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How Sarkar swung the Star deal

Last updated on: September 15, 2003 12:13 IST

ABP's Aveek Sarkar first saw an opportunity five or six weeks ago, when Star TV's choice of investment partners and shareholding plan saw the government furiously waving a red flag.

He called Star TV's chief executive, Peter Mukherjea, to express interest in becoming Rupert Murdoch's partner in the news operation.

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Mukherjea was all formality, informing Sarkar that there were others interested, but arranged a meeting with Rupert Murdoch's younger son James, in London. Sarkar boarded his flight, only to find in the first class cabin the Hindustan Times' vice-chairman Shobhana Bhartia, headed to meet the same person.

But Sarkar had done his homework. He hired a top-flight copywriter to craft a five-page, five-point introduction to the ABP group, and flew across to Mumbai to deliver it personally to Mukherjea for passing on to the Murdochs.

He then thumbed through every word printed on James Murdoch, who heads Star in Hong Kong, and researched everything down to his taste in Australian wine and the precise vintage that father Rupert had chosen for the son's anniversary gift.

The meeting with the Murdochs took place at a boutique hotel in Aldwych, across the road from India House. Sarkar dressed carefully, choosing to make a statement in his trade mark dhoti-kurta.

There was first an unscheduled, free-wheeling discussion with Rupert Murdoch, followed by a business session with the son, at which Sarkar was asked if he would be a joint partner along with Shobhana Bhartia. He refused.

At a follow-up meeting the next day, Sarkar chose to don a Savile Row suit, to show that he had a foot planted in India and one in the world.

Back in his base at Kolkata, he put together his negotiating team, including younger brother Arup Sarkar, company officials and merchant banker Ashok Wadhwa of Ambit, as well as Ranjit Pandit, the McKinsey head who is on the ABP board of directors. Scrutiny of Star's books, business plan and projections followed.

He had also been doing his political networking in Delhi. But the Centre's leading lights, close friends of rival Wadia, seem to have stayed out of the whole business, and all that Sarkar got for his pains was a sounding on a possible Rajya Sabha nomination. He said he was not interested, preferring to focus on his business.

Three weeks ago, he was certain that he was the front-runner, as Business Standard reported at the time. And by the time the ABP team met James Murdoch again in Mumbai last week, there was little doubt as to who would emerge as Murdoch's chosen partner, the only question being his ability to fork out the cash. That question too was soon answered.

Nevertheless, Sarkar presumably found an ally in his old friend from college days, Sunil Alagh. Alagh's wife Maya was one of Star's original investment partners, with a 5 per cent stake, and Sunil also happens to have been sacked earlier this year as chief executive by Wadia's Britannia Industries.

His telephonic discussion with Murdoch presumably touched on Wadia, though its principal purpose was something else. After that, there could be only one result, though there must be a new chill in the old friendship between Wadia and Sarkar.

BS Corporate Bureau in New Delhi