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Corporate Feb 9, 2012

Sahara's Subrata Roy: A freshly-minted media controversy

By Rajanya Bose

Subrata Roy, the reclusive and eccentric chairman of the Sahara group, calls himself "managing worker" of his group. To those who raise eyebrows, we can also call him chairman.

We're not sure how Saharasri, as his minions call him, manages his workers but he sure looked like he could do with some help managing the media.

At a press conference in Mumbai on Thursday called for making a "Strategic announcement," Roy managed quite a few bloopers that his corporate communications department would definitely call "an unmitigated public relations disaster".

Subrata Roy. AFP

Among them: he yelled at a female journalist, refused to answer questions on the joint venture with Turner Construction - the event for which the press conference was called - and berated journalists for asking uncomfortable questions (about the various controversies surrounding the group) when he was embarking on a venture that was "for the good of the country".

Clearly, Mr Roy has a different idea about what journos are for. They are supposed to beat around the bush and stay within his comfort zones.

The press conference was held to announce a joint venture between Sahara Prime City, a company of Sahara India Pariwar, and US-based Turner Construction Company.The venture would also have a third partner - Acropolis Capital Group - to provide private equity for projects that would be developed together.

Somehow, all that got sidelined by the drama that followed once the venture was announced.

When a reporter from Mint asked Turner officials why it had chosen Sahara as a partner, Roy immediately intervened and asked her not to ask "the guest who had come from a far-away land and who must be treated with respect" questions that involved local controversies.

When the reporter responded that the question had been directed at Turner, he snapped and said that the reporter was "doing this because the company had filed a lawsuit against Mint and her."

Sahara has filed a defamation case in a Patna court against Mint over the newspaper's coverage of the company's dispute with markets regulator Sebi.

Roy's attitude irked the rest of the press, and decibel levels started getting higher. There was quite a bit of commotion as several journalists insisted that the Mint reporter's questions be answered.

That's when Turner President and CEO, Nicholas Billotti, stepped in to calm heads and answered the question by saying that as far as Turner was concerned, it was not too bothered by the controversies around Sahara since it had adequate protection in the contract in place in terms of payment.

That bought some peace among a restive reporters' crowd, and the remaining conference passed off relatively peacefully.

Roy later publicly apologised for being rude to the reporter - she had left by then - but not before gently chiding journalists for "finding faults" with such ventures; instead, he said, they should be applauding such efforts because they brought world-class technology and quality to India.

He did not answer any other question from journalists regarding the many problems involving the group.

A few months ago, Sahara was ordered by Sebi to pay backRs 17,400 crore collected through two dubious issues of optionally fully convertible debentures (OFCDs). The order was upheld by the Securities Appellate Tribunal and is currently in the Supreme Court.

At the event, Roy said the company was "creating history" with the joint venture. Well, he managed to do it even without the venture.

by Rajanya Bose

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