By Bill Crawford
Raghav Bahl is one of India’s modern media pioneers. He is the founder of TV18, among the largest Indian broadcasting companies with interests in 27 news and entertainment TV channels including CNBC-TV18, India’s premier business channel. TV18 is also involved in film production, internet publishing, and owns a stable of 18 magazines, including Forbes India.
An award winning journalist, Bahl is the author of Superpower? The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise (2010 Penguin Allen Lane).
I spoke with Raghav Bahl about his book and the evolving media industry in China and India.
PP: With interests in so many different media, why did you decide to write a book?
RB: The book was a creature of a special place and time in my life. When the world financial crisis hit in 2008, I realized that for the next couple years, things would be slow, and I would have some extra time.
The other circumstance was more personal. I was a fairly active journalist through the ’90s, and then at the turn of the century really started focusing much more on the business and the entrepreneurial side of my calling. After about seven or eight years, I felt like asking myself the question, did I have it in me to do something that was cerebral, journalistic and better than what I could do in the ’90s? And writing a book has one advantage over other media. Extreme flexibility. You can write a book anywhere and anytime, unlike doing a television show where you need to be in a studio at a particular time.
Why did you choose the subject of comparing India’s tortoise to China’s hare?
Through the ’90s, I had a ringside view of India’s economic transformation. I was right there in the middle as an entrepreneur and business journalist. When both India and China started opening up to the world, India had a bigger GDP per capita than China. India was far more diversified economically and far more evolved institutionally. But when I started writing the book, China’s GDP was three and a half times India’s size. So I was motivated to find out how China did what it did and how India did not do what it needed to do.
I think the one thing that China has done enormously well is to marshal the state and therefore extract surplus from its own economy. And then to use those surpluses to build out great infrastructure. Of course, China now has to face a tougher part of that reform as it tries to create a far more equitable economy and a far more equitable society with a rising demand for openness, and transparency and freedom.
India did it exactly the other way around. India first created conditions of democracy and openness with reasonably good laws and reasonably strong institutions. So it’s been fascinating to compare two contiguous countries, both with enormous populations, who have adopted very different economic and social models.
India is far ahead of China in developing an open and competitive media sector. What does that mean to China and India in terms of international influence and eventual economic success?
This comes back to the two models each country has developed. India has adopted the classic liberal western democratic model, of course adapted to India’s cultural nuances. It’s very similar model to the US and European model, which is really a model of a plural, diversified democracy, largely federal in structure. Like the US, India has developed a vibrant media business because of its openness and its pluralism. There are twenty-six Indian states, each with a different language, so each state is like a European country. Each state also has its own media and publishing businesses in its own languages so India is necessarily building a hugely diversified media edifice because of the structure of its democracy.
Media thrives in an open democratic society because it is based on the plurality of views and the freedom to express those views.
China is clearly a state controlled model. Most of the media businesses are owned by the state. And they are nowhere near as efficient or as competitive as in India where you have free entry and exit to the market.
How does the book publishing industry fit into picture of media business in India today?
In America, the media developed sequentially. First there was book publishing and newspapers, then there was radio, then there was television, then there was the internet and now there are the smart devices.
In India a lot of the sequential evolutions that have happened in America over the last 60 to 70 years have been telescoped into the last ten or twelve years. Today, all media, including book publishing, are developing in parallel. Book publishing has expanded dramatically, both in the English language and in the regional languages. In the ’80s or ’90s, Indian readers of English would read books published in England and America. Now, Indian authors writing cheap and cheerful fiction in English, with Indian characters and Indian settings, are finding huge audiences. Chetan Bhagat, for example, is a celebrity, he writes in English, and the film rights to his books are immediately snapped up.
Local book publishers like Rupa & Co. are finding very meaningful business, and the production quality of their books is equal to the quality that you get in the west.
All of this is now happening along with the Kindle and iPad revolution which is fairly large in India.
In the future, do you think that ebooks and other English language media produceed in India will find an overseas market and command a higher price point?
My sense is that contemporary non-fiction books, on politics, business, economics and world affairs will certainly find an overseas market, perhaps even at higher price points. I am currently not that sure whether English language fiction books from Indian authors produced in India will be able to cross over so easily.
In the future do you think that publishing will continue to boom in India, or will it start to shrink quickly with the incredibly rapid parallell rise of other media?
Publishing will continue to boom, along with the rapid rise of other media, simply because India is in the grip of a rapid demographic transition where a very large number of young people are entering the ranks of a literate/educated workforce. These “new recruits” to literacy, especially in smaller cities or newer/younger urban areas, will continue to consume publishing material in every form, including on traditional media/paper.
Did your book accomplish what you wanted it to accomplish personally?
Yes, it was extremely satisfying. I proved to myself that I still had it in me to do something somewhat cerebral, somewhat journalistic and somewhat disciplined. And I have found that once you’ve written one book, you start getting the itch to do it all over again.