Popularly known as 'Saharasri' and officially as Managing worker and Chairman of the 11 lakh strong Sahara India Pariwar, Roy has always evoked mixed reactions depending on who you talk to. Employees speak in awe of a man who they see as a family patriarch, investors argue that he has been wronged - never having defaulted on their payments, politicians secretly admire his ability to single-handedly run such a vast empire, with assets doubling over the years despite being dogged by legal tussles, while regulators and journalists are unabashedly critical of the non-transparent manner in which the group functions.
Like many high profile promoter led companies, it is impossible to separate the behemoth that is Sahara from Roy the person - his sense of self importance hardly concealed in the statement read out by his son Seemanto Roy immediately after he was taken into custody. 'This is the best honor that the country could have given me' Roy proclaimed like a wounded soldier, wronged by the world.
Many in the media bear witness to some bewildering stories that give a glimpse into Roy's arrogance and belief that he was above the law.
Back in 2002, when I worked for one of their channels, I found some of their policies strange in many respects. Immediately after joining, I was bundled with more than 500 newly employed journalists to the company's citadel - the Sahara Shehar in Lucknow. It was fantasy land, spread over 200 acres and heavily fortified. We were subjected to 9 hour monologues over a 4 day period. The man himself sat on a stage and had all the aura of a godman philosophizing on life, nationalism, professional conduct and the ethos of the group. In many ways, this induction program was a subtle way of letting new employees know where their boundaries lay.
A well known Mumbai based Editor who till then had an authoritative image both on-air and off screen (this was the era before Arnab Goswami made his angry entry on TV) was asked to step outside from the induction area at Lucknow to the utter shock of the 2000 strong audience. His only fault- that he dared to doze off in the post lunch session while Saharasri addressed his durbar. It was as if a naughty kid had been sent out of the classroom as punishment. The only difference being that the editor in question was publicly shamed in front of hundreds of his subordinates.
Needless to say the editor in question chose to apologise rather than keep his honor and resign for being subjected to such humiliation. To add insult to injury, Roy read out his forced statement of apology in the next session. The decimation of the editor’s image was complete.
Several pilots and air hostesses from the airline division also faced similarly ludicrous instances of public castigation - like being asked to stand through long monologues for coming late. It wasn't hard to perceive the Saharasri as a autocrat rather than as a new age corporate tycoon.
Many of us who decided to skip such sessions by hiding on the sprawling property were warned by old-timers that there was no escaping the long arm of the Saharasri. We witnessed guards being sent to the lodging area scout for errant employees.Other Editors have talked about Roy’s endless stamina to keep talking. Sessions went on till 4 am in the morning and all that one could hope for was that your eyes wouldn't give up.
More horror stories were to follow once we were back in Mumbai. Knowing that journalists were the most difficult lot to be disciplined, the group ensured we were trained to enact the popular sahara pranam salute (where you put your hand on your chest to wish one another). Not doing this was seen as an act of indiscipline and programmed seniors who were sold on the idea of the family or 'Pariwar' as they all lovingly called it, quickly reprimanded rebels.
On Saturdays, it was mandatory to wear the Sahara uniform(white shirt, black pant and a tie with the logo embossed on it). Stories are legendary of senior management officials standing near the gate asking employees to lift their trousers in order to check if the socks worn were indeed white. If not, it wasn't out of character to expect a 10% cut on your basic salary for that month. Similar treatment followed for bikers found entering the premises without a helmet.
Was everything dreadful? No.
We ate Chicken Biryani for Rs 13 (adjusted to inflation now, I presume) at the local canteen, and got hefty discounts on all products in the company's retail shop were some of the benefits. Old timers also insist that despite his uncharacteristic ways, Roy had a softer side that surfaced occasionally. He did do a lot of charity.
Personally for me, the cookie finally crumbled when every employee who wanted to have a meaningful future with Sahara was encouraged to write an exam based on the book written by Saharasri that gave his thoughts on ‘sukh, shanti and sammriddhi’. Doing that entitled us to a promotion and a princely raise of Rs 500 per month. This, I was told was optional but desirable - enough to drive down the message.
I quit a week before I could turn the first page of that book. The rest, as they say is history.