One night in April, 11 years ago, a former journalist and the owner of a production house in Mumbai met for the first time and discussed a ludicrous idea: starting a spiritual TV channel. Madhav Kant Mishra was keen, but Kirit Mehta, the studio owner, told him that his proposition was good only as a ‘dharam-karam channel’, implying that such a venture would not be profitable.
Mehta’s production studio, CMM, had a reputation for crisp music videos and shows, and he wanted to launch his own music channel. Mishra’s ambition was roused by what he saw as a dismissal. He recalls: “I told him, ‘No, there will come a day when this channel will earn real money, and your music channel will shut down’.”
The meeting, which began at 11 pm, ended at daybreak in an impasse. But Mishra had indeed managed to put his point across. For, just two months later, on 18 June 2000, Mehta launched his channel, broadcasting both music and spiritual programmes on the same beam. For Mishra, who was part of the project, “re-establishing old wisdom” was a personal goal. Spirituality had deep roots in his family (“My father was a saint,” he says.) Mishra had edited five Hindi publications, and realised that television could help him take spirituality to places print couldn’t reach.
For six hours a day, the new channel broadcast shows that spiritual leaders sent on tape. This continued until the numbers were irrefutable: the ratings for spiritual fare—under the title Aastha—were rising rapidly. Within a few months of the channel’s launch, it was decided that it would have its own beam. Music had a separate channel, which later went spiritual too (as Aastha International).
At first, the channel invited content that would be carried free. There was no shortage of gurus and swamis who wanted to be heard, and the 10- and 20-minute slots they had allotted filled up quickly. The decision to not charge content providers was strategic: the channel wanted them to see how TV could spread their message far and wide at such little cost. Soon, Aastha was selling slots. A 20-minute slot reserved every day for a month could fetch it up to Rs 50,000---about Rs 83 a minute or Rs 1.38 per second. To put things in perspective, a second of advertising airtime on popular nightly shows on entertainment channels was worth at least Rs 3,000.
Mehta assigned the members of his small team designations, but their responsibilities were fluid. He hired Arvind Joshi, a slim, soft-spoken cable operator who now oversees distribution, marketing and PR. In addition to making sure that Aastha was carried by every cable network, Joshi met spiritual leaders to convince them that his channel was the place to be. Ajit Gupta, the first CEO, also did the same. The swamis who appeared on the channel did their bit too; they persuaded cable operators in their localities of influence to carry the channel. The company’s connections were its capital.
It was only in 2003, as part of a hunt for new speakers, that executives of Aastha—as the company was now called—encountered Baba Ramdev. He was unimpressive. Few outside the town of Haridwar had heard of him. So they passed him over, leaving him available for Sanskar, a rival channel. But while Aastha was the biggest spirituality channel vying for audiences, it lacked a standout crowd puller. And once they saw Ramdev on Sanskar, their decision began to look like a big mistake. They could now see that Ramdev’s appeal lay in his ability to make yoga accessible. Viewers did not have to go anywhere for yoga; Ramdev would bring it to them. To lure him back, they sent Mishra, who was heading the channel’s northern operations at that time, to work his connections with spiritual leaders in North India. Ramdev didn’t need much convincing. In the small but expanding genre of spiritual TV, Aastha was easily the biggest stage for gurus in search of a wider following. Within four months, Mishra says, Ramdev became the blockbuster the channel sought. In time, Ramdev would visit Mehta at home on at least two occasions, alighting from a large SUV.
As more personalities came on board, Aastha began to acquire more content. Importantly, it held the rights to the shows; gurus were self-aware but not entirely media-savvy. The channel missed no opportunity. Its roving camera crews stayed with its stars, covering every word they spoke.
In time, Gupta says, “They all saw the benefit in owning their very own production unit. In the beginning, they didn’t know the difference between VHS and Beta. Now their teams are better than ours.” The gurus also began to retain the rights to their discourses. Why limit themselves to one outlet, the thinking went, when they could be broadcast on several channels?
“If you ask me, both Ramdev and the channel were using each other,” says Mishra, who now runs Disha TV, another spiritual channel. “In Ramdev, body, mind and soul met. That was the attraction. He took yoga public by telling people that you can do pranayam anytime. And I don’t think anyone on the channel got [the kind of publicity he did].” Ramdev’s growing popularity was evident in other ways too, adds Mishra. Just walking around localities with access to the channel, the baba’s voice would be heard from windows in the mornings.
Aware of his stardom, Ramdev hired an independent production unit to create his shows. In response, Aastha dedicated a crew to beam him live. But the arrangement didn’t last long. Ramdev, like his peers, saw the sense in controlling his own productions. But unlike them, he showed bigger signs of ambition. His sprawling Patanjali ‘health’ set-up in Haridwar was bustling with students of yoga and seekers of cures, and his home remedy business was booming. But he wanted to be a media mogul; he wanted to broadcast news, and create channels on religion, health and education.
To that end, one of the companies his close aides formed altered its memorandum of association to include the possibility of doing the work of a ‘news agency, advertising agency’ for the ‘holding of events, programmes, competitions, realty shows and publicity and transmission of various events, shows and programmes, transmission of advertisements’ and to ‘deal in advertisement contracts and to pass on these contracts to any other agency or person or any business related to the work of an advertising agency.’ In short, the company’s plans to leverage Ramdev’s reputation put it squarely in the media business as well.
Late in October 2006, Acharya Balkrishna (a Saral form spells his name ‘Balkrishan’, unlike his PAN card) and Mukta Nanda, the directors of Swami Ramdev Health Care Pvt Ltd, changed the company’s name to Vedic Aarogya Pvt Ltd. In June 2007, it became Vedic Broadcastings Pvt Ltd. Then, Vedic Broadcastings Ltd. For now, it is called Vedic Broadcasting Ltd (without the ‘s’).
A notice filed with the Ministry of Corporate Affairs reveals why the company’s first name was an ill-thought one. SK Garg, one of the main shareholders in Swami Ramdev Health Care, wrote, ‘…there is no change in the object clause of the company. Only first name (sic) is proposed to be changed because the promoters do not want to use the name of Swami Ramdevji to avoid any controversy’. Later, they would reason that astrological compulsions required ‘Broadcastings’ to become ‘Broadcasting’. All this happened in a world far from the attention of Aastha’s shareholders, who were until then grappling with issues of mismanagement at the channel.
As a company, Aastha had done okay. Its earnings were not stellar, but their steady rise held promise. By the third quarter after launch, the company had turned a profit. Half a year later, in 2001, quarterly sales shot up to Rs 63 lakh, a 400 per cent jump over the previous quarter. Gupta resigned as channel head. He refuses to explain why, only saying that “when the channel grew, other interests came into the picture… I just wanted to programme”.
On 3 September 2001, the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) sent the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi), the market regulator, a report on some trading patterns. It noted that Aastha’s share price shot up from Rs 9.70 on 20 November 2000 to Rs 39.10 on 16 February 2001, an increase of 300 per cent in less than three months. The BSE reported that Aastha had preferentially issued 9.3 million shares in August 2000 to entities ‘that appeared to be related to each other’ or to Aastha itself. Sebi decided to investigate what looked like a case of circular trading (to boost the scrip’s market price). It found that the privately allotted shares had been dematerialised without BSE permission for their listing, enabling their public trading in the dark (and thus in violation of fair trading practices). In addition, the regulator found that money paid for the shares had been re-routed to the allottees. While the shares were issued at Rs 10, the company had received only Rs 3.04 a share.
In early 2007, the allotted shares were finally frozen after a court battle, and Aastha’s scrip dropped sharply—but not before over 100,000 unlisted shares were offloaded in the market.
By now, Aastha was reeling under losses. Within months, Ramdev’s aide Balkrishna of Vedic Broadcasting offered to buy the domestic component of the business (Mishra indicates that he had been consulted before an offer was made). By December, the management agreed to sell out for a sum of no less than Rs 10 crore. At their first-floor office on a grimy, slushy Andheri bylane, Mehta broke the news to his staff: he had sold the major part of the business, but would not be going anywhere. He would stick around to give advice, he said, to reassure the nervous staff. Few realised that the channel’s new owner, standing by Mehta, was Balkrishna. Asked if he knew that Balkrishna was Ramdev’s aide, Joshi, the channel’s head of distribution, says he didn’t. This was a stretch. Joshi, a veteran at the channel, had previously claimed that in the small world of broadcasting, word of any important development got around quickly. Balkrishna, who was visibly a member of Ramdev’s coterie, was a prominent player in the business of religion.
The staff began to wonder about life after Mehta. A short-tempered Baniya with an entrepreneurial streak, Mehta had a voice that made them cower, but he was also prone to acts of extreme generosity. Mehta sent employees who had never travelled abroad to far off places to cover gurus on their travels. Recalling his days overseas, one employee wistfully says, “He made our lives.” A watchman below his home called him the only decent human being in “a building full of animals”. The staff would miss his wife, Neena, who had once turned tearful when they made her a birthday card.
There were no changes at first. For a while, the channel’s main branch remained at Vaman Center in Andheri East, populated by a small staff on salaries that didn’t move much. Soon, employees were given short notice of the channel’s move to Noida. Many moved to Noida out of loyalty or the fear that jobs were in short supply. It didn’t matter that the channel’s future was uncertain.
One employee, who wants to remain anonymous, fidgets throughout the interview, and opens up only after my dictaphone is turned off. He speaks of the agony of leaving Mumbai, but not knowing where else to go. His savings were negligible because the channel had reneged on its promise to supply him food vouchers. “They give the bachelors food vouchers, not families. They say, ‘The bachelors stay in one room, but for your room we pay Rs 8,000’. They told me I wouldn’t have to spend a rupee on food. Now I spend so much on food I have nothing left.”
Money could not have been an issue with the channel’s new owner. Balkrishna provided a personal guarantee for a Rs 9.85 crore loan from Bank of Baroda in 2009. His net worth, as recorded on the loan agreement, was Rs 45.39 crore.
Mehta soon found himself selling Aastha’s international business too, and in July 2010, the board of directors met to consider ejecting him and his wife from the board. “I don’t think Mehta realised the consequences of selling the channel,” says Mishra.
By October, Mehta and his wife had resigned from Aastha and other companies that had been allotted the contentious shares. On 29 October 2010, 12,000 shares of Smitasha Impex, of which Neena Mehta had been a director, were transferred to Ram Bharat, Ramdev’s brother, in addition to the 1,000 shares he already held. Ram Bharat also held 13,000 shares in Prarekha Exim Pvt Ltd, from whose board Chetan Mehta, Kirit’s son, had resigned the previous year. Interestingly, both companies changed their address to 9th floor, Vaibhav Chambers, Bandra-E. This was the permanent address of Aastha’s rival channel, Sanskar.
Asked about the financial troubles Aastha found itself in, Mishra says, “Their aim wasn’t to run a spiritual channel. They had nothing to do with it. Their aim was and is to earn money.” But, he adds a little later, “Do you believe companies [only go by what’s on] the balance sheet? Are businesses in general going by the real balance sheet? That’s the question today. You go by the balance sheet with the Registrar of Companies. But the real story may be different.”
Mishra stayed with Aastha for five years, but had resigned once inbetween. “There was stagnation. I thought that something should be done, but nothing happened. There was very limited vision. They didn’t want to spend any money. It wasn’t my channel, but it was my emotional baby. Aastha is to me like Krishna is to Yashoda.”
Mishra is insistent that the approach was wrong, even if it was Mehta—who has since sold his house and left India, and with whom he still shares a close relationship—who had risked his money on the venture. “I understand that it requires investment, but there can also be business with a purpose. You can be true to that business,” says Mishra. If the purpose is lost, he adds, the business is gone too.
At this point, he smiles from behind his desk, and says, “You won’t believe this, but even today, there’s nobody to check the content. At 9.20 am, you will have one astrologer saying one thing, and just after that, you will have someone else saying the exact opposite. So there’s utter confusion in the field of spirituality and astrology. I believe that the last 10 years were about experimentation. A real spiritual channel is yet to exist.”
At Aastha, some of the faithful put up a front. One executive says that the channel was set up to provide a social service—a temple in every home. Gupta responds to this, saying, “If we didn’t want to focus on money, we would have been an NGO.”
Others are bored, but stick on. “It’s always the same swami, the same voice, the same talk, the same message,” says the exasperated, fidgety employee who left Mumbai.
Executives grow uncomfortable when asked how and why Mehta decided to sell the channel. Joshi, the head of distribution, clicks a pen rapidly, staring straight ahead, before saying he didn’t know any details. With the next question, a softer, more answerable one, he stops clicking and smiles. He stonewalls me, and seems relieved when the interview draws to a close. And then, just before we rise, he says, haltingly, “You know, Rahul, I believe in one thing. The media is free, but certain information, certain core truths are not good for people. It will cause a… uhh… loss of faith. So there are things that should not reach common people. If you don’t have the aptitude for it, it’s an unnecessary burden. If you’re not of that bent of mind, it’s like putting a 100 watt bulb in a 1,000 watt socket. It will…”—he points to his head— “… blow.”
Joshi was the only executive at Aastha who agreed to be interviewed for this story. Questionnaires sent to Aastha and Mehta five days before publication went unanswered