James Murdoch left Mumbai on Thursday for a group conference in Dubai, accompanied by the top management of his Star News, without announcing a new Indian partner for the company.
Before he left, he had two surprise visitors at the Star News office in Mumbai: Vineet Jain and Vijay Jindal of the Times of India. The Times group has been a leading member of the media group that has been lobbying with the government in opposition to Star's investment/shareholding plans.
It is understood that no choice of Star's partner will be announced for another week. The company has till September 28 to make an application to the government for approval of a new equity structure that will be within recently announced guidelines for TV news companies.
Despite the sudden interest shown by the Times group, the frontrunners to become the majority shareholder in Star remain the Kolkata-based publisher ABP, led by Aveek Sarkar, and Nusli Wadia of Bombay Dyeing.
Wadia had dinner with Murdoch on Wednesday night, while Sarkar met him earlier in the day. Among the other visitors who are understood to have met Murdoch in Mumbai are Sunil Alagh, the recently sacked chief executive of Britannia Industries, where Wadia is the chairman and one of the two controlling shareholders. Alagh is known to be a close friend of Sarkar.
According to some sources, Star is inclined to go with Sarkar and ABP, on the grounds that it is a media group and believed generally to be a congenial partner. The big question is ABP's ability to fund its share of the investment.
Contrary to earlier assessments that have placed the total equity for the company that will own Star News at about Rs 40 crore (Rs 400 million), the Indian partner alone will be expected to fork out upwards of Rs 75 crore (Rs 750 million). ABP is a private limited company and its accounts are therefore not available for scrutiny.
The company is known to have sharply improved its financial performance in recent years, but whether that will facilitate such a large investment is the question for which Star is understood to be seeking answers.
Wadia's financial ability is not in question, and he has the advantage of strong political connections, as well as a personal relationship with Rupert Murdoch, father of James Murdoch and founder of the group.
However, Wadia has no news background, other than a past association with Indian Express, where he was on its board for some years.Those who have dropped out of the running include the Hindustan Times, whose vice-chairperson Shobhana Bhartia had travelled to London some weeks ago to make a pitch for becoming Star's Indian partner. Bhartia did not meet Murdoch on his India visit. Meanwhile, little is known about the Hinduja bid, and the assessment of informed sources is that they are not among the frontrunners.