Is Tarun Tejpal spreading his brand too thin, Rrishi Raote asks
Ever since Operation West End, the 2001 sting which shook the NDA government and the military with its expose of bribery in defence contracts, Tehelka and its editor-in-chief, Tarun J Tejpal, have had instant name recognition. Tehelka was then a website; a decade later, it is a weekly magazine. In between was a period of official investigations — aimed at Tejpal, his team and investor Shankar Sharma — as well as a failed effort to turn Tehelka into a newspaper. Tejpal himself is seen in the news when he promotes one of his books or speaks at a literature festival. He has written two novels, The Alchemy of Desire (2005) and The Story of My Assassins (2009).
In mid-January, however, Tejpal suffered a reverse when a newspaper project he had nurtured appeared to have collapsed. Chandigarh businessman KD Singh, who owns most of Anant Media Pvt. Ltd, which owns Tehelka, had backed a new national financial newspaper under the name Financial World. Singh runs the Alchemist Group and is one of several businessmen who have at different points supported or offered to buy in to Tehelka, from Subhash Chandra of Zee to Satya Sheel, a former Suzuki partner in India, and unnamed others since.
From mid-2010 onward, Tejpal hired several dozen people for Financial World, including senior journalist Prem Shankar Jha. In January, the staff was told the project was off. By this time the senior editors had already quit, Jha among them. “The problem in the paper was basically financial,” says Jha. “Costs turned out to be far more than anticipated, and with [cover] prices being held down artificially by larger papers, the risk factor was high and the period for recovering losses became far too long.”
Singh says the project has not been cancelled but put on hold. “I think there may be a delay of a few months to one year. We are concentrating more on the language magazines.” He says Tehelka will launch Hindi and Bengali editions, with Malayalam and Telugu to follow, and a TV channel. These projects will draw upon a Rs 500-crore corpus. The problem with Financial World, he says, was of human resources not finance. “We didn’t want to spread ourselves too thin.”
Tejpal is short on the phone: “When we looked at all aspects of the project we didn’t feel we wanted to go ahead with it.” When asked why he hired so many people, he says defensively that some were absorbed in Tehelka and all got two-and-a-half months’ severance.
Another venture on uncertain ground is Source, the media school Tejpal started in 2010. Journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta says he was asked in April last year to join as visiting faculty. He taught at the small campus in Chhattarpur until January, but says that “I told Tejpal why I felt the time was not right” to set up a media school. It was too late to plan for the upcoming academic year, the good students would have been snapped up, and since the downturn fewer students were looking at media careers. “He felt let’s still go ahead and we have to make a beginning somewhere, even if with very few students.” In the event, Guha Thakurta says, Source got only half-a-dozen students or so, and by January just two were left. He has ended his association with Source.
Tejpal says planning only started in August 2010, that it is “too early to say anything,” and that Source is anyway a “very small thing”. Of the flagship, Tehelka, he says the magazine is not yet profitable, but “things are getting better every day”. With two fumbles and a still-struggling lead product, the Tehelka and Tejpal brands seem to have lost some shine.