more newsprint, but it opened up a new class of advertisers.” Through his papers, Rao created a market in matrimonial and real estate advertisements where none had existed. By the early 1990s, according to the historian Robin Jeffrey, Eenadu was publishing “more than 400 different newspaper pages each day” and “3000 advertising agents were at work at any time.”
Around this period, Rao became taken once again with the idea of floating his own political party—and the desire took flight precisely because of one of Eenadu’s spectacular successes in local journalism. An anti-arrack agitation, started by a group of women in Nellore district in October 1991, swept through Andhra Pradesh in these years. Just as the movement began to decline, Rao began to play it up in his paper, and in so doing fuelled a statewide movement. He personally oversaw the coverage, and wrote 21 signed front-page editorials on the issue over two years. He also devoted to it a special desk, with a dedicated sub-editor, chief sub-editor and reporter, and started a special page called “Saara pai samaram” (War on arrack).
Eenadu’s coverage engulfed Andhra Pradesh, with its reporters pressured to produce stories even on days when nothing of significance occurred. It helped that the campaign significantly undermined the paper’s closest competitor, Udayam. That paper had been started in 1985, with the unsurprising motive of countering Rao’s power, and had been taken over in 1988 by the Congress MP and liquor baron Magunta Subbarami Reddy.
By January 1993, Eenadu was calling for a united political forum on the issue, under the leadership of Chairman Rao. The paper exhorted the leader of the opposition to take up the cause of prohibition, and NTR duly obliged, including it on the TDP manifesto for the 1994 polls. When the TDP won those elections, NTR signed a prohibition ordinance right at his swearing-in ceremony. Magunta Subbarami Reddy was among the hardest hit businessmen. His liquor production and bottling projects closed down, and Udayam followed suit in May 1995.
The TDP’s decisive victory in this election could not have been wholly satisfying to Rao, who had tried to fob NTR off during their dawn meeting at his residence, even as polling was under way. But NTR’s charisma was inescapable; at the height of the anti-arrack movement, he had taken the stage at an all-party meeting to discuss the issue and succeeded in completely sidelining Rao.
Still, Rao’s influence in the party stretched far beyond his relationship with NTR, and this proved helpful in forging his next strategic attempt to harness the party’s, and thereby the state government’s power. Eenadu journalists were put to work collecting information for and in favour of the TDP, and Rao was clearly a good friend to have. Many party workers dropped in at the Eenadu library to look up information, and also back issues of the paper. It is likely that Rao knew more or less all the important players in the party, but he singled some of its younger men out for prominence. The most important of these turned out to be Chandrababu Naidu.
Naidu had married NTR’s daughter in 1980, but worked for the Congress right until the TDP’s first electoral victory, which coincided with the loss of his seat, from the Chandragiri constituency, and led to his defection. Lakshmi Parvathi told me that NTR allowed Naidu to join the party only due to great pressure from his daughter. The nepotism upset other party leaders, and it took Naidu a long time to win back the party’s respect. But by 1989, he had succeeded in earning his seat at the table. At about this time, India Today quoted a businessman saying that Naidu could get more things done “than the rest of the cabinet put together.”
This competence would come to be richly rewarded, both by the party and by its chief ally. In Naidu, Rao found an opportunist and a career politician, and a worthy opponent to NTR, who treated him with respect and could do what NTR himself had proved unable to do: command the respect of the Kamma community. Naidu eventually helped Rao overcome this hurdle; in the years to come, he would receive the popular moniker of “Rajaguru”—leader and teacher, both of Naidu and of the Kammas as a whole. Parvathi told me that Naidu would never have had the guts to pull off his coup against NTR without Rao’s help.
NTR was 74 years old, and fighting an assortment of diseases, when he decided to attempt a comeback in the 1994 assembly elections. The TDP, by this time, had settled into an uneasy but convenient rhythm, with Naidu and NTR’s other son-in-law, Daggubati Venkateswara Rao, playing the party’s organisers, and NTR the charismatic figurehead.
But Parvathi, thirty years younger than her husband, was emerging as a new locus of power within the organisation. She interceded with NTR on behalf of party workers, organised his schedule, and began to take on more and more party work. Her husband’s 5.30 am meeting with Rao was one such exercise.
Once NTR regained power, Eenadu started a relentless campaign, a “cartoon war” against Parvathi. In her biography of NTR, Telugu Tejam, Parvathi describes several offensive cartoons in the paper, generally depicting her as an ambitious schemer and NTR as a hapless husband emasculated by her. One showed NTR cooking in the kitchen in a sari; in another, he was a small child, tugging at Parvathi’s sari and telling party men that she holds all the power. The paper “made copious use of the patriarchal distrust of an ambitious woman who gets married to a wealthy and powerful old man” wrote the activist Balagopal. “Nothing more was needed for a determined campaigner to damn her.” The attacks were clearly geared towards discrediting NTR. It was here that Naidu came into the picture.
The most humiliating moment in NTR’s political career came towards its very end, when Naidu usurped his position as party leader and chief minister. Rao played a key role in the enactment of this coup. In August 1995, Naidu accompanied NTR on a tour of the north coastal districts, but left early for Visakhapatnam. Here, Appa Rao told me, he conspired with Rao and set a plan in motion before NTR himself reached the city. “I was the witness for that conspiracy,” Appa Rao claimed. “Chandrababu was in Dolphin Hotel”—one of Rao’s properties—“and Ramoji was in the Eenadu guest house. They plotted against NTR, who was in the circuit house.”
The editor ABK Prasad told me that he had accessed call records from the time, which showed that Naidu made more than a thousand calls from Visakhapatnam, asking TDP MLAs to come to the Hotel Viceroy in Hyderabad. Accounts of how many of them initially heeded the call— which would have amounted to declaring support for Naidu against NTR—vary greatly. Boda Janardhan, the former TDP MLA, told me that he was among the first twenty legislators to arrive. “Eenadu played an important role” in shoring up backing for Naidu, he said. The paper “kept increasing the number, and after a couple of days they published that there were more than 150 MLAs inside. Many fence sitters panicked, and those who didn’t want to be left behind came to join us.”
On 25 August, the Eenadu front page announced a split within the TDP, with pictures of Naidu posing with NTR’s smiling sons running down the left column. Naidu became chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, overturning NTR’s prohibition order soon after, with almost no resistance from Eenadu. On 27 August, Rao delivered what, according to Parvathi, was the final blow. He launched his ETV Telugu channel, which immediately started to broadcast hourly news bulletins about the number of MLAs switching sides from NTR to Naidu. NTR’s family members, without exception, aligned themselves against the patriarch and his wife. The copy accompanying the bulletins made the rupture seem like nothing more than a family feud over private property—except, of course, the property in this case was Andhra Pradesh.
Over these early years, ETV Telugu, like Chandrababu Naidu, flourished. Private channels were prohibited from uplinking to satellites from India at this time, so the channel uplinked via Sri Lanka, then caught in the midst of a fierce civil war. “Every day, we used to record the 8 pm news bulletin, Andhravaani, by afternoon, and send a person by flight to Chennai by 3 pm,” Manvi recalled. “From there, he would fly to Colombo and take a vehicle to the earth station 60 km away, and do the telecast.” The channel played film songs the rest of the time. Like Eenadu before it, it played a defining role in the market it then proceeded to glut.
Rao threw himself deeper into the television business, micro-managing the channel much as he had Eenadu. “From the colour of tickers to the sarees of news anchors, he would select everything,” Nageswar Rao, a board member of Eenadu, told me. By 2002, Rao had launched six more channels catering to various Indian states; by 2008, there were twelve channels under the ETV umbrella, making it the largest regional-language network in the country.
In Ramoji Film City, an assistant showed me the basement from where some of the channels are telecast. It was laid out in a series of cramped rooms, each one much smaller than Manvi’s office, and all a world away from the sparkling, high-value aura of the channels’ telecasts. As I opened and shut the door to each room, a different language floated out, as though we were in the tower of Babel.
Naidu, who was re-elected in state elections in 1999, went on to become Andhra Pradesh’s longest-serving chief minister. A senior editor who worked with Eenadu for decades told me that he finds Rao’s continuing and unstinting support for Naidu nothing short of “disgusting.” In the run-up to this year’s state election, Eenadu published a front-page report about Naidu’s main opponent, for instance, Jagan Mohan Reddy of the YSR Congress, with a banner headline reading “Jagan Will Be Jailed In A Year”; in an accompanying photograph, Naidu addressed a sea of people holding yellow TDP flags. The suggestion was fairly explicit.
“One thing that keeps them together is self-interest,” a political observer who once worked closely with the TDP told me. “‘If your position is threatened I will come to your rescue.’ Because when one is threatened, the other feels threatened too, since they belong to the same caste.”
But Rao’s support of Naidu cannot be separated from his relationship with Naidu’s rivals, the most successful of whom was Jagan Reddy’s father. Through the 1980s and 1990s, challengers to Rao’s power were few and far between, and generally left the arena defeated. It was only in 2004, when the TDP unexpectedly lost state elections, that Rao finally met his match, and embarked on a choppy course that has never quite corrected itself. Until YS Rajasekhara Reddy came along, Rao’s public image was as spotless as his trademark white clothes. Once the secrets started tumbling out, though, they never stopped.
On 1 October 2003, a radical leftist outfit known as People’s War triggered nine claymore mines to try and assassinate Naidu near the temple town of Tirupati. Naidu was in the fourth year of his second term. He was seen as more or less invincible by the national media, and widely credited with transforming his state’s reputation from that of a fractious rural backwater into one of a millennial hub for information technology and next-generation business. But no such reports made it to the Andhra Pradesh countryside, then in the grip of a brutal drought and largely neglected by the TDP government’s socioeconomic policies. There was so little sense of the widespread disaffection among Andhra voters that when the story of the explosion first broke, the accompanying picture of Naidu in a daze, his shirt soaked in blood, was taken optimistically to symbolise a miraculous escape.
The real disaster was an electoral one. Following the attack, Naidu dissolved the assembly ten months early and called for elections, in the hope of a wave of sympathy votes in his favour. The TDP’s campaign liberally used the photograph of the injured Naidu to appeal to voters, much like NTR had once used the power of his own image to win hearts and minds. But the party had miscalculated this time. The ambitious roadtrips, and the harnessing of popular anger against the government in power, were successfully being used instead by the rival camp, conducted by YSR, the formidable leader of the Andhra Pradesh Congress.
YSR’s padayatra—foot journey—across 11 districts in sixty days, in scorching heat, was a spectacle so dramatic that even Eenadu had to give it coverage. When the Congress swept the elections, in April 2004, YSR became chief minister. Until then, he had been a perennial dissident within the Congress, but upon assuming power he became quick to crush any internal opposition. It quickly became clear that YSR was not going to serve out a full five-year term, unlike most other Congress chief ministers in the past.
Soon, Eenadu found itself the government’s chief critic in the public arena. One of the first projects YSR cleared as chief minister was a 159-kilometre outer ring road for Hyderabad. In response, Eenadu published an exclusive report titled “Peddala Gaddala”—Elders or Eagles—alleging that the government had forced the Hyderabad Urban Development Authority to change the road’s planned course to benefit YSR’s friends, family and party loyalists, who it alleged had bought land along that course in anticipation of a rise in its value. The paper published a list of beneficiaries, and much of its information seemed well-sourced and accurate. But the popular blog apmedia, run by a group of anonymous journalists, pointed out a significant omission. “What the paper did not report is the names of Kammas who also bought land,” a post said. “What the paper most shamelessly hid from the public is the loss to its owner Ramoji, who desperately lobbied and moved courts to avoid losing land.”
In response to the storm of criticism, YSR counter-attacked. In press conferences, he did his best to discredit Eenadu, as well as Andhra Jyothi—both owned by Kammas and opposed to his government. He also dealt a powerful blow directed at the financial foundations of Rao’s empire.
In September 2006, YSR’s trusted lieutenant, the member of parliament Vundavalli Arun Kumar, wrote a letter of complaint to the finance minister, P Chidambaram, alleging wrongdoing by Margadarsi Financiers, a company that came under the Ramoji Group umbrella. Margardarsi Financiers owned a 95-percent stake in Ushodaya Enterprises, which in turn owned Eenadu and ETV. The company had accepted deposits from 250,000 small investors, amounting to at least Rs 2,200 crore. Margadarsi Financiers’s ownership structure brought it under Hindu Undivided Family stipulations, and by RBI law, these companies were prohibited from such deposits.
Once Finance Minister P Chidambaram asked the RBI to investigate the matter, the media latched on to the story with great verve. The RBI disallowed Margadarsi Financiers from accepting any more deposits, and directed it to pay depositors back as and when their deposits matured over the next three years. The bank also put in place a mechanism to monitor compliance. Naidu, and many other Andhra Pradesh politicians, had come to Rao’s defence when the storm began, but they soon discovered that he was unmistakably in the wrong.
Over the years, Rao’s adversaries had often tried to expose the Ramoji Group’s finances, but no one had succeeded to this degree before. After his alliance with Rao ended, the former Andhra Pradesh chief minister Jalagam Vengal Rao had brought lawsuits against Margadarsi during his stint as industries minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet, but the cases were quashed after Vengal Rao’s death. During a 1977 strike over wages at Eenadu’s Hyderabad office, Rao wrote a high-handed letter to his employees, explaining that it was impossible to implement revised wage recommendations for them because the paper had accumulated losses of over Rs 28 lakh. The employees’ union reacted scathingly in a pamphlet, warning off depositors in the Margadarsi concern: “If the persons, whom they thought were reliable, capable and sound, ran the business so irresponsibly as to incur Rs 28 lakhs, it is high time the depositors and investors gird up their loins and get ready for a battle.”
But YSR really tightened the screws. He issued two government orders in rapid succession. The first was to instate an inquiry into whether Margadarsi was “acting in any manner prejudicial to the interests of the depositors and whether they are likely to return the deposits collected from the public.” The second was to implement a stringent act for the protection of depositors, which would have frozen many of Rao’s most crucial assets.
Rao challenged both orders in the Andhra Pradesh High Court, but in vain. In February 2007, he filed a special leave petition in the Supreme Court. The court ruled that the assets were not to be frozen, but refused to stop the inquiry. The bench told Rao’s counsel, “Your client is wearing two hats. One is a newspaper owner and the other is a proprietor of a chit fund company.” When the counsel argued that the orders were a form of vengeance because Eenadu had highlighted the “misdeeds” of Andhra Pradesh’s chief minister, the bench responded: “When the CM makes a mistake you pointed it out. Similarly when you did wrong, the State government has acted.”
Rao resorted to front-page editorials and appearances on ETV to defend himself, and to assure depositors that their money was safe with him. He wrote to the Editors’ Guild, asking the organisation to intercede. “The freedom of the press and the right to free speech enshrined in our Constitution are in grave danger in Andhra Pradesh today,” he stated. The Guild said it would assent to his request, but only if it were proved that the case affected the the editorial operations of Eenadu; it seemed clear that the allegation of a threat to press freedom had cut no ice.
In spite of all this, Eenadu kept hitting hard at YSR. In December 2006, the newspaper used a helicopter to get aerial shots for a story about YSR’s Idupulapaya estate, itself mired in controversy. For all his life as a newspaper owner, Rao had displayed neither sympathy nor support for the Telangana movement. But that year, ahead of a by-election, Eenadu began to run stories in support of Chandrasekhar Rao, and counter YSR, with the same enthusiasm it had once reserved for NTR.
In February 2007, N Rangachari, the adjudicator appointed to conduct the inquiry into Margadarsi, summarised his findings in a report. It said that the company, “as it stands today, will not be able to refund the public deposits in full because of its legal inability to raise any more deposits.” The company had shown assets of Rs 1,316 crore, but was in debt for over twice that amount, to the tune of Rs 2,685 crore. Margadarsi could only repay every creditor 49 paise to a rupee.
Rao refuted the report vehemently. Margadarsi could fulfil all its financial commitments, he said, by divesting itself of 26 percent of its holdings in another company, Ushodaya Enterprises Limited. That money, he declared, would come from one of the world’s largest private equity firms, the Blackstone Group. Blackstone had valued Ushodaya at a whopping Rs 4,770 crore; in an interview to The Hindu, Rao said that the private equity firm was ready to invest Rs 1,217 crore in his company.
Had the deal gone through, it would have been the largest private equity investment in Indian media to date. But Vundavalli wrote to Chidambaram again in March 2007, as well as to the prime minister Manmohan Singh, saying the clearance should be given only if the company was going to utilise “the entire money first for repayment of the depositors.” This prompted the Foreign Investment Promotion Board to take up the matter, and the issue of a clearance, which usually takes four weeks, dragged on for four months. In April 2007, hoping to move things along, Blackstone re-evaluated the deal, and came up with a reduced offer for a roughly 14-percent stake in Ushodaya, for a sum of Rs 590 crore.
Vundavalli raised fresh allegations in another letter in August 2007, prompting another round of inquiries. By the time all the concerned ministries had cleared the deal, in August 2008, the Blackstone–Ramoji agreement had already been dead for seven months—it had lapsed on 31 January that year.
Just before the deal lapsed, in early January, a Mint report summing up its tortured history said the matter had raised questions of whether “India’s economic policy can be held hostage by just one member of Parliament, albeit from the ruling Congress party, who has single-handedly delayed a global transaction through an incessant letter-writing campaign that raised several claims, including many tangential to the issue, such as fears of Chinese government money allegedly flowing into India through Blackstone.” Mint had previously reported that luminaries such as the industrialist Ratan Tata had directly raised the issue of the delay with Chidambaram more than once. But YSR used his weight in the Congress party, and the goodwill he shared with the party’s president Sonia Gandhi, to block the deal. It seemed like the end of the road for the embattled Rao.
Then, seven days later, a white knight emerged: a Mumbai-based investment banker, Nimesh Kampani, who had never invested in the media industry before, created an entity called Equator Trading Enterprises Private Limited, which came up with an investment for a hefty stake in Ushodaya Enterprises. The deal valued Ushodaya at Rs 6,780 crore—at least a third over the original Blackstone valuation. Eenadu, it appeared, had been saved.
Spoke to a Stockbroker in Mumbai who offered an explanation of the relationships that made the deal between Rao and Kampani possible. “Margadarsi used to be one of the biggest players of ‘badla finance’ in Bombay Stock Exchange in the 1980s,” he said. “Badla” is a kind of carry-forward transaction, now banned in Indian stockbroking. “They had a corpus to invest and it brought high returns in a very short span of time. Ramoji Rao was also the big daddy of all the businessmen who came to Bombay from Hyderabad, like GMR and GVK”—Grandhi Mallikarjuna Rao and Gunapati Venkata Krishna Reddy, Telugu entrepreneurs who lent their initials to the infrastructure conglomerates which bear their names. Ramoji Rao, the stockbroker said, “had lots of friends and a lot of influence in Bombay.”
Kampani’s intervention meant that Rao was now home safe on the investment front. But he now had to reckon with YSR’s tactics on his home turf: the state government responded to the Kampani buyout by issuing a non-bailable warrant for Kampani’s arrest in relation to an old case. Kampani had earlier been an independent director on the board of a company which had defaulted on depositors’ payments after he left. The banker was in Dubai on business when the warrant was issued, and he stayed put, waiting for anticipatory bail, which was never granted. Kampani only returned to India after the look-out notice was stayed, following YSR’s death in a helicopter crash in September 2009.
But the biggest trick up his opponents’ sleeve turned out to be something that struck at the very heart of Rao’s endeavours. For the first time in decades, Eenadu had competition. In March 2008, YSR’s son YS Jagan Mohan Reddy launched his own newspaper—Sakshi, or “Witness”—with 23 editions across Andhra Pradesh. Sakshi offered subscriptions at Rs 60 per month, making it the cheapest newspaper in the state. Reddy also immediately declared a print run of 12.71 lakh, which surpassed Eenadu’s12 lakh. Suddenly, the morning newspaper had become the primary site of political contest in Andhra Pradesh.
In November 2009, Sakshi broke a sensational story alleging that Mukesh Ambani, the head of the conglomerate Reliance Industries Limited, had invested in Rao’s companies through Kampani and Vinay Chhajlani. According to the news report, within a span of 37 days between December 2007 and January 2008, six shell companies were floated using three addresses at Sriram Mills Compound in Mumbai, which is the official address of RIL. Reliance, alleged Sakshi, diverted its shareholders’ money through the shell companies into Rao’s Ushodaya. Although Ushodaya showed losses of Rs 59 crore for the financial year 2007–08, Kampani bought each share worth Rs 100 for Rs 528,630. With the help of information mined from the Registrar of Companies, the Sakshi business bureau was able to trace the flow of funds from Reliance to Ushodaya. (A senior Sakshi journalist alleged that the tip-off about RIL’s surrogate investment had come from the camp of Anil Ambani, who was engaged in a corporate war with his brother Mukesh.)
The Mumbai stockbroker, who was closely associated with one of Rao’s allies until recently, explained: “We all thought Nimeshbhai was investing his own money with the blessings of Mukesh. But we didn’t know he was investing on behalf of Mukesh.”
There was little response in the national media to the Sakshi scoop, although the buyout signalled a significant expansion into the media industry for RIL. But neither Rao nor RIL responded to the story. Indeed, the whole deal seemed to have flown under the radar, until Mukesh Ambani’s 2012 deal with the national media conglomerate Network 18 cast the company’s relationship with Rao’s group in a new light.
By 2011, Andhra Pradesh was in political upheaval once again. Jagan Reddy, who had launched his breakaway YSR Congress party, challenged Rao and Naidu head on. Eenadu’s front pages attacked Reddy with allegations of corruption. Over several stories, the paper accused him of soliciting investments in his own businesses—especially Sakshi—in return for political favours granted when YSR was in power. In March 2012, the Central Bureau of Investigation filed the first of several chargesheets against Jagan Reddy, as part of its investigations into these investments, and Reddy was arrested under the Prevention of Corruption Act in May that year.
But a reversal of fortunes was awaiting Rao as well. In October 2011, Reddy’s mother, YS Vijayamma, had filed a writ petition in the Andhra Pradesh High Court, complaining about Naidu’s disproportionate assets. This document prominently raked up the RIL investment in Ushodaya, questioning Rao and Naidu’s closeness. The petition claimed that the investment was nothing less than a pay-off from RIL to Naidu for an act of chief ministerial generosity back in 2000, choosing “to turn an obliging blind eye” to the company’s discovery of huge natural gas reserves in the Krishna-Godavari Basin. “For allowing the State’s KG basin claim to be brushed under the carpet,” the petition went on to assert, “the Reliance group facilitated the payout of Ramoji Rao’s debts to his depositors. This was carried out through known associates and friends of Mukesh Ambani.”
“We were probably wrong in linking K-G basin gas to Reliance’s investment in ETV,” a Sakshi journalist who wrote and researched stories about the deal told me. “It now seems like a genuine investment.”
However, the petition had an extraordinary corollary effect. It alleged, like the Sakshi report had, that Kampani’s Equator Trading Enterprises Private Limited had come up with an investment of Rs 1,454 crore for a 22.7 percent stake in Ushodaya Enterprises. It further asserted that in 2009, the CEO of the Hindi daily Nai Dunia, Vinay Chhajlani, came up with another investment, of Rs 1150 crore for a 17.1 percent stake, via an Indore-based company called Anu Trading. And although Reliance was not listed as a respondent in the petition, it impleaded itself and admitted for the first time that it had indeed invested Rs 2,600 crore in Ushodaya Enterprises, through Kampani and Chhajlani.
Speculation about why RIL had chosen to invest in a powerful but provincial media house generally centred on Rao’s proximity to power, and RIL’s desire to control opinion in a region where it had significant business interests. It was only in January 2012 that another motive for the buyout became public, when RIL issued its first press release announcing a hefty investment in TV18 Broadcast Limited, which runs the television channels CNN-IBN and IBN-Live, among others, through a shell company called the Independent Media Trust, which would help the debt-ridden Network 18 group, which owned TV18, with funds to pick up that stake.
The multilayered deal was structured in such a way that TV18 shelled out Rs 2,100 crore to buy out ETV’s Hindi news channels in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar, as well as ETV Urdu; a 50-percent stake in ETV’s Marathi, Kannada, Bengali, Gujarati and Odia channels, and a 24.5-percent stake in ETV Entertainment and the news channel ETV2. RIL would have exclusive rights to content from the two media houses to use when its 4G broadband services finally took off.
According to the terms of the deal, after February 2015, ETV News will be rebranded “News 18.” The “ETV” brand will be retained by the Eenadu group, which now owns the newspaper, and part of the two ETV Telugu channels. They remain big players in Andhra Pradesh. It was a market that Rao had built and driven forward, ever since he entered the business as a young man in his thirties. It expands every year—but Rao’s empire, in turn, has shrunk.
In some ways, Rao’s ambition, and his position, remain undiminished today. His talent for political friendships has endured. This summer, dressed in his habitual white safari suit, he sat in the front row of the audience at the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Rashtrapati Bhavan, alongside the heads of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bhutan. Andhra Pradesh’s chief minister, Chandrababu Naidu, sat in the row behind him—a fact pointed out to me time and again in Hyderabad in the ensuing months, as I reported this story.
Rao had met Modi in Ahmedabad before the general election, thanks to the efforts of another mutual friend, the Bharatiya Janata Party leader Venkaiah Naidu. It was a meeting long in the making. In the aftermath of the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, bulletins on ETV Gujarati had largely been charitable to the then chief minister, Modi. During the 2014 election campaign, Modi visited Ramoji Film City, and granted his first interview of the campaign, speaking in Hindi, to the ETV network.
The camaraderie between Rao and Modi continues. On 21 October, Rao met Modi and gifted him a brochure about “Om Religious City,” a complex he plans to build within the premises of Ramoji Film City. The idea is to create a spiritual centre with models of famous temples from across India. “He placed the proposal in front of many state governments to get them to finance it. But none of them came forward. The idea was to make them invest without spending any of his money,” an Eenadu journalist who has been with the paper for close to thirty years, told me. The morning after the meeting, Eenadu carried news of it on its front page, along with a photo of Modi chatting with Rao. “That’s his way of showing people like KCR that he’s close to the prime minister,” the journalist said.
Rao is now almost always addressed as Chairman. In a commemorative book published to mark his seventy-fifth birthday, even his wife and son call him “Chairman“ in their tributes. This is only one of the signs of what Rao’s critics describe as megalomania.
In the run-up to the general election in 2009, he granted an interview to the BBC on the premises of Ramoji Film City. “Opportunities are for one to grab,” he told a reporter. “It is not as if opportunities came. I had to search for them, take chances, take risks, take pains and then build them up … It is not a film. Life is different, film is different.” Rao speaks to the camera while sitting on a gilded throne, of the sort used in mythological films to seat deities in heaven.
That is the aesthetic of Ramoji Film City, which opened in 1996, and on whose premises Rao lives. The complex is built over two thousand acres, according to its website, and is certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest film-studio complex. The Maoist ideologue Varavara Rao told me that around the time Rao was acquiring the land for his dream project, he had been the target of a kidnap plot to secure the release of some prisoners. “Even if it didn’t work out, they thought he could be killed,” he said. “But the police intercepted the letter.”
Rao once played a bit part in a 1978 movie called Marpu (Change); his fascination for the movies is seemingly going strong. After running chit funds, advertising firms, a ship-breaking enterprise, and film production and distribution companies, and dabbling in pickles, hotels, handicrafts, fruit drinks and nut powder, all in addition to his media businesses, it is the Film City that is Rao’s enduring monument to himself.
“It’s my last project,” he told Outlook in 1997. “That’s why I named it after myself. Ultimately, you see, I’m a selfish man. I would like to leave something behind that I can call my own.” (After his wide-ranging interview with Robin Jeffrey in 1993, Rao has only ever met with journalists to promote the Film City. The BBC called him “the reclusive Rupert Murdoch of India.”)
The Film City says more about Rao than he might confess in person, I thought: everything in it can be dismantled and reassembled into a new shape. The lawyer Balaji Verma, who has appeared numerous times in court against Rao, told me, “He has two personalities. One for himself and one for the public.” Both Appa Rao and Kuldip Nayar told me that Rao personally chose all the pieces of the complex’s many architectural wonders. When asked about the investment, he told Outlook, “I don’t know how much I’ve put in and how much I will by the time it’s complete. The budget changes every day. Our dream is to make it the best worldwide. You can’t achieve that by thinking of costs.” He admitted that some of the money was “borrowed from half-a-dozen of my sister firms.”
Everyday, several hundred tourist buses make the 40-kilometre day trip from Hyderabad to the Film City, where Japanese gardens adjoin Jaipuri havelis, and buses look like pagodas. More than 60 percent of the site’s revenue comes from tourism. For a while, the complex had added to Rao’s financial anxieties by losing money, although according to a former Film City employee, a ferocious marketing campaign has succeeded in making it profitable. “We had expected to make most of our money from film shoots, with tourism as a spin-off. Now it’s almost the other way around,” Rao admitted to The National in 2012.
“Digital film-making made many facilities redundant,” the employee told me. “The shooting rates are prohibitive compared to other studios owned by film stars like Krishna and ANR within Hyderabad city.”
Anjaiah, the retired employee of the Eenadu packaging department whom I met at the office of a journalists’ union, gave me a copy of a petition he and a number of his fellow employees had submitted to the labour ministry. It accused Eenadu of coercing four hundred employees of non-editorial departments—including security guards, packing personnel and peons—into resigning, and then rejoining the paper again as contract employees, in order to avoid implementing the Majithia Wage Board recommendations, which call for significant improvments in salaries and working conditions. Many of these people had been in their jobs for two or three decades. The management argued that all four hundred had opted for voluntary retirement, but the Labour Commissioner, unconvinced, ordered Eenadu to implement the wage board recommendations for them anyway. Eenadu fired them all instead. Srinivas Reddy, a former Eenadu employee and a member of the Andhra Pradesh Working Journalists’ Union, told me that in order to encourage employees to resign of their own accord, the management offered some of them considerable severance pay. Others were sent far out of the city on deputation. Many others lost the battle for better wages, and were hired as contract workers, on lower salaries.
Srinivas Reddy told me that the Eenadu management repeatedly found ways to escape the wage board’s recommendations, in ways that were detrimental to employees. The shift to the Film City meant that employees would spend hours commuting between the complex and the city every day.
At the heart of every business venture in the Ramoji empire is the story of a disarmingly humble beginning. A family-run business group means that Rao has the first and last word about every decision. Every business in the Ramoji Group is headed by a member of the Rao family, or a close friend of the patriarch. In keeping with a certain familial ethic, it also turned out that Rao enjoyed the servility of his employees, according to many past and present associates of the business who spoke to me. “The employees are treated like they are serfs working in a feudal lord’s field,” the journalist Hanumantha Rao said. SR Ramanujan, who worked closely with Rao from 1975 to 2003, echoed this sentiment. “He wouldn’t give employee benefits as a matter of right; he made it look like his largesse. Let them look forward to it,” he told me.
Rao is no stranger to acrimonious family relations. After he fell out with Cherukuri Suman, his second son, the former managing director of ETV, Suman gave a scathing interview about his father to Sakshi, which ran it on a full page and called it “Ramoji Ramayanam.” When the souvenir booklet celebrating 25 years of Eenadu was published in 1999, many names crucial to the paper’s history were missing. None of the founding editors were mentioned, nor was the first managing editor, Rao’s brother-in-law Appa Rao, with whom he also fell out.
“Where are his journalistic values? He deleted my name from its history,” Appa Rao said. He claimed that the land on which the Vijayawada unit of Eenadu was built belonged to him, but that Rao had taken him to court over its ownership. “He is the lease and litigant master of Andhra Pradesh,” Appa Rao said. “First take something on lease, and then acquire or harass. Most people sell and go away. That has been his formula all along. But I didn’t expect that he would do it with me.” Rao is currently on bail after the state’s high court stayed a 2007 case against him for cheating and breach of trust, filed by the owner of the land in Visakhapatnam where Eenadu was launched in 1974.
“I have the satisfaction of having moulded public opinion when needed,” Rao said in the 1997 Outlook interview. “A newspaperman should be a referee, never a participant.” Yet Rao is blamed throughout his state today for being the principal force in creating a partisan media. Andhra Pradesh currently has close to thirty news channels, the highest of any state in the country. “Today all political parties, and many politicians, have their own papers and channels,” Haragopal said. “The nexus of media and politics means you don’t need to perform. It is an escape route for concrete performance. Ramoji Rao innovated the method, the distortions and perversions. The class involved in the media now picked it up from him.”
When I interviewed Jagan Mohan Reddy in 2012, he told me something that seemed to pre-empt Haragopal’s words—as well as embody the spirit of his rival, Rao. “I told my dad, even if I don’t get into politics, if I am running Sakshi with fourteen-and-a-half-lakh circulation, every politician will come to me,” Reddy said to me. “That’s the power of the media, so why get into politics?”
Rao, Haragopal said, “was seen as Chanakya when he brought NTR into power. He looked like a terrible manipulator when he brought Chandrababu Naidu. At another time he looked like a victim. Today he has become completely compromised. He is just a survivor fighting for his survival.”
Source: Caravan Magazine
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