Delhi’s political establishment considers Sharma, who was an active student politician from AVBP, BJP’s student wing, to be a remarkably well networked person.
He’s close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. He counts many Congress heavyweights and Bollywood’s big stars as friends. Some of India Inc’s savviest investors, including group companies and companies associated with billionaires Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani, have put money in his company. His life started in a 100 square feet room he shared with nine family members in a grimy Delhi locality, but Rajat Sharma (58), editor-in-chief and chairman of India TV, is arguably now India’s most powerful editor.
Delhi’s political establishment considers Sharma, who was an active student politician from AVBP, BJP’s student wing, to be a remarkably wellnetworked person. The buzz about him is that he has access to VVIPs and occasionally advises or counsels important politicians. But Sharma, awarded Padma Bhushan this year, has a different take: “It is unfortunate that you refer to my 30 to 40 year old relationships as networking…Most of my friends are with me from my days of struggle when I was nothing and they were also struggling…”, Sharma told ET while answering a detailed set of questions from ET over email.
He said he had first interviewed Modi when the latter was a BJP general secretary. “Modi’s witty remarks impressed me”, says Sharma. India TV’s financials are out-of-ordinary as well. Independent News Service Private Limited, the parent company of India TV, was incorporated in 1997. But capital build up started from March 2006, two years after the channel was launched. Among India TV’s past and present investors are Aditya Corpex Private Ltd, a group company of the Gautam Adani-owned Adani Group, as well as Shyam Equities, a wholly owned subsidiary of Tally Solutions that has as directors, Anand Jain and Manoj Modi, two aides of RIL chairman, Mukesh Ambani.
A group company of HFCL, which is owned by Mahendra Nahata who has close business associations with RIL, is also an investor. (See box: India TV Financials). May be it’s friendship and not networking, the fact is Sharma is an unusually well-connected editor, even by the standards of Delhi’s political-media establishment that has seen many ‘influential’ editors.
India TV’s 21st anniversary celebration of Aap ki Adalat — the signature show helmed by Sharma — in December 2014 saw the PM give the opening address, followed by President Pranab Mukherjee. Politicians from virtually all parties, Bollywood biggies including the three Khans, Shahruk, Salman and Aamir, media barons were all in attendance. Uday Shankar, CEO of Star India and one of India’s most powerful media honchos, recalls that Sharma gave him his first break in television when everyone else had virtually told him he was not fit for TV.
“It was Holi and I was jobless…this was years ago…Rajat was working on Holi because he’s a workaholic…I called him and told him I needed a job…and he told me to come over”, Shankar recalled. This year, his network had bought the telecast rights of the Aap ki Adalat’s 21st anniversary show. “There was an emotional connect,” Shankar says, on STAR hosting the show. Sharma’s show had run on Star for a few years.
That anniversary show telecast by Star had a remarkable moment: The PM’s speech on Sharma saw Modi saying, “ye mere liye thanksgiving ka avsar hai” (this is a thanksgiving occasion for me). The PM also said, referring to his pre-election interview with Sharma—India TV got the first interview with Modi as BJP’s PM candidate—that the platform complemented efforts from BJP workers in getting the message out.
Delhi’s establishment tells and retells plenty of anecdotes on Sharma and the PM. Around the time Amit Shah was appointed general secretary, BJP and was set to take charge of UP for general elections, Modi had asked Rajat Sharma to “advise Shah on UP’s political intricacies”, a BJP leader told ET on condition of anonymity. Shah had driven to Sharma’s India TV offices in Noida to have a chat with him. Another story shared by a BJP leader and officials of the Sri Lankan embassy said Sharma played a role in India’s negotiations with Sri Lanka on the release of jailed Indian fishermen.
Sharma was in Sri Lanka and with the then Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, when Rajapaksa had called Modi to tell him Colombo was freeing the fishermen. Sharma, again, has a different take on his relationship with the PM. “I have no reason to meet the PM,” he says and to buttress his argument on not being a mover and shaker pointed to his decision to stay away from the recent presidential banquet for Barack Obama. “I chose to go ahead with the recording of a show abroad…my viewers have given me the platform of my shows.
I don’t need to meet the PM.” Sharma contests suggestions that he may be sympathetic to BJP. “In my 33 years of journalism I have made friends across political parties. I am sympathetic to my friends irrespective of the party they belong to. But I don’t allow that to interfere with my work. I have always fought for free, fair and fearless journalism,” he told ET. But senior Congress leaders, who did not want to be identified, say the Sharmas — Rajat and his close aide Hemant Sharma, a director at India TV — played a “significant role” in BJP’s Lok Sabha campaign, including Modi’s decision to pick the Varanasi constituency.
A senior BJP leader points out that when the PM visited Varanasi last November and launched the Swach Bharat Abhiyan, Manu Sharma, Hemant Sharma’s father, was one of the nine people nominated from the state for that project. The others included such notables as UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, singer Kailash Kher, comedian Raju Srivastav and cricketers Suresh Raina and Mohammed Kaif. Shatrughan Sinha, ex-Bollywood and a BJP leader, candidly describes Rajat Sharma as being hugely influential and humble, a “yaaron ka yaar” (friend of friends).
“Sharma today is more influential than many ministers in the cabinet. He can get a seat in any House, any award because he knows everyone, but it’s his humility that keeps him grounded. He is a lifetime friend,” says Sinha. Sinha recalls how a few years back Sharma had mediated between him and Amar Singh, who was then a powerful leader of the Samajwadi Party. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley is one of Sharma’s closest friends. At that Aap Ki Aadalat anniversary party, Sharma had said Jaitley has been his “moral police”. Sharma and Jaitley were ABVP activists and alumni of Delhi’s Sri Ram College of Commerce.
Sharma rose to being a general secretary of ABVP and courted arrest during the Emergency. CPM leader Sitaram Yechury remembers the student leader Sharma as someone “totally into Sangh ideology… with fierce views against Congress”. Sharma told ET his relationship with “Arun Jaitley, Lalu Yadav and Sharad Yadav go back to university days, when we were all part of the JP movement.” Late Congress leader Rajesh Pilot became his friend, Sharma says, when Pilot delivered milk to Delhi’s VIP homes.
Sharma’s point is that personal relationships developed over years, not political networking, explain the list of his powerful friends. He says although he has no relationship with Rahul or Priyanka Gandhi he “had an equation” with their father, ex-PM late Rajiv Gandhi. Congress treasurer Moti Lal Vohra told ET he and Sharma have been friends for 25 years. Congress heavyweight Salman Khurshid says his and Sharma’s “contrasting political ideology” never got in the way of their friendship.
Does Sharma’s friendship extend to AAP, which has just routed BJP in Delhi polls. AAP leaders privately complain about India TV’s “bias”. Some AAP supporters tweeted photos of what they claimed to be India TV vehicles campaigning for BJP. Sharma refutes suggestions of an anti-AAP bias. “I have relationships with individuals and not with parties. Like other political parties, I have friends in AAP also,” he says. Arvind Kejriwal in Aap Ki Adalat?