The Pandora’s box is open. As Jayalalithaa cracks down, Jeemon Jacob lists what Azhagiri and his men have to hide
FOR THE DMK and its supremo M Karunanidhi, 2011 is turning out to be the year of the great fall. The drubbing at the hands of arch-rival J Jayalalithaa in the April poll saw the party reduced to a non-entity with just 23 seats in the 234-member Tamil Nadu Assembly. The party’s fortunes at the Centre, where the DMK is an alliance partner in the UPA government, has been equally disastrous. Already, former Union telecom minister A Raja is cooling his heels in Tihar Jail for his role in the 2G spectrum scam; followed by the DMK patriarch’s daughter MK Kanimozhi, also arrested in the spectrum scam. The latest head to roll from the DMK ranks was Raja’s predecessor and Karunanidhi’s grand-nephew, Dayanidhi Maran, who was forced to quit as Union textiles minister for his role in the same scam. And while the CBI is doing its job at the Centre, Jayalalithaa has begun her ‘operation clean-up’ in Karunanidhi’s elder son MK Azhagiri’s backyard, Madurai.
The Union Chemicals and Fertilisers Minister has been itching to get back from his uncomfortable stint at the Centre to his comfort zone Madurai to take better control of the party. But he must be having second thoughts now because, in keeping with her election promise, Jayalalithaa is gunning for Azhagiri. And before getting to him, she is targeting his henchmen — the very men who give (in Jaya’s own words) ‘the rowdy’ his muscle power. Last week’s crackdown saw four of Azhagiri’s close associates put behind bars over allegations of land-grab in Madurai. It’s being alleged that the accused are the frontmen for Azhagiri’s vast benami land holdings and a maze of businesses in India and abroad (see box-‘All the Thalaivar’s men’ ). What these arrests mean is that Azhagiri himself could soon be caught in the legal tangle.
Arrested on 19 July, this Azhagiri group who gave him the muscle in return for money is dominated by the notorious Pottu Suresh, considered as Azhagiri’s eyes, ears and limbs in Madurai district. So, as Pottu Suresh, with his trademark dab of vermillion on his forehead, was put behind bars, Azhagiri rushed to the Palayamkottai Central Prison in Tirunelveli to assure him on the morning of 20 July. (In contrast, Azhagiri waited almost a week before meeting his sister Kanimozhi in Tihar Jail and once inside reluctantly paid a visit along with Dayanidhi Maran to the other DMK biggie, A Raja, as well.) An indication of how dear Suresh, with his street-smart skills, is in Azhagiri’s scheme of things.
Arrested along with Suresh were G Thalapathi, Krishna Pandi and Kodi Chandrasekharan. “I only called on my friends, nothing else,” Azhagiri later told the media. According to sources, the Union minister has promised them the best legal aid possible. With assets worth more than Rs 500 crore, Suresh, 42, has been Azhagiri’s most trusted henchman for years. He commands a mafia of 100-odd men. Hailing from Srivilliputhur, he started off as a teashop owner in Madurai. Soon he came in contact with Azhagiri, who made him his right-hand man. Locals say such was Suresh’s clout during the DMK rule that he decided the postings of senior police officers. Suresh’s business interests include PRK Constructions and Sahora Engineering Works. “Even ministers used to get up to greet him,” says a senior police officer, a testimony to the power wielded by Suresh, who was elevated to the post of DMK executive council member by Azhagiri.
Azhagiri’s wife and son are in trouble for grabbing land belonging to the Meenakshi temple
ANOTHER BIG beneficiary of Azhagiri’s largesse is DMK Madurai district secretary Thalapathi. The 42-year-old is a railway contractor and owns several quarry licences for sand, gravel and blue metals. He has undertaken several national highway projects and controls a business with a turnover of Rs 400 crore. Azhagiri’s meteoric rise started taking shape in 1996 when he weeded out senior party leaders who challenged him and replaced them with his cronies. It was Thalapathi who offered him unstinted support and later Pottu Suresh joined them with his musclemen. With their support, Azhagiri expanded his domain beyond Madurai to neighbouring districts like Theni, Dindigul and Sivaganga.
And it’s not only Azhagiri’s men who are being hounded. Other officers believed to be close to the DMK top brass have also started running for cover. As if his transfer to the Sri Lankan Tamil refugee camp at Mandapam was not enough, former additional DGP (Intelligence) Jaffer Sait is now in the anti-corruption dragnet. Considered to be right-hand man of Karunanidhi for the past five years, Sait’s house was raided last week as part of Jayalalithaa’s clean-up drive. There are allegations that the 1986 batch IPS officer was allotted a plot worth Rs 1.20 crore in Thiruvanmiyur at a throwaway price by the DMK government.
HOWEVER, MORE than anyone else in the DMK leadership, it is Azhagiri who is at the receiving end of the justice-tipped vendetta drive in Tamil Nadu right now. Documents available with TEHELKA and information provided by intelligence and police sources show the massive extent of the wealth and properties owned by Azhagiri, his family members and close associates. While four of his core group members are already behind bars, Azhagiri’s wife and son also figure in a land-grab case in Madurai.
The temple city has been Azhagiri’s fiefdom for the past 30 years. It all started with a banishment. In the early 1980s, Karunanidhi had sent Azhagiri, then a bank employee, to Madurai, also his wife Kanthi Azhagiri’s hometown. He was to run the Madurai edition of the DMK mouthpiece Murasoli but was given no say in editorial decisions. He soon lost interest and directed his energies towards other profitable ventures. On paper, Azhagiri runs a TV channel, a cable service provider (Royal Video), a wedding hall and a sari shop. But covertly, he also controls the muscle power and moneybags that run the city — the contractors, brokers and land mafia.
Azhagiri’s initial days in Madurai were not easy. Senior DMK leaders distanced themselves from him as he was Karunanidhi’s prodigal son. But he used his guile and musclemen to carve a niche for himself. Former highways minister Pasumpon T Kiruttinan used to be the one who controlled the DMK’s fortunes in the southern districts. After Kiruttinan’s murder in 2003,the coast was clear for Azhagiri. Though accused of being the main conspirator behind Kiruttinan’s murder, Azhagiri was acquitted as the prosecution could not prove his role in the crime beyond reasonable doubt.
SINCE THEN, Azhagiri has built up a vast business empire. Though his disclosed assets stand at Rs 133.65 crore (declared after the 2009 Lok Sabha elections), his undisclosed assets and benami holdings seem to be worth more than Rs 3,500 crore (see box – ‘The cash tree’). He has invested heavily in land, film production and distribution, real estate, healthcare, mining and education in the name of his family members and close associates.
The special cell has received 2,700 complaints and filed 179 cases. DMK men top the list
His wife Kanthi, son Dayanidhi, daughters Kayalvizhi and Anjuga Selvi, daughter- in-law Anushka and sons-in-law YK Venkatesh and Vivek Rathinavel, have a number of properties and businesses in their names. Intelligence sources claim that apart from the family-owned ventures, his trusted men control and run his business interests in Mauritius, Virgin Islands, the US, Singapore and Australia.
According to his asset declaration, Azhagiri owns 18 acres and 63 cents of agricultural land, 1 acre and 82 cents plus 23,278 sq ft non-agricultural land, a 20 cent plot, flats in Chennai and Madurai, Rs 4 crore in fixed deposit and Rs 1.39 crore in his savings account. He also declared 85 grams of gold, a Honda City car worth Rs 1.40 lakh, a Land Rover SUV worth Rs 1.20 lakh and a Rs 96 lakh investment in Dhaya Diagnostics. But his disclosure statement does not mention his assets in the MK Azhagiri Charitable Trust that runs Dhaya College of Engineering in Sivarakottai.
The trust is alleged to have violated norms while setting up the Dhaya College of Engineering on four acres of agricultural wetland in Sivarakottai on the banks of the Goundanathi river. On top of it, he is said to have grossly undervalued the worth of his properties. For example, the cost of a 1,100 sq ft flat at Raja Annamalaipuram in Chennai is declared at Rs 22 lakh, but the market price is around Rs 2.5 crore.
Similarly, Azhagiri’s wife Kanthi owns vast tracts of land in Tamil Nadu. She is the chairperson of Dhaya Cyber Park and is a trustee of the MK Azhagiri Educational Trust. Her declared assets include 48.82 acres of agricultural land, a 82.3 cent plot in Kodaikanal worth Rs 90 lakh, a 5,376 sq ft plot in Chennai worth Rs 4.30 crore, another 5,488 sq ft plot on Chamiers Road worth Rs 4.39 crore and a 3,060 sq ft plot in Pappakudi, Madurai, 4,378 sq ft Dhaya Kalyana Mahal in Madurai, 1,845 sq ft commercial property in Kottivakkam near Tambaram and a 1,320 sq ft flat in Mehtas Green Park in Madhavaram.
When Azhagiri declared the assets owned by Kanthi, he failed to mention the investments made by his wife in Dhaya Cyber Park. In a general body meeting on 3 September 2007 in Madurai, the authorised share capital of the company was raised from Rs 10 lakh to Rs 2 crore. However, Kanthi, who is the chairperson and managing director, has stated in the disclosure of assets that she has shares worth only Rs 10,000 in the company.
She also concealed a land deal that has come back to haunt her. The police have registered a land-grab case against Kanthi and lottery mafia king Santiago Martin for usurping more than four acres of prime land belonging to the Madurai Meenakshi Temple Trust. According to documents, Martin sold the land to Kanthi for Rs 85 lakh. Its current value is Rs 24 crore. It’s a mystery how Martin sold the land even though he had no documents to prove his ownership.
Azhagiri also carefully omitted some of the asset details of his son Dayanidhi. Though the latter is a trustee of Dhaya College of Engineering, Dhaya Dental College, managing director of JAK Communications, Cloud Nine Movies, director of Royal Cable Vision and Mahesh Elastomers, the asset disclosure statement does not list any of these business ventures. Dayanidhi started his ventures in 2008 and now holds 50 percent shares in cable operator JAK Communications, providing services in Chennai and Thiruvallur district. According to film industry sources, members of the DMK’s first family entered the film productioncum- distribution business to launder their black money.
Of course, partymen say Azhagiri is a benevolent leader and always helps his supporters. “All his loyalists have become millionaires overnight,” says a DMK insider on the condition of anonymity.
Political observers in Tamil Nadu say that behind Azhagiri’s insatiable hunger for power and wealth lies an intense sibling rivalry in the DMK clan. Apparently, Azhagiri built his empire to challenge younger brother MK Stalin, who was always favoured by the family. Azhagiri dreamt of succeeding Karunanidhi and knew that money and muscle power are imperative to achieving his dream.
Azhagiri’s associates grabbed land belonging to the poor, elderly, Dalits and even temple trusts. His clout in the government protected them from any legal action. When the DMKwas in power, Azhagiri and his men decided who received government contracts. They also oversaw the recruitment and transfers in the departments of police, education, revenue and excise. After Azhagiri was made the DMK’s organising secretary in the southern districts, it was an unspoken rule that ministers should consult his men before they announced development projects. This enabled Azhagiri’s associates to buy land for peanuts before the projects were announced.
Behind Azhagiri’s quest for power and wealth lies an intense sibling rivalry with Stalin
ACCORDING TO sources, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has set up a special police team to prepare a dossier on Azhagiri’s associates. The team is scrutinising complaints against them and monitoring the progress of investigation on a daily basis.
Additional DGP S George, however, claims that there is no politics involved in the crackdown. “We are only targeting anti-socials and land grabbers,” he says. “We have so far received 2,700 complaints after the special cell was set up. We have registered around 179 cases and are investigating. We are not bothered about political affiliations. We will act as per law and ensure fair investigation without malice.”
But senior DMK leader I Periasamy alleges that the Jayalalithaa government is trying to settle political scores by foisting false cases on DMK leaders. “We have seen similar tactics earlier when she was in power. But we will not yield to such undemocratic pressure tactics. Why isn’t the police taking action against AIADMK leaders who are accused in land-grab cases?”
It’s an open secret that George was brought to the police HQ to systematically lead the crackdown on DMK men. After the arrest of Azhagiri’s core group, his close associates are on the run. They include Madurai Mayor Thenmozhi Gopinathan, former minister KN Nehru, DMK leaders R Arivudainambi, E Anandan, Auto Manickam, SR Gopi, SR Maruthu, Thai Mooambigai Sethuraman, Balaji, Meenakshisundaram and Sugumar.
With the arrest of Pottu Suresh & Co, more and more people are coming forward to file complaints against Azhagiri’s men. At the same time, some Azhagiri associates are trying to buy peace with the AIADMK by providing information about his benami business. Though Azhagiri has gone out of his way to back his jailed loyalists, some are distancing themselves from him in a bid to protect their personal fortunes.
As Jayalalithaa tightens the noose around Azhagiri’s neck, he may find it tough to get support from his own party. Stalin is trying to clip Azhagiri’s wings in a bid to become the DMK’s supreme leader. Stalin wants to become the party president and his supporters are actively campaigning for his elevation. He feels that this is the best time as Kanimozhi is cooling her heels in Tihar Jail and Maran is out of the UPA Cabinet, and there is no one powerful enough to block his elevation. So Azhagiri’s troubles could be just what the doctor ordered for Stalin, who is itching to become the rising son.
Jeemon Jacob is Bureau Chief, South, with Tehelka.