Chennai: At the recent high level meetings of the DMK in Chennai, Dayanidhi Maran didn’t look his usual self.
He did smile and appeared to mix with party colleagues including Karunanidhi’s immediate family members, yet he appeared to be lost in thoughts. Perhaps the foreshadow of the Rs 550 crore ED slap and a possible CBI-chargesheet preoccupied him.
An otherwise affable and boisterous Daya, as he is called by people close to him, usually keeps in touch with his media friends, sometimes even exchanging text messages; but of late he is not accessible. Journalists close to him say that they don’t know where he is and those close to the party say that at present he is in Delhi.
His neighbours in the posh Boat Club area of Chennai do not seem to care. Perhaps they smirk at the fact that he and his tycoon brother Kalanidhi Maran have brought the CBI and the ED to their quiet neighbourhood.
Kalanidhi, a highly successful businessman and a Forbes A-lister, is also invisible in Chennai these days. The last time the city heard of him was in July when he was summoned by the police in connection with the arrest of one his right hand men, the CEO of his movie production company. Kalanidhi sent his lawyers to the police station and bought time, while the police spread an inter-state dragnet to locate him. Mysteriously, the pressure on him from the police seemed to have died down.
In fact, it was in the same July that the present spate of trouble for the Marans began. Early in July, Dayanidhi had to resign amid media reports quoting him saying “it’s all over.” Whether he really meant it or not, his fortune really plunged low. The DMK leadership (read Karunanidhi), that was sulking and sobbing over Kanimozhi, appeared cold and even said that he had the resources to manage his trouble.
But it was the political trouble in the DMK four years ago that foretold the present fall of the Marans. In what looked like a ploy that went awfully wrong, Kalanidhi’s newspaper Dinakaran had published an opinion poll that said majority of the people (70 percent) in Tamil Nadu wanted MK Stalin to inherit the mantle of Karunanidhi. The older son, MK Alagari, whom the survey said had only two percent support of the people, was furious; and the newspaper office was gutted, killing three of his employees. Karunanidhi also thought it was plain mischief and ordered the Marans out of his household. The whole family thought that they were trying to break them up.
It was also an opportunity that Kanimozhi was looking for to claim Delhi for herself. Karunanidhi removed Dayanidhi, who was his eyes and ears in the capital, from the ministership, and the party cadre distanced themselves from their MP, who had polled a record 67% votes in his parliamentary constituency.
Not stopping at that, the DMK (read Karunanidhi’s family) started its own TV channel (Kalaignar TV) and hurriedly rolled out a government cable company (Arasu cable) to break the TV and distribution monopoly of the Sun Group. Dayanidhi went into political exile while trying to patch up. Finally, it took several months before the Marans could get back to the Karunanidhi household.
According to sources, the brothers had to address the family’s grouse that they made chunks of money with the patronage of the party and the family, but gave them peanuts. Interestingly, in the Nira Radia tapes, Vir Sanghvi was heard telling Radia about the amount of money that was allegedly paid by the Marans.
Dayanidhi re-entered the Union cabinet, but had lost all his sheen both as a minister and as the DMK-man in Delhi. The brothers however patched up with Alagiri and Stalin and reportedly even partied together while Kanimozhi was in trouble.
Although in trouble now, even detractors admit that the brothers are smart. From a westernised businessman, Dayanidhi easily transformed into a politician, riding on the social and political capital created by his father Murasoli Maran, who was a former Union minister, while a highly enterprising Kalanidhi built a multi-billion dollar (US$ 4 according to Forbes) empire in media (the Sun group) and aviation (Spice Jet) from practically nothing.
Kalanidhi’s success story is a must-read for entrepreneurs in India. Armed with an MBA from a US university, he started off in Tamil print media, but soon ventured into a highly uncertain and capital-intensive frontier area – language broadcast – when the sector was heavily burdened by government controls and import regimes. Starting with a video magazine, he acquired the necessary skills in TV and began broadcasting his Sun TV in 1993 from “Anna Arivalayam,” the DMK headquarters.
He was a pioneer in sensing the future and innovative use of technology and political climate. Interestingly, he built his early viewership by fighting a tough AIADMK government, who was in power when he established Sun TV. Meeting him those days was a pleasure – he was all enthusiasm, enterprise and technological savvy.
For instance, when live telecast was not allowed from India, he used low bandwidth video conferencing links to Singapore to telecast the infamous wedding of Jayalalithaa’s “foster son”. Subsequent DMK government in 1996 ensured that he had privileged access to everything possible and Sun TV ran several prized exclusives. He also ventured into other southern languages, setting up channels in Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu and started additional channels in these languages. He was also one of the few youth icons who shared a round-table with visiting former US President Bill Clinton.
Now Kalanidhi’s Sun group is hailed one of the most profitable media groups in Asia. It has 25 TV channels, 45 radio stations, two newspapers and four magazines. He also controls the TV distribution on and off the ground in Tamil Nadu, with his Sumangali Cable Vision and Sun Direct. It was the investment in Sun Direct that has landed him in trouble.
During the last DMK regime, he also ventured into movie production with his Sun Pictures and produced some of the blockbusters such as Rajinikanth’s ‘Enthiran’. Political muscle ensured that Sun-TV and Sun-Pictures together could nearly monopolise movie production, satellite broadcast rights of movies and TV business. Along with the two grandsons of Karunanidhi, the family had a pincer-like grip on the entertainment industry in the state. Those who fought this authority, including top actors and producers, were muscled out.
When Jayalalithaa came to power, it was the Murdochian Kalanidhi and not Karunanidhi, that was her initial target. She sent the CEO of Sun Pictures to jail on whom cases were piled up. The guy, who was otherwise a terror in the film industry, spent a month in jail and came out completely beaten down. She then broke his monopoly in the cable segment by reviving the Arasu cable that Karunanidhi started and then dropped, and imposed heavy tax on DTH. With the backing of the government machinery, the Arasu cable is clawing deeper and faster into every part of the state along with its bouquet of favourite channels.
If the DMK was accused of helping the spread of Sun TV and Sumangali cable TV by distributing free TV sets during its regime, the same TV sets are now being used to break the Sun monopoly by the Jayalalitha government through the Arasu cable. The first signs of the decline are already seen. A newly formed news channel, Puthiya Thalamurai, has pushed Sun’s 24/7 news channel to the third position.
Sources close to the party say that the DMK will continue to exhibit some apparent support to the Marans, but it will be mostly for public consumption. The brothers will have to fight this battle themselves.
The Maran brothers represent the two sectors that are inextricably linked in India – politics and business. It has never come this close before probably because politicians and businessmen never operated this close. Perhaps that is where they should have been careful.