Jaihind Television, a Malayalam channel promoted by India's ruling Indian National Congress (INC) party, has set up a regional operation.
An event held in Dubai to celebrate the launch was attended by leading members of the Keralite community in the UAE and a number of political figures and film stars flown in from the state for the event.
The launch of Jaihind raises the number of Malayalam TV channels in the region to 14 – and most have a presence at Dubai Media City. But Jaihind claims a first as the only Malayalam station operating from Dubai Studio City. The channel is targeting the overseas Malayali community concentrated in the UAE and other GCC countries, and operates under the slogan "For the family and for the nation". It is competing in a media market dominated by established Malayalam TV channels, radio stations, newspapers, magazines and internet blogs.
"The Middle East launch of Jaihind TV is a milestone for the INC," Ramesh Chennithala, President of the Jaihind channel and of Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC), told Emirates Business. "The party plans to launch similar vernacular channels in Karnataka, Maharashtra and the greater Hindi heartland to revive the Congress party's image throughout the country before the next general election scheduled for next year."
Chennithala said the people of Kerala were politically and culturally active and other political parties were using TV channels to influence public opinion.
"Jaihind TV was launched in Kerala in August 2007 by Sonia Gandhi, the INC President," he added. "Kerala was chosen for the party's first channel because of political pressure from the Communist Party of India (CPM- Marxist), our main opponent. The CPM had been successfully running three Malayalam channels – Kairali, the People and We and a newspaper."
However, critics say the INC has recently decided to close down the National Herald, an English daily started by Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, during the Indian independence campaign. Navajivan and Quami Awaz, the Hindi and Urdu newspapers started to promote patriotism and nationalism by Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru are also facing closure due to financial difficulties and lack of advertising support.
Veekshanam, a Malayalam newspaper run by the KPCC, also ran into financial difficulties but was saved by new funding. Its editor, Benny Behnan, said: "Veekshanam has been revived and has been running successfully for the last three years with five editions. We are planning more editions including a Middle East one. Now the party's focus is on electronic media, which is more powerful than the print media."
Chennithala added: "KPCC has a controlling share in Jaihind Communications, the company that manages the Jaihind TV channel. Most of the investment required in the Gulf is expected to come from private investors, especially affluent non-resident Indian (NRI) businessmen.
"As NRIs can invest only 26 per cent share in a television channel a company called Bharat Broadcasting Network has been formed with investment from a UAE-based Malayali businessman, Aniyan Kutty, Managing Director of Clarion Shipping and other businesses in the UAE. It is a cross-shareholding pattern with a 26 per cent stake held by Bharat."
Seven prominent NRI businessmen from Dubai are directors of Jaihind Global Communications, which will run the UAE operation.
They include MA Yousuf Ali, Managing Director of the Emke group, which runs the Lulu supermarket chain, BR Shetty, Chairman of the UAE Exchange and NMC Group, Sunny Varkey of the Varkey Group, which manages the GEMS schools, EM Babu, Sidharth Balachandran and Thomas Mathew.
Yousuf Ali, Director of the Jaihind channel, said: "A number of Malayalam channels have started with investment from UAE-based NRIs. In the case of Jaihind TV also, many NRI have invested money and welcomed the new channel. Soon it will be available on E-Vision, making it more visible among the 1.5 million strong Keralite community."
Political observers say setbacks suffered by the Congress in recent state elections are due to high inflation, rises in the cost of basic foods and other problems. They expect the TV channel will carry out a damage control exercise to help the party regain popularity.
EM Ashraf, Middle East Bureau Chief of Kairali TV, said: "The CPM has been successfully running three channels and a newspaper – Deshabimani.
"Whatever the political affiliation of a channel, viewers will select the best programmes that offer professionalism and high standards. Kairali channels are not viewed by CPM supporters alone – we have viewers from all walks of life."
Kairali, too, was partly funded by NRI investors from the GCC and its Middle East operation is generating good advertising revenue.
The UAE chapters of various groups owing allegiance to the Congress party are divided and often fight. It remains to be seen whether these factions, like their counterparts back home, will remain united behind the TV channel.
Biju Abel Jacob, Head of Middle East News, Jaihind TV, said: "It is a common trend to see political parties and religious groups starting their own TV channels in India. In the near future we will have channels for all political parties in India and working for a TV channel run by the INC is not going to affect my objectivity as a journalist. There may be a natural bias but the news coverage will have maximum objectivity."
UAE-based Jacob will present a programme called Gulf Around, similar to the Gulf Round-up show he started and popularised a few years ago in Asianet.
Jaihind will also broadcast news-based entertainment programmes, a health show, a Middle East business feature, travelogues and reality shows in the UAE. Jaihind appears to be paying higher salaries than its rivals, said industry sources.
A media observer said: "Due to poor payment and the employment of inexperienced journalists the quality of Gulf-based programmes on many Kerala channels has been deteriorating.
"If Gulf Around can make a difference Jaihind TV will definitely attract Malayali viewers in Gulf. Some programmes on other Gulf Malayali channels are not worth watching."
However, to what extent journalists can make a difference is a billion-dollar question. As usual there will be regular conflicts of interest between advertisers and editorial freedom as most prominent advertisers in the Gulf are represented on the board. It will be a tightrope walk for Jaihind journalists to maintain a reasonable balance in their coverage.
A number of Malayali media ventures in the Gulf region have failed in the past. Bharat TV, a much-publicised television channel started by a group of NRI investors from the UAE and Bahrain, was closed down after it failed to attract advertisers and viewers.
Vernacular media gaining ground with advertisers
Big advertisers in the GCC are looking positively at the vernacular media because English-language outlets have increased their advertising rates by up to 400 per cent in the last two years, says a market expert.
The number of Keralites in the Middle East and a qualitative change in the expatriate profile from the labour class to qualified professionals are further positive trends for vernacular TV channels and newspapers, according to Zachariah Mohammed, Chief Operating Officer of Gulf Madhayamam.
"Keralites form the single largest market for many products in the region and even multinational companies advertise their products in the Malayalam media, especially TV and newspapers," he said. "Malayalam TV and newspaper advertisement rates are much lower than those of their English or Arabic counterparts.
"Advertising revenues of Malayalam media in the Gulf have been going up for the last five years as there has been considerable growth in the communities' purchasing power.
"Unskilled workers who leave the Gulf are replaced with qualified professionals. There are 3.5 million Keralites in Kuwait. The leading channels retain their share as new advert inflows keep the market growing."