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The Barons of Nagpur

The story of how the Dardas,now at the centre of the coal block allotment storm,built political clout and a formidable business empire

Written by Vivek Deshpande |
September 9, 2012 1:58:38 am

The Darda family is no stranger to controversy. The latest one—the CBI has filed an FIR against media barons and Congress politicians Vijay and his brother Rajendra Darda in the coal block allotment case—has not come as a surprise to those who have watched their careers and that of their father before them.

It was in the early sixties that Jawaharlal Darda,a young clothes salesman from Yavatmal in Maharashtra who called himself a freedom fighter,gradually but firmly entrenched himself in the Congress. A glib talker,Jawaharlal endeared himself to then Maharashtra chief minister Vasantrao Naik (1963-75),becoming his close confidant. He became a member of the Legislative Council in 1972 and remained one for six terms till 1996. He was made chairman of the State Housing Finance Development Corporation and it was during this stint that he first came under a cloud. A Marathi magazine,Manoos,carried reports on Jawaharlal’s alleged misdemeanours and he retaliated by filing multiple cases against the publishers. Manoos struggled to cope with the hearings and eventually lost the case.

Meanwhile,in 1971,Jawaharlal had launched Lokmat,a Marathi daily from Nagpur. The newspaper is said to have played a key role in the Congress’s return to power in Maharashtra in 1978. Jawaharlal was rewarded with his first Cabinet berth,one which he held on to for many years.

Jawaharlal spoke often about being a “freedom fighter” and of his time in jail during the struggle for Independence but there are many who rubbish his claim. Motilal Chhallani,a freedom fighter and a Gandhian from Nagpur,had once alleged that Jawaharlal had been in jail for other reasons. The Dardas dismiss the allegations,saying there are “government records that say he was in Jabalpur jail for two-and-a-half years. There are photographs of him in the Azad Hind Sena uniform.”

The criticism may have tarnished Jawaharlal’s reputation but couldn’t eclipse it. Jawaharlal died in 1997 and eight years later,a stamp was released in his honour at a function attended among others by L K Advani,who paid glowing tributes to the late Congressman.

The son takes over

After Jawaharlal’s death,his son Vijay stepped into his father’s shoes. Under him,the Darda empire expanded rapidly. Over the years,the 13-edition group became the fifth largest-selling newspaper in India. At present,its networth is said to be in the range of Rs 2,000 crore. While the company’s corporate office is in Mumbai,its administrative headquarter is in Nagpur’s sprawling 13-storey Lokmat Bhavan building.

Like his father,Vijay,who is chairman and editor-in-chief of the Lokmat group,too,has lived in the shadow of controversies. In Nagpur’s ugly media war in the 80s,Nagpur Times,then an influential local English daily,ran a sustained campaign against the Dardas,carrying reports of “illegalities” in the construction of the 13-storey Lokmat Bhavan in Nagpur.

“We were only lease owners. The Mittals of Mumbai were in charge of construction. We had later asked the Mittals to rectify it and it was done. We work a lot,hence our detractors spin stories against us. All our operations are in the public domain. Nothing has been proved against us in any case till date. No charges have been framed. Show me a verdict that has gone against us. In the coal blocks case too,we will come out unscathed in the end as we have done no wrong,” says Devendra Darda,Vijay’s son and Lokmat Group’s managing director.

Till a few years ago,Lokmat was the target of an intensive campaign run by rival newspapers. The ambitious Dardas,however,not only proved to be gritty survivors but also eventually launched two more dailies in the 80s—Lokmat Samachar in Hindi and Lokmat Times in English. A few years ago,the group joined hands with IBN to launch Marathi news channel IBN Lokmat.

Sixty one-year-old Vijay Darda has also held positions in media organisations,having served as the chairman of the Audit Bureau of Circulation,president of the Indian Newspaper Society and founder-president of the South Asian Editors’ Forum. He is also a member of the Press Council of India and managing trustee of the Press Institute of Maharashtra. In his capacity as a journalist,he has often accompanied prime ministers and presidents to various global events and deliberations.

In the mid-80s,the Lokmat group split with Vijay leading the Lokmat Newspapers Pvt Ltd,Nagpur,and Rajendra heading the Prithvi Prakashan Pvt Ltd,Aurangabad. However,in 2008,the brothers got back together and merged their firms into one: Lokmat Media Pvt Ltd.

Political hand

Like his father,Vijay always knew the importance of having a foothold in politics. In 1998,he went against the Congress,defeating party nominee Ram Pradhan and got elected to the Rajya Sabha as an Independent. Once in the Rajya Sabha,he used his clout to get the party to take him back.

In the following years,Darda developed powerful contacts not just in the Congress but in other parties too and got elected to the Rajya Sabha in 2004 and 2010. He has also served as member of several important parliamentary committees.

Vijay’s younger brother Rajendra,now 60,too joined politics,choosing to contest elections from Aurangabad,from where he was elected three times since 1998. He has served as Minister for Energy and Home and is currently Minister for Education in the Maharashtra Cabinet.

In the early 2000s,another controversy hit the Dardas. After the Kargil war,the Lokmat Group launched a fund for Kargil martyrs’ kin,collecting donations that ran into crores. A hostel was built for the wards of the victims,raising questions about how many would actually be able to use it since the martyrs were from all over the country and their children,then very young,were unlikely to come to Nagpur. “We built three hostels at Nagpur,Solapur and Aurangabad and handed them over to the defence authorities. Doubting Thomases can go and see how they are being used,” says Devendra.

Vijay Darda,meanwhile,got close to Manoj Jayaswal,who heads the Abhijeet Group that’s also headquartered in Nagpur and who too now stands accused in the coal block case. In fact,when Manoj Jayaswal parted ways with his family a couple of years ago,it was attributed to his friendship with Vijay Darda.

Yavatmal: the home turf

In their hometown Yavatmal,the Dardas live in a swanky house that’s spread over several acres. Here,Jawaharlal Darda has a samadhi spread over seven acres. From the city airport to the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee,the Dardas have managed to name many buildings and public spaces after Jawaharlal. In fact,the Shiv Sena had put up a stiff resistance when the airport was named after Jawaharlal. Ironically,years later,when Sena supremo Bal Thackeray visited Nagpur,he visited their home.

In Yavatmal,the Dardas are associated with a number of institutions. The well-known Amolakchand Mahavidyalaya at Yavatmal,named after the father of one Satyanarayan Amolakchand Dhoot,is under the control of the Dardas. Two years ago,they sought to name a law college after Jawaharlal’s father,who too is called Amolakchand,but Satyanarayan Dhoot’s daughter Kavita managed to get a stay from the High Court. “My father brought the institution out of shambles by pumping in money. It’s under our control. The lady is creating an unnecessary controversy,” says Devendra.

The Darda’s dispute-list runs long. A few years ago,they had organised a Bhagwat Sandhya Parva in Yavatmal where donations were collected to reportedly build a super-specialty hospital. The hospital is nowhere in sight yet.

In the early 90s,local activists accused them of appropriating a 30,000-sq-ft open utility space. The Dardas had opened a school there and constructed a compound wall. When the activists objected,the Dardas said they had put up the wall to prevent encroachments and that it is still open to the common public. Devendra admits they had flouted rules but says they had offered to fix it. “Yes,we did carry out some extra construction and it was a violation. But we told the Collector it had happened by mistake. But the school was in Wadgaon gram panchayat jurisdiction and no FSI norms were then applicable to gram panchayats. They became applicable only later. We said either regularise the school or raze it. We also offered 30,000 sq ft land in exchange. The authorities did nothing.”

Among the many accusations the Dardas face,one is that Vijay used his MP fund to buy computers for his institutions. The district administration later served a notice on Vijay. “No MP directly releases funds. They are routed through the Collector on the MP’s recommendation. Question may be asked on how an MP can recommend its use for his own institutions. My father did it for the future of students. A local person went to court against us. The court wrote to the Collector and Superintendent of Police. The SP took it up suo motu and sent an adverse report to the MPLADS Director. We filed a case against the SP,Collector and some other government officials. The truth will be out soon,” says Devendra.

Another Darda institution that ran into trouble was the Jawaharlal Darda Institute of Engineering and Technology in Yavatmal. The CBI had charge-sheeted it in 2010 because it didn’t have the required built-up area. The All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE) had refused it permission for 2012-13. The Dardas moved the High Court and were granted relief with the court allowing the academic session to go on. “Even the AICTE norms allow up to 10 per cent deviation. Ours was only 6 per cent. Even the court has ruled in our favour and has allowed us to continue the session,” says Devendra.

Controversies notwithstanding,the Dardas are considered good employers and business managers,who have often gone out of the way to help their staff. Despite stiff competition from rivals,they have managed to stay at the top in Maharashtra.

But Vijay Darda’s recent praise of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi—he called him a lion—at an award function in Ahmedabad,got him into trouble with his party.

“That was his immediate undoing. But even before that,his Marathi news channel’s criticism of Congress leaders and policies has been raising many eyebrows within the party,” says a senior Congress leader.

Now,with the CBI accusing them of criminal conspiracy and misrepresentation of facts in securing coal blocks in Chhattisgarh,it remains to be seen if the Dardas will emerge as the gritty survivors that they have always been.

The Dardas–The family

Vijay Darda,61: Chairman and editor-in-chief of Lokmat Media Pvt Ltd and Rajya Sabha MP

Rajendra Darda,60: Minister for Education,Maharashtra

Devendra Darda,38: Vijay’s son and managing director,Lokmat Media Ltd. Also manages the G2 magazine published from Mumbai and circulated among NRIs

Rishi Darda,32: Rajendra’s son and joint managing director,

Lokmat Media

Karan Darda,30: Rajendra’s son and executive director,

Lokmat Media

Jyotsna Darda: Vijay’s wife and president of Lokmat Sakhi Manch,the women’s club of the

Lokmat group

Aashu Darda: Rajendra’s wife

Purva Kothari: Vijay’s daughter,runs a jewellery business

The business

NEWSPAPERS

Lokmat (Marathi): Printed from 13 places in Maharashtra. Readership more than 24 million

Lokmat Samachar (Hindi): Six editions from Nagpur,Pune,Aurangabad,Solapur,Akola and

Mumbai

Lokmat Times (English): Two editions from Nagpur and Aurangabad. Three new editions proposed from Mumbai,Nashik and Pune

MAGAZINE

G2: Printed at Mumbai and caters to the NRI readers across the world

READERSHIP

The group readership is more than 25 million

NEWS CHANNEL

Marathi news channel IBN Lokmat

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