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Maran & Bros

For decades,the Marans have used their proximity to the power circles in Delhi.

Written by Gopu Mohan | Published: October 16, 2011 2:26:43 am

For over four decades,the Marans have walked the corridors of power in the national capital. While they did so,they flexed their financial and political muscle—first,father Murasoli Maran and later his sons,Dayanidhi and Kalanidhi. The younger Marans are among the richest in the country and among the most influential in Tamil Nadu,lording over an empire that includes the largest media house—20 television channels led by the flagship Sun TV which,the company claims,covers nearly 100 million households; 45 FM stations; one of the biggest DTH services; two newspapers,Dinakaran daily and the eveninger Tamil Murasu,and four magazines—a film production and distribution company and an airlines. Though the recent raids on the Maran brothers as part of the CBI’s probe into the 2G scam have revealed a complex pattern of wheeling and dealing,theirs was a humble start.

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Thyagaraja Sundaram was still a boy when his maternal uncle was gradually emerging as a political activist in their village Tirukkuvalai in the then Thanjavur district. Soon he followed him to capital Madras. As the politics he and his uncle M Karunanidhi were involved in was overtly anti-brahminical,he soon shed his Sankritised name and assumed the name Maran. When he took over as editor of the Karunanidhi-run daily Murasoli,he became ‘Murasoli Maran’.

In 1967,Maran became member of Parliament from South Madras,a seat DMK founder-general secretary C N Annadurai vacated when he became the first non-Congress Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. Critics say Karunanidhi engineered the nomination since Maran was the perfect man to be placed in Delhi as his trusted lieutenant.

“Maran was a senior figure in the party by then. He may not have reached where he did had he not been the nephew of the party chief,but he was still an important figure in the DMK—well-informed and articulate,attributes that the young party wanted from its representative in Delhi. He was the first DMK leader who started building relationships with north Indian politicians,” says writer and social commentator Gnani Sankaran.

With that election victory of 1967 began Maran’s connection with Delhi,which lasted 36 years and continued as a legacy that he handed down to his younger son Dayanidhi. In these long years,either as a Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha member of the party and its main emissary in the capital,he was the go-to guy for all leaders in Delhi who wanted to deal with the regional party. It was through him that Indira Gandhi sent a message of rapprochement to the party high command—she had dismissed Karunanidhi’s Government during Emergency and Maran himself was lodged behind bars under MISA.

His role was crucial in all the alliance decisions the DMK took at the national level. Like going with VP Singh to form the National Front in 1988 and joining the United Front that came into power ousting the Congress in 1996. Maran also played a significant hand in taking the rationalist party with a pronounced anti-Hindu stance to the BJP-led NDA. It shocked many partymen,some even termed it political suicide.

Even when he was preoccupied with the twists and turns of national politics,Maran never lost touch with the politics in Tamil Nadu. It is also said that by sending Maran to Delhi,Karunanidhi cleared the path for his younger son M K Stalin’s rise in the party. But Maran remained an influential voice. Party insiders say the uncle and nephew shared such a rapport that there was no fear of offending the senior when the matter at hand was significant. Once he even pulled up fellow partymen,asking them to work instead of hanging around Karunanidhi all the time.

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It is not just politics that Maran handed down to his sons Dayanidhi and Kalanidhi. The family had its presence in the media and film industry even before the present-day media mogul,elder son Kalanidhi,was born.

Maran was put in charge of Murasoli when Karunanidhi became a minister in Annadurai’s Cabinet in 1967. Like Karunanidhi,Annadurai and a host of other DMK leaders,Maran too had an active cinema career. He has written 20 screenplays,produced five films and directed two.

When Maran died in 2003,Karunanidhi was crestfallen—he said he had lost his conscience keeper. It was this emotional upheaval that prompted Karunanidhi to bring in the next generation of the Marans into public life. It is said that Kalanidhi was offered the chance first,but when he declined,the mantle fell on his younger brother and partner in business,Dayanidhi.

According to social commentator Sankaran,the primary difference between the two families lay in the way the children were brought up. While Karunanidhi remained an aloof father,Maran paid a keen interest in his children’s future. “Maran was like any upper middle class parent who gave the best possible education to his children. The difference (in upbringing,between the Karunanidhis and the Marans) shows.”

Kalanidhi did his schooling at Don Bosco School,graduated from Loyola College and topped it off with an MBA from the University of Scranton in the United States. After returning to India,Kalanidhi joined Kungumam,the Tamil magazine run by his family. Soon,he launched Sun TV as the first non-Doordarshan channel in Tamil Nadu. The group hasn’t stopped growing ever since.

During that pre-DTH era,Kalanidhi soon found out that it was essential to have a strong cable TV network to distribute the channel. The party helped him set up and sustain the network and many of the regional leaders became cable distribution operators. They helped him by allegedly arm-twisting grassroot operators to align with its Sumangali Cable Vision,of which Dayanidhi is managing director. Also,the party cadres provided an instant viewer base for the fledgling channel.

Functioning as the anti-AIADMK media outlet,the channel found enough fodder to take on the Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK during her first stint as Chief Minister between 1991 and 1996. Each of her deeds and misdeeds were telecast to houses across Tamil Nadu—the opulence of the wedding of Jaya’s foster son,the detailed inventory of Jaya’s sartorial collection when she was raided after being ousted from power in 1996 and that infamous midnight arrest of Karunanidhi five years later when the channel repeatedly beamed visuals of police personnel dragging out a former chief minister,a senior citizen.

Dayanidhi emerged from his elder brother’s shadow in 2004 after winning the general election and becoming IT and Communications minister in UPA-I. From a hesitant newcomer,he soon became a brash leader of the party who made up for his shortcomings as a grassroot politician with his lineage and proximity to Delhi’s power centres. His rise in the party was helped to a large extent by the media empire that covered his activities extensively—his speeches were telecast from start to finish.

What differentiated father Murasoli from his sons is tact,says a party insider. Maran Sr was nowhere near Karunanidhi when it came to public persona,and he never wanted it. Instead,he was the backroom man,the one with the plan. He had a hand in the party’s election manifesto and was among the most well-read and well-informed party leaders. The junior Marans inherited his shrewdness,not his tact.

This lack of skill is perhaps what made the brothers exaggerate Dayanidhi’s capabilities. Even before the Dinakaran survey—which projected Karunanidhi’s younger son Stalin as a more popular leader than elder son Azhagiri,and which effectively resulted in Karunanidhi pulling out Dayanidhi from the Centre and replacing him with A Raja—the daily ran a survey that projected Dayanidhi as the best performing Central minister from Tamil Nadu,bettering leaders of alliance partners such as P Chidambaram of the Congress,Anbumani Ramadoss of the PMK,and T R Baalu and others from the DMK. This caused heartburn and rang alarm bells in the party,warning them of the rise of a new power centre.

Over the years,the Sun Group emerged not just influential but also rich,propelling Kalanidhi to the list of richest Indians—with assets worth $3.5 billion,he is number 16 on Forbes’ list of richest Indians in 2011. In 2006,the brothers bought land spread over 55,344 sq ft from TVS at the posh Boat Club Road for Rs 80 crore; a year earlier,they had bought 28,000 sq ft from HSBC in the same area for Rs 42 crore. These were among the biggest real estate deals of that time.

Even while the Marans won awards for their “entrepreneurial skills”,they were derided for the path they followed to reach the top. “Marans typify the definition of crony capitalism in India. They can manage,manipulate,eliminate,exterminate and eradicate competition for their business using their political connections. That is their USP,” says political analyst MR Venkatesh.

Much before the Aircel controversy broke out,there was an allegation that as telecom minister,Dayanidhi threatened the Tata group that he would withhold telecom licences unless it parts with its stake in Tata Sky,the DTH operation that was in direct competition with Sun Group. Both Dayanidhi and the Tata group denied the allegation,but the Niira Radia tapes made clear the Tata group’s dislike for Dayanidhi.

There are many in the DMK who believe the brothers and the media they controlled played an important role in damaging the party’s image in the 2G scam case. The Marans’ deep dislike for Dayanidhi’s successor

A Raja,once their father’s assistant,and the internal politics in the family following Dayanidhi’s ouster from the Union Cabinet led to a situation where much of the news coverage focused on Raja and his deeds. This,party sources say,ended up hurting the DMK more than any one leader’s deeds.

In the months that followed,Raja had to quit as minister and was arrested for his alleged role in the 2G scam while Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi too has been in custody for nearly six months. The patriarch is deeply hurt and angry. Reports that he smiled when told about the CBI raids on the Marans are widely considered to be true.

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