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The Sun TV boss has created a huge business empire with his entrepreneurial genius. But is the rupture with the DMK going to make a paper tiger of Kalanidhi Maran? PC Vinoj Kumar gets a sense

Mokhallad Lazim
Friends say Kalanidhi Maran may be a ruthless businessman, but he is no traitor to the DMK’s first family
At 42, Kalanidhi Maran, one of the most powerful media barons in the country, is facing the worst time in his life and career. The managing director of the Sun Network, he has suffered blows one after another in quick succession. His high-profile younger brother Dayanidhi Maran was unceremoniously removed from the Union Cabinet. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a party headed by his granduncle and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, has made plans to launch a television channel — most likely to be named ‘Kalaignar TV’ — to air party news, distancing itself from Sun TV. Further, he has been accused of having attempted to cause a divide in the Karunanidhi family. And the immediate provocation for all these was the controversial publication of a survey in his daily Dinakaran, aimed at selecting Karunanidhi’s political successor.

The survey pitted Karunanidhi’s heir apparent MK Stalin against his elder brother MK Azhagiri, half-sister Kanimozhi and ‘others’ (which understandably includes the then Union it and Communication Minister Dayanidhi Maran).

DMK workers believe that the survey findings were concocted. But those who are close to Kalanidhi argue that he is not such a person. He may be a ruthless businessman but not a traitor, they said. “Those jealous of their (Daya and Kala) growth have used this opportunity to poison Karunanidhi’s mind,” argued a friend. Notably, there is little love for the Marans among the DMK cadre. A senior leader depicts Kalanidhi as a villain. “He thought he could do anything with money. He planned to promote Dayanidhi and to capture the party. But it backfired,” the leader said.

While many in the DMK are celebrating the fall of the Marans, friends of the duo are still optimistic about a patch-up. “The Marans-Karunanidhi family bonds are too strong to snap easily,” they say. It seems so when you consider that Murasoli Maran (father of Daya and Kala) is son of Karunanidhi’s elder sister, who is still alive. Karunanidhi’s daughter, Selvi — sister of Azhagiri and Stalin – is married to Murasoli Maran’s brother, Murasoli Selvam (who is also in media business). In fact, in the wake of the recent developments, Selvi is believed to have taken steps to bring about a compromise but Karunanidhi was reportedly unwilling to cede ground.

Once, Kalanidhi was able to take an overdraft of Rs 50 lakh from Indian Bank only because the DMK had an account there
In this tough time, those standing by Kalanidhi are his close friends who hold crucial posts in the Sun Group. The top brass, including second-in-command Hansraj Saxena and others like K Shanmugam and RM Ramesh, are Kalanidhi’s friends from school. In fact, both brothers have the habit of placing their friends at important posts in their ventures. Kalanidhi did his schooling at the prestigious Don Bosco in Egmore, Chennai, and took a Commerce degree from Chennai’s Loyola College. In Loyola, Kalanidhi became student’s union chairman and led an agitation on the Sri Lankan Tamils issue.

Kalanidhi did his MBA from University of Scranton, USA, and returned to India in 1987 though his father was keen to send him for doctoral studies. He joined Kungumam, a family-run Tamil magazine, as circulation executive and moved up the ladder. A couple of years later, he started a video news magazine called Poomaalai.

Married to Kaveri (who hails from Coorg in Karnataka) in 1991, he has a 15-year-old daughter, Kavya. Despite the Marans being the proponents of Dravidian politics, they have a close Brahmin connection. Daya’s father-in-law is the cousin of N. Ram, editor-in-chief of The Hindu.

He launched Sun TV in 1993 as a channel, beaming three-hour programmes daily. Today, it’s a conglomerate consisting of 20 television channels, 7 fm stations and two Tamil dailies. The Sun empire is a powerful media entity in four southern states, and Kalanidhi, according to Forbes, is India’s 20th richest person.

Even Kalanidhi’s rivals are all praise of his business “acumen”. Says Ravinath Menon, general manger, Vijay TV, “He is sharp and ahead of his times. Look at where he started and where he is now. Hats off to him.” But was it his own skills that brought him here? The DMK workers believe that their party has played a crucial role in making the Marans’ business a success. The Sun TV office itself is located at the DMK headquarters in Chennai. “It was launched when Jayalalithaa was in power. It would have been difficult for Kalanidhi to operate from any other place in the city then,” says a senior DMK leader.

Kalanidhi had little money when he launched the channel. A former employee recalls that, in those days, Kalanidhi was able to take an overdraft of Rs 50 lakh from Indian Bank only because the DMK had its account there. There were also stories floating in the market that how advertisers were allegedly browbeaten to do business with the channel whenever the DMK was in power. According to industry sources, the channel’s political connections helped them in roping in celebrities for special programmes. Sumangali Cable Vision, the multi-system operator of the group, was accused of adopting unfair tactics to expand its network in the state.

Always, the DMK workers had been there to support the Marans’ ventures. With the controversial survey, Kalandhi has almost ruined that support-base. Says a party leader, “We would have ignored the survey findings had it been done by any other newspaper. Dinakaran should not have done it.”

Kalanidhi’s professionalism has often out manoeuvred his political preferences. In fact, this is an issue that stares Kalanidhi now. His Udaya TV (Kannada) and Surya TV (Malayalam) often drew flak in Tamil Nadu for its state-centered reporting on inter-state issues like Cauvery and Mullapperiyar dam disputes. The DMK workers could not distinguish between Kalandhi, the grandnephew of Karunanidhi, and Kalanidhi, the businessman.

Jun 09 , 2007

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