Archive for May, 2006

Munnabhai, MBBS, going to US for higher studies

31 May 2006

The hot news on the wires today is that Mira Nair is going to direct the Hollywood remake of Munnabhai, MBBS, with Chris Tucker playing Sunjay Dutt's role. It's going to be called Gangster, MD.

Churumuri asks tongue firmly in cheek: Has Hollywood gone bonkers or what? Munnabhai itself was inspired by Patch Adams, starring Robin Williams. So, Hollywood is going to remake a Bollywood film that had been remade from a Hollywood film?

Or was this just waiting to happen with the 27 per cent quota business, that even a gangster-doctor has no option but to go abroad for higher studies?

"D bole to Disaster"?

MIDWEEK MASALA: The tiger and the elephant

31 May 2006

The tiger woke up one morning and roared: "Who is the most powerful of all jungle animals?" The monkey whispered, "You are, without a doubt." Then the tiger confronted a deer, who stammered, "Who else but you." Ditto, said the zebra, the bison and the peacock.

On a roll now, the tiger approached an elephant which was munching weeds and asked the same question: "Who is the greatest of all jungle animals?"

The elephant picked up the tiger with his trunk, hammered him down to the ground, picked him up again, shook him till he was just a blur of yellow and black, and then threw him to a tree.

The tiger got up, regained his composure, and said: "Man, just because you don't know the answer, you don't need to get so mad."

CHURUMURI POLL: Should Sonia be disqualified?

31 May 2006

President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam's decision last night to return the Office of Profit Bill to Parliament for reconsideration of the criteria and the retrospective clause poses a huge dilemma for the Election Commission: what should it do with the over 200-odd petitions against MPs and MLAs lying before it when there is now technically no law to protect those whom the Bill had sought to rescue?

Questions: Should Sonia Gandhi be disqualified with the same speed that was shown in the case of Jaya Bachchan? Should Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee be disqualified despite his diatribe against the EC for entertaining a complaint against him which now stands so grandly exposed? Should the monsoon session of Parliament be advanced as demanded by the Left so that the Bill can be voted again and sent to the President? Or should the EC mercilessly act against all and sundry even at the cost of a constitutional crisis?

TOP SECRET: Who was that great tenant?

31 May 2006

Who was the chief minister—now in the thick of resolving the reservation imbroglio—who built a house on a plot allotted to him as an MLA by the legislators' housing society but claimed a house rent allowance from the government every month stating that he was a tenant in his wife's house? Our lips, as usual, are sealed. 

Can we really trust our government any longer?

31 May 2006

Among the better debates on the reservation issue on television have been the ones that Karan Thapar has been having with pro- and anti-quota students.

Last night, on 'India Tonight' (CNBC-TV18, 10.30 pm), Thapar was playing inquisitor with two pro-quota anti-quota students, a boy and a girl. He asked why the striking medicos want the government to assure them that it will appoint a judicial committee to probe how reservations have worked on "stamp paper".

Because, said the girl with all honesty, all their experiences with the UPA government's ministers so far have been very murky, designed to fool them into calling off their stir.

"Even the prime minister's assurance of an increase in the number of colleges and seats, so that general category students would not be affected, was given to us on a plain A4 sheet of paper. There was no seal of any ministry or department. There was no signature of any minister or official. In other words, it wasn't even on a government letterhead. That's why."

If this is the kind of subterfuge the government can resort to with the urban educated, who have legal advisors backing them and who operate in the full glare of the media, how must our politicians and bureaucrats be dealing with the rural illiterate who can't read or write or understand but whose cause they claim to champion?

Can we really trust our government any longer? Should we?

MAST READ: Mauni Baba predicts defeat for Nero

31 May 2006

There's a cute story in today's Telegraph, Calcutta, on Arjun Singh's godman, Mauni Baba. The 75-year-old guruji, a former trader, yesterday blessed the anti-quota activists, telling them "jeet aapki hogi" (victory will be yours). The last time the baba said something, he was apparently right. So is this bad news for the shishya?

India's best political cartoonist, Unny, has a fine cartoon in the Indian Express on another modern-day Nero (not Narendra Modi).

BREAKING NEWS: Kalam returns ‘Profit’ Bill

30 May 2006

The President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam has returned the office of profit bill that the UPA government had hurriedly passed after an NDA walkout recently. Kalam has apparently raised two key objections. First , the lack of uniformity in the bill, in the sense an office of profit in one State not being an office of profit in another. Second, the retrospective effect the Bill seeks to provide to the 56 offices which have been exempted all the way back to 1959.

The news is still breaking, but has Kalam cooked Sonia Gandhi's goose, who had dramatically quit the Lok Sabha to save her skin and got re-elected so as to have a smooth reign at the National Advisory Council? Worse, is Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee and a whole bunch of Left MPs in mortal danger of losing their posts? (Complaints against 200 MLAs in various States are also before the Election Commission.)

The Bill can either be modified. Or it can still be sent back by Parliament in its present form and the President, under the Constitution, will have no option but to sign the dotted line. But has Mr Kalam sent a vital message to a government which also has an equally hurriedly thought up Bill on the 27 per cent reservations for OBCs on the anvil for the monsoon session?

Can't resist the pun: have Sonia and Sania been humbled for good on the same day?

Why was A.P.J. Abdul Kalam silent for so long?

30 May 2006

During the last 20 days, when the reservation issue has gripped the nation, a couple of things have been plainly obvious.

One, none of our politicians and parties, ruling or opposition, who can only see human beings through the prism of votes, have had the guts to speak against Arjun Singh's move for fear of cheesing off a greater mass of voters.

Two, none of our industrialists and intellectuals, the fountainheads of thought and enterprise, have had the guts to speak against the quota move, for fear of ending up on the wrong side of the government in power. And who doesn't know how dangerous that can be.

But what about Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam?

Here's a man we call the People's President. Here's a man who has met and knows the dreams of more young people than we can imagine. Here's a man who stands tall above the politicians. Here's a man who says he has great visions for the country.

Why has this man been silent for so long?

Yes, he has met the students but is that enough? Yes, he has today said the creamy layer should be kept out. But where was he all this while when the young men and women of the country needed him the most, to show that they are wanted, needed?

Since he has no reason to be scared of anybody, why hasn't he lent the weight of his voice and stature at a decisive moment in the country's history like this one?

Yes, we know the President's role is a titular one. Yes, we know he isn't supposed to dabble in the nation's affairs. But does he seriously think Vision 2020 can be achieved with this kind of vote-mongering that mortgages the future?

CHURUMURI POLL: Have the docs won the war?

30 May 2006

The notice issued by the Supreme Court to the Centre yesterday asking it to explain the rationale behind its classification of a mass of citizens as OBCs, and the President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam's advice today to keep the creamy layer out of the purview of reservations, throws up an interesting question: have the protestors won the first round of the war—even if they lose the eventual battle?

With the SC threatening to slap contempt of court proceedings, the protestors are likely to call off their stir. But by keep their strike on all these days, despite the threats and the carrots, have the striking doctors and students succeeded in convincing the nation of the case against caste-based reservations?

Will the focus and singlemindedness of the medical fraternity in chasing their objective set the tone for all future mass protests? Who has succeeded in convincing you more of the case for and against reservation: an unrepentent government or the strikers?

Under N. Ram, the Hindu becomes a ‘sorry’ paper

30 May 2006

ARVIND SWAMINATHAN writes from Madras: Editors, reporters and correspondents at The Hindu are in a state of shock and disbelief today after another grovelling apology to an automotive major from their card-carrying Editor-in-Chief N. Ram appeared on the pages of the paper.

“In the Open Page article by R.S. Anand titled ‘The way we showcase India abroad’, a sweeping and baseless statement was made about a Kirloskar product, suggesting it was outdated. The Hindu apologises for this unwarranted assertion and withdraws the Open Page article from its website,” the apology signed by the editor-in-chief reads.

The “offending” piece by Anand, a student at RWTH in Aachen, Germany, comprised run-of-the-mill reflections on the Hannover Fair, and contained just two references to Kirloskar—both of them in the same paragraph.

Companies such as HMT, BHEL, Kirloskar, etc, participated in the (Hannover) fair. My fellow German students were shocked to see the engine displayed by Kirloskar which was designed a century ago. They asked me, ‘Are they still using this one?’” the “offending” paragraph went.

That was enough for Ram, otherwise a champion of free expression on television and in public forums, to go out crawling on all fours.

“Just what does our editor find so sweeping and baseless about that statement,” asked a senior editor of the paper on condition of anonymity. “And anyway it is not the author’s statement, it is the quote of a German visitor.”

Hindu staffers are bemused that Ram, otherwise particular about details, should not have published the date of publication of the offending piece—May 21, 2006—in the apology. “It’s almost as if he doesn’t want readers who have back copies of the paper at home to go back and check,” a staffer said.

At the same time, many senior editors and journalists within and outside the Hindu are horrified that the whole article has been axed from the paper’s website although the references to Kirloskar were contained in only one paragraph.

“Look at the irony. We lecture the world on why Da Vinci Code should not be censored. We lecture the world on why Fanaa should not be blacked out. And yet, because some rich family is offended, we remove the whole piece from the website. Is only the paragraph at fault or the whole piece? And what will the author tell his German friends about The Hindu? That the paper has very elastic journalistic ethics, depending on who is offended?” the editor asked.

There is yet a third angle to the apology which is that it comes over and above the head of the much-vaunted Reader’s Editor, K. Narayanan, whom Ram has been projecting as the panacea of all journalistic ills in the country.

“Was Kirloskar’s complaint brought to the notice of the Reader’s Editor? If not, why not? If so, what was the substance of the complaint—that somebody had a view that the advertiser did not like? So, is Ram the Advertiser’s Editor? Doesn’t this undermine the position of the Reader’s Editor,” a staffer asked.

The Kirloskar apology is the second inside 20 months since Ram displaced Malini Parthasarathy and his brother N. Ravi in a bloodless palace coup.

On October 20, 2004, Ram published this:

“The contents, tone and language of  ‘Kudos to Tata Motors’ by C. Manmohan Reddy (Business Review, The Hindu, October 18, 2004) are highly inappropriate. The Hindu conveys its deep regrets to Mahindra and Mahindra and also to Kotak Mahindra, ICICI Bank, and Citibank for the publication of the article.”

In that case, all the “offending” piece did was to lambast Mahindra and Mahindra for showing a “singular lack of responsibility towards the environment”.

“They choose to sell Bharat Stage I versions of the vehicle in large numbers in many of the 11, large and environmentally sensitive, cities where all the other automotive manufacturers have switched to BS II versions—all to save about Rs. 5,000 to 6,000 on very profitable SUVs that cost nearly Rs. 8 lakhs, on the road,” Reddy wrote.

That was enough for Ram to apologise to M&M and the auto finance companies. However unlike in the Kirloskar case, the offending M&M piece continues to remain on the paper’s website along with the apology two days later.

Media watchers say they are not surprised that both the apologies have gone out to automotive companies, which are big advertisers on the pages of The Hindu and many of which are located in Tamil Nadu.

What they find hilarious is that a committed communist should be so servile and obsequious to capitalists.

“Here’s a paper that day in and day out extols Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, Prakash and Brinda Karat. And yet to see it saying sorry for such minor journalistic indiscretions, if they are indiscretions, suggests duplicity, if not plain hypocrisy,” says a journalist who has seen better days under G. Kasturi.

“At least with The Times of India, you get what you see. The paper makes no bones about protecting the advertiser’s interest. Here on the other hand, free speech is being twisted by a very forked tongue that wants the cake and wants to eat it too.”


C. Manmohan Reddy’s piece

N. Ram’s apology


Also see: The column ‘Hindu’ didn’t have the guts to carry

The Hindu readers’ editor responds to churumuri. We do too

We don’t smile because we don’t brush our teeth

30 May 2006

BBC South Asia correspondent Nick Bryant has moved to Sydney after a three-year stint. In his farewell piece Bryant bites into the key difference between American and South Asian journalists:

"In Washington, the White House press corps was a pretty clean bunch, with 'have a nice day' smiles and perfect teeth.

"The South Asian hacks looked more like extras from Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Is the end of India’s Green Revolution good news?

30 May 2006

Last month, a boat called 'Furnace Australia' arrived in Madras. It was carrying half-a-million tonnes of wheat from Australia to augment dwindling reserves. Three million tonnes more will arrive in the coming few months.

For a nation notorious for famines not very long ago, this marks a seminal shift. But is it good news or news? Is it good news that a nation that was trying to achieve self-sufficiency 40 years ago can now afford to import it?

Or is it bad news that our farm production is falling, that agriculture is no longer the natural source of employment in the rural side, that it is leading to migration to the cities, that it is leading to suicides?

Yes, we knew the PM’s hands were tied. But…

30 May 2006

E.R. RAMACHANDRAN writes: The news that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has had to get both his wrists operated at short intervals has created a sort of panic unseen in recent years.

Both the South and North Blocks were agog with concern and the ‘What Next?’ expression was writ large on their collective eyebrows. Years before, Congressmen were afflicted with a similar ‘After Nehru, who?’ disability.

They knew PM’s hands were tied most of the time, but he had to undergo wrist surgery to become free again? Unthinkable. But that’s how it is in Delhi. 

The PM’s spokesman was most courteous when I landed at his office to get details about the gut-wrenching wrist job. “How did it happen? How did he manage to get both the wrists inoperable at the same time?” I asked. 

“Correction. It was the right wrist that got twisted earlier. This was when George W. Bush was here. The American president was very enthusiastic with his India visit after the plunging poll numbers forced him to flee Washington. Encouraged with the great reception he got, he started pumping the PM’s hand for quite some time and repeated it for the Indian and foreign media. That twisted his right wrist.”

“Did it also cause increase of pressure on the wrist?” “No. That happened later when Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice shook his hands before he went to sign the nuclear deal. By that time, the Americans had twisted his arm substantially that put pressure on the nerve ending at his wrist. He signed the deal quickly without even glancing, and asked Anil Kakodkar not to ask too many questions. Naturally, he didn’t want to aggravate the injury by signing any corrections to the original draft.”

“All this nitty-gritty is so revealing. What happened with the left wrist?”

“Obviously the Left Party was not going to keep quiet after Americans ran away with the nuclear deal. ‘The Office of Profit’ thing snowballed to such an extent, even the UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi had to run for cover and face reelection. The Lok Sabha Speaker is of Leftist pedigree and he had to be rescued likewise, because of his Shanti Niketan connections. That’s when the Left started meeting the PM daily. Since he couldn’t use his right hand, they started their ‘left hand’ treatment. With so many Left leaders applying pressure, soon his left wrist too gave away.”

“So tragic! Political pressures could be so complicated and nervy. No wonder so many are running to Baba Ramdev to learn acupuncture! One last question. Why did the PM get his wrists operated at Army Research and Referral Hospital?"

“Actually two junior doctors who have just become orthopedic surgeons offered to do surgery! Because of the strike against reservations, the HRD Minister Arjun Singh advised the PM to get it done only at the Army R&R. That’s how we had to say ‘No’ even to the directors of AIIMS and LNJP Hospitals!”

EYES PAISE: blindness no longer comes cheap

29 May 2006

For an upcoming film called ZamanatAmitabh Bachchan, who plays the role of a blind lawyer in it, is reported to have bought a pair of Italian sunglasses worth Rs 2.7 lakh. A sign of how particular Big B is about his role or a sign of typically mindless Bollywood ostentation? Of course, it is his money and he is entitled to do what he pleases (he has apparently gifted the glasses to the movie's director S. Ramanathan), but what could have Rs 270,000 have fetched a few needy blind children?

There’s another Rahul around. It’s not a Gandhi.

29 May 2006

Pramod Mahajan's son Rahul Mahajan today attended the BJP national executive in New Delhi. Maybe it was a nice signal to the family that the party had not forgotten the deceased leader. Maybe he was just a special invitee so that he get a chance to receive condolences in person from those who couldn't come to Bombay. But is the BJP, which scorns the dynastic culture in the Congress, taking its first tentative steps in that sorry direction?

Globalisation is protectionism by another name

29 May 2006

In news just coming in, Vijay Mallya's United Breweries has pulled out of its bid for the French champagne maker Taittinger following objections from the French labour unions and a bigger bid by a competitor. And, Lakshmi Mittal's bid for Arcelor continues to face trouble.

Questions: Are we really in the era of globalistion if only developing/underdeveloped countries are expected to throw open the doors of their markets? If we cringe at our labour unions setting obstacles to foreign investment, why do we meekly accept the protests of their labour unions? When their governments unbashedly function as an arm of business in pushing deals, should our government be lagging?

CONTEST: The winner is Rohit K.G. of Dubai

29 May 2006

The winner of the first Churumuri anagram contest is Rohit K.G. of Dubai, UAE. Congratulations to him. Shashi Tharoor's Bookless in Baghdad will soon be on its way to him. 

The answer for the "Presbyterians" anagram we were looking for was Britney Spears.

Rohit wasn't alone in cracking it: Madhu Kongovi, Mohan Das Konanoor, S. Ravishekhar, and R. Soumyalatha among the 118 entries got it dead right, but Rohit's name came up in the draw of lots (remember "conditions apply"?) conducted at 6.13 pm by Sharada Vishwanath returning from her evening walk.

A big thank you to all who participated.

CHURUMURI POLL: A licence fee for your TV?

29 May 2006

In a last-ditch effort to save the fattened cows of socialism, Doordarshan and All India Radio, Prasar Bharati Corporation has proposed a return to the licence fee raj. The plan is to levy a one-time fee on each TV at the manufacturing stage. The ostensible objective is to generate greater revenue for public service broadcasting.

Questions: is this just a desperate attempt to keep a corrupt and inefficient broadcaster alive? Even with the funds will it be able to take on the nimbler cable and satellite channels? Will the infusion of funds help DD and AIR do real public service broadcasting or will it only stave off the inevitable end for some time? Do DD and AIR really deserve our money for what they produce?

East or West, may the best Indians win

29 May 2006

Rahul Dravid & Co have been comprehensively thumped in the one-day series by Brian Lara & Co. Here are five brand-new excuses the Bhaiyyas in Blue might like to trot out for the 1-4 defeat:

5) It wasn't easy playing on the other side of the globe and keeping our concentration up while the country back home was asleep. We thought nobody would notice.

4) There were too many distractions for the boys outside the boundary line and we couldn't pick the right balls to score.

3) It's only if we lose do we learn the value of a win. So we wanted some practice before the World Cup.

2) Our bats got misplaced. The airline sent us Rajyavardhan Rathore's rifle by mistake and they didn't fire. 

1) Greg Chappell told the West Indians that they forgotten how to win. He had also whispered to us that we had forgotten how to lose.


The greatest philosopher of our times is on TV

29 May 2006

To speak truthfully and insightfully today, you must have a sense of the absurdity of human life and endeavour. And by that yardstick, Homer Simpson, the cartoon character in The Simpsons, has plenty more than the greatest philosophers from Plato to Kant.

Sample: In one recent episode, Homer Simpson gives up church and decides to follow God in his own way: by watching the TV, slobbing about and dancing in his underpants. Throughout the episode he justifies himself in a number of ways.

  • "What's the big deal about going to some building every Sunday, I mean, isn't God everywhere?"
  • "Don't you think the almighty has better things to worry about than where one little guy spends one measly hour of his week?"
  • "And what if we've picked the wrong religion? Every week we're just making God madder and madder?"

If God does exist, why did He allow the tsunami?

29 May 2006

Pope Benedict XVI, on a visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp yesterday, asked God a simple question: why did he remain silent during the "unprecedented mass crimes" of the Holocaust?

"In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can be only a dread silence, a silence which itself is a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?" the Pope said.

It's a good question though the Holocaust was one man's crime against another. But it's a question we can ask with even greater relevance in all natural disasters, over which we somehow presume He (She?) has even greater control.

We can ask the same question of the tsunami. How could He (or She) allow it? How could the fates of people on several continents and countries all be intertwined at the same moment? How could the poorest of the poor who look up to Him (or Her) for a leg up be crushed under His (or Her) benign gaze?

It's a question you can ask of the Indonesian earthquake last week. It's a question you ask of every flood, fire, volcano, drought, famine.


Maybe because that's His (or Her) "style" and He (or She) needn't explain? Maybe because He (or She) is a macro-manager who looks at the big picture, not a micro-manager who involves himself in the nitty-gritty? Maybe because He (or She) wants to show who is the boss? Maybe because He (or She) just doesn't care? Maybe because He (or She) doesn't exist?

If the Pope's still searching for an answer, maybe these are not a silly doubts, after all.

BUM BUM DIGA DIGA: In Mandya, bottom’s up

28 May 2006

SUNAAD RAGHURAM writes: The largesse of the rain gods above. Bountiful harvest, joyous faces, mirth, laughter, prosperity and happiness. Farmers would do anything to have the good times rolling.

In more parts than one around the world, agriculturists have been known to appease the gods above, those gods who have been mythologically allocated the portfolio of rain management (or womanagement lest you think us sexist)!

A range of prayers are offered, flowers and fruits are laid at the holy altar, and frogs are brought together in matrimony. And in some cases, donkeys too!

Songs are sung and dances performed. All to please the god in question; to impress His Holiness! After all rains have such a direct bearing on the lives of farmers and their families. 

But have you heard of anything remotely resembling an attempt to stop the rains from falling? (Unless of course you’re imagining that there exists a breed somewhere that is so anti-farmer and hence anti-life that it would make such a dastardly attempt.) 

Well, some farmers of Mandya district are known to follow a practice which is aimed at ‘intimidating’ the rain god to stop showering his copiousness on their area, especially when it is not needed, like say, at the time of harvest!

And how do they do it? 

A man is handpicked by the village elders to walk ceremoniously to the outskirts of the village on the appointed day. He is fed the choicest of mutton dishes after he has had his quota of the best toddy available. A group of men, and only men, mind you, is given the responsibility of accompanying him on his assignment. 

The man, adequately fortified by long swigs of toddy, sways and weaves his way to the designated place on the outer boundary of the village. And what does he do? 

He bares his bottom to the rain gods above!

The belief is the rain gods get repulsed at the obnoxious sight and cease the showering of rain on the area! Thereby facilitating a proper harvest without the produce getting water logged and damaged! 

And… the bottom-baring flasher is considered the man with the ugliest looking derrieres in the village. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have got the assignment!  

The rain gods have to be given a rather high dose of repulsiveness for them to vacate the area after all! And it has to be a man. Always. Not a woman.

Well… you wouldn’t want more rain would you? With someone up there getting very impressed with the sight and all that!

Statutory Warning: The headline and contents of this piece may be injurious to fragile feminists.

Birth of a Salesman: Your neta is now a brand

28 May 2006

Dharmendra is selling auto finance to truckers on behalf of Sriram Transport Finance Company. Hema Malini is endorsing Kent water purifiers when not asking us to pick up loans from Bank of Rajasthan. Govinda is exhorting us to use Navratna herbal hair oil. Shabana Azmi is batting for Surf-Excel detergent powder. Navjot Sidhu is asking us to plug into Luminous inverters and asking us to enrol into Veta English speaking courses, when not making a fool of himself on the Great Indian Laughter Challenge and assorted shows.

No problem with that? The problem is Dharmendra is a Lok Sabha MP from Bikaner. Mrs Dharmendra is a nominated Rajya Sabha member. Govinda represents Bombay Norh-east. Shabana used to be in the upper house till two years ago. And Sidhu represents Amritsar.

Do we elect our MPs for this—to sell us products for a fee; to make money on the side—or do we elect them and underwrite their salaries to make policy? Are they just making good use of their star-power, or are they being plain greedy? And how silly does the office of profit controversy seem in front of this kind of avarice?

CHURUMURI POLL: Tigers at home, lambs abroad?

28 May 2006

India's 1-3 defeat in the one-day series against West Indies, with the last match still to be played, has predictably led to the prophets of doom leaping into hyperbole. Navjot Singh Sidhu, the televisionary of understatement, has already decreed that Rahul Dravid's side, which won 17 ODIs before losing three in a row, are tigers at home. And everybody from Brian Lara to Chris Gayle is saying they were egged on by Greg Chappell's statement that the West Indians have "forgot how to win".

Questions: Was the recent winning run of the Indian team a flash in the pan? Are the Indians really lambs abroad especially in bowler-friendly conditions? Has the team's chances in the absence of Sachin Tendulkar been exposed? Would Saurav Ganguly have been able to stem the tide? Does it really matter if we lose a one-day series? Will the side be able to pull back in the Tests? 

Why Sankeshwar wants to sell Vijaya Karnataka

27 May 2006

PALINI R. SWAMY writes from Bangalore: The formal announcement has still not been made. The actual price has still not be revealed. The modalities of the sale have still not been firmed up. And, indeed, the actual buyer's name has also still not been officially divulged.

But the question on everybody's, or at least every mediaperson's (and reader's) lips across the State is: just why does Vijay Sankeshwar seem to be in such a tearing, even desperate, hurry to wash his hands off Vijaya Karnataka, Vijay Times and Usha Kirana?

Especially when Vijaya Karnataka is No. 1 and when Vijay Times is close to being No. 2?

Especially when as a transport operator from smalltown Hubli he has succeeded in doing what such top-notch business names as the Ambanis, the Thapars, the Singhanias have all majestically failed at?

The charitable view is that he is just being a good businessman. Insiders who know his mind say he entered the media business with no more noble an objective than to make his money grow. He had no great interest in promoting Kannada or journalism or both.

As a savvy businessman, he merely saw an opening in the kind of Kannada journalism it was getting through Praja Vani, Kannada Prabha and Samyuktha Karnataka, and got in—and got lucky.

Therefore, they say, with the media market red hot just now, especially in crowded Bangalore, with buyers willing to give him more than twice the money he has pumped into the three papers over the last five-plus years, he sees a golden opportunity to take his cash and leave.

Indeed, those who subscribe to this view say Sankeshwar had been preparing for a sale for at least two years. The consulting compay Ernst & Young was called in (briefly) to do the due diligence for making presentations to investors, Indian and foreign.

In other words, from day one, Sankeshwar had an exit policy. All he was waiting for was the right numbers to be dangled in front of him. That time is now.

The not-so-charitable view is that Sankeshwar, typically for a businessman unaware of how journalism works, has run out of patience.

Those who subscribe to this view say that the transport operator who is used to instant profits from his investments was getting increasingly frustrated at the long gestation periods of his papers.

The Sankeshwar camp says that he has pumped in Rs 60 crore so far, but media watchers say this is a conservative estimate. The figure could be in excess of Rs 100 crore.

The Sankeshwar camp says the papers, which they claim fetch around Rs 7 crore per month in ad revenue, would have turned in profits from May next, but media watchers say that date is too optimistic given the investments made and the costs it has taken to achieve what the papers have.

In the end, though, Sankeshwar may be itching to sell because he overreached himself and got too ambitious.

Vijaya Karnataka, whose marketing, circulation and editorial tactics (including to the extent of having the designation Executive Managing Editor) was modelled on The Times of India was a quick, unsurprising and maybe even deserving success.

But Sankeshwar, feel media watchers, bit off more than he could chew by launching Vijay Times even before Vijaya Karnataka had stabilised, and following it up with a second Kannada daily, Usha Kirana. Result: none of the three papers are in the pink of health, with one subsidising the other two.

Vijay Times today claims an ABC circulation of over 150,000 copies a day and a readership of nearly 450,000 readers. And is ostensibly snapping at the heels of Deccan Herald by being the No. 1 paper in 24 of the 26 districts outside Bangalore.

But it has come at a very heavy price. The cut-price paper is dumped heavily, has heavy overheads, and what little advertising it attracts is grossly subsided if not a trickle-down from advertisers who opt for a package deal with Vijaya Karnataka.

As the saying goes, circulation sells and advertising pays, and Sankeshwar was getting next to nothing from Vijay Times.

The Sankeshwar camp says Vijayanand Printers Limited is losing Rs one crore a month. Media watchers say the real figure could be double that, much of it coming courtesy Vijay Times.

But the last straw could have been Sankeshwar's ambition in launching Usha Kirana. Insiders say there were four reasons behind its launch:

1) To be the No. 1 and No. 2 Kannada paper in the State,

2) To prevent competitors from chipping into Vijaya Karnataka's circulation by using Usha Kirana as a buffer,

3) To provide a lower priced option to a new set of readers,

4) To provide a cheaper advertising option to advertisers wary of Vijaya Karnataka's reach and ad rates.

There may also have been a secret fifth reason. Sankeshwar wanted a paper in his stable when the time came to sell Vijaya Karnataka and Vijay Times.

But media watchers say Usha Kirana has failed in all its objectives. It is not taken off, it has in fact chipped into Vijaya Karnataka's circulation, it attracts next to no advertising and nobody buys it.

Shutting down Usha Kirana alone won't to do. Selling off Vijay Times alone isn't too attractive to any buyer and it won't fetch much anyway.

Result: Vijaya Karnataka has to be added to the platter.

Getting rid of his media diversion enables Sankeshwar to concentrate on his transport empire. Vijayanand Roadlines Limited has big plans of expansion, including a planned listing through an IPO. Getting rid of Vijayanand Printers Limited may have been strategic to that move.