Sunspots cast a glare on the Marans

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The brothers spent decades in the grey area between politics and business. Rohini Mohan tracks how one half has faltered

Family business Karunanidhi is flanked by Kalanidhi (left) and Dayanidhi Maran
Photo: Hindu Images

FIRST, WE must say thanks to the undeniable historicity of live video. On the last day of July in 2010, rolling cameras caught the open, cinematic sealing of a relationship that had been nurtured in MoUs and balance sheets since 1997.

From in between tinny robots, firebreathing dragons and virtually every Tamil film celebrity of any repute, Rajnikanth and Kalanidhi Maran emerged sporting wide, humble-as-can-be grins. Both wore matching blue shirts and black trousers. Just as Rajnikanth whipped out his spectacles and swung it stylishly towards his eyes, as if on cue, Kalanidhi too put on his glasses. The scene was shown, over and over, in slow motion, set to the hysterical shrieks of unseen fans and AR Rahman’s rousing background score from the film Endhiran, on the Malaysia-based Astro TV channel. Kalanidhi’s younger brother and Union Textiles Minister Dayanidhi had walked the red carpet a few minutes before that. So had a lesser- known man called Ananda Krishnan.

This is perhaps the most visible proof — in HD — of the Maran brothers’ highprofile connection with Astro Cable owner Krishnan. Kalanidhi’s Sun Pictures had produced the Rs150 crore Rajnikanth-starrer Endhiran, and Krishnan, a Malaysia-based business tycoon of Sri Lankan Tamil origin, had funded, organised and telecast live the film’s audio release in Putrajaya, Malaysia. Live on Astro Vaanavil, and for several re-telecasts after that, the Marans were shown sitting next to Rajnikanth on the first row, triumphantly beaming throughout the event. Krishnan had pulled off the biggest audio release in the history of Indian cinema for the Marans.

It was the extravagant culmination of a business partnership between Krishnan and the Sun Group, which according to some press reports, began more than 10 years ago, when they signed an MoU on 27 January 1997 in anticipation of the government sanctioning DTH services. Since Dayanidhi became the telecom minister in May 2004, and the FDI cap in the sector was increased to 74 percent, Krishnan has dug his heels deeper into India. He bought Aircel and later invested in Sun Direct and Sun FM Radio. It brings us to the question that confronts Dayanidhi, the politician, today: did he receive kickbacks from Krishnan in exchange for telecom licences?

As the questions and allegations swirl around them, the Marans find themselves in a familiar soup. For decades, they have inhabited this grey area that stretches between politics and business. It has given them huge success, but has often dragged them roughly in the mud. Like today.

Perhaps Dayanidhi’s real fault is not that he tried to profit from politics, but politics meant too little to him

The Marans were born not into business, but into the politics of Tamil Nadu. Their father, the late Murasoli Maran, was DMK chief M Karunanidhi’s nephew. Murasoli and Karunanidhi had both begun as journalists and writers, actively participating in the Dravidian movement. As Karunanidhi rose to the top, the urbane and educated Murasoli grew into his trusted strategist. Since the first DMK government in 1967, Murasoli had been an MP — the party’s voice at the Centre for 40 years.

While Karunanidhi’s sons Azhagiri and Stalin dived into politics early in their youth, the Marans were known to turn their noses up at it. Kalanidhi was doing an MBA from the University of Scranton, and Dayanidhi went to Harvard. When Kalanidhi returned in 1988, he apprenticed in family-owned magazines, and by 1993, started Sun TV, the first Tamil channel, with a loan from Indian Bank that was approved thanks to his DMK links. Today, he sits atop a media empire: 20 TV channels, 45 FM stations, two Tamil dailies, four magazines and an English newspaper.

He runs Sumangali Cable Vision (SCV), which despite AIADMK chief J Jayalalithaa’s fervent attempts at nationalising cable distribution, is a near-monopoly. Tamil Nadu has the highest TV penetration in the country: one-third of all TVs in India. Seventy percent of those have cable connections, and 60 percent of them subscribe to SCV.

When Murasoli died in 2003, Karunanidhi took an obvious, but also risky decision: he asked Dayanidhi to contest from the same Chennai constituency in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. The grandnephew, who could not speak chaste Tamil, first counted on Stalin to bring in the crowds. He soon learnt the ropes, but continued to dress ‘corporate’, in formal shirts and pants instead of khadi. As soon as he became MP, his granduncle wrested the telecom and IT ministry for him.

“Even though Dayanidhi was inexperienced and had initial disdain for politics, he was sophisticated enough to be the party’s bridge to Delhi,” says DMK spokesman TKS Elangovan. Back in Tamil Nadu, he sweetly referred to Karunanidhi as thatha (grandfather) in public forums, triggering nervousness among Kalaignar’s children.

From this point, the Marans fashioned different careers, but their fortunes were tied irrevocably. Apart from their collective economic force, from 2006, they also had the DMK government to count on for anything from speedier sanctions to an entirely free hand. Sun Network entered more homes, and SCV became more coercive, cutting cables of other operators, and messing with their signals. When Kalanidhi ventured into direct-to-home services, his brother protected that turf too.

“When Hathway and Airtel tried to make a foray into the DTH market, (telecom minister) Dayanidhi put dozens of obstacles in their way and SCV goons forced cable operators to protest,” alleges IAS officer C Umashankar, who was once appointed head of Arasu Cable, which Karunanidhi floated to shake the Sun empire, when miffed with what he called the Marans’ over-ambition. Along with Arasu, he also launched Kalaignar TV, after throwing Sun TV out of DMK’s Anna Arivalayam office. The dramatic family tussle eventually forced Dayanidhi to resign as minister.

FORMER DMK member and current DMDK adviser Panruti Ramachandran says, “We’re all guilty of wanting power, but I’d never give up my career because my uncle was angry.” After a pause he adds, “Maybe Dayanidhi is the smarter one, because he realised that giving up political power would make his businesses more powerful.” As soon as the families patched up, and the Marans had the CM’s blessings, they tore apart Arasu Cable’s network.

Soon, Kalanidhi bought a stake in lowcost airline SpiceJet and film production and distribution firm Sun Pictures. It has full control over Kollywood because it controls the consumption. Sun Network can market its own films for free while it charges a nifty fee from others. He is the real tycoon, the man with the business chops, and Karunanidhi is the last word in DMK politics. However, Dayanidhi is the ace in his brother’s sleeve. Every time he won an election, says political commentator Gnani, “it was because Sun (Network) and the rising sun (DMK)were behind him.”

The Union minister is now being accused of kickbacks, quid pro quo and corruption bigger than Raja’s 2G spectrum scam. As he sends out denials, and visits the PMO to explain himself, he is a man caught in the middle ground once again. Perhaps Dayanidhi’s real fault is not that he tried to profit from politics, but that politics meant too little to him. If he resigns now, it will be the second time he’s fallen prey to forces outside of politics.

With inputs from Sai Manish

Rohini Mohan is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka. 
rohini@tehelka.com

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