May 27, 2020
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Year end

Chennai Corner

This year both of Karunanidhi’s wives made news. While Dayalu positioned herself firmly beside the CM at every opportunity as the official consort, Rajathiammal kept the rumour mills buzzing.

Chennai Corner
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Mr K: High to Low
When 2010 blew in, Tamil Nadu CM M Karunanidhi was on a high. The Spectrum scam was something that Karunanidhi perhaps thought he had managed to suppress two years back. Little would he have known that it would come back to bite him.

Six months before that, he had beaten AIADMK chief J Jayalalitha in the Lok Sabha elections, in a contest in which it was widely predicted that she would win. One might even say that she had even counted her chickens before they were hatched. But he prevailed and she went into hiding at Kodanadu, her retreat in the hills, to lick her wounds. Predictably, PMK chief Dr S Ramadoss, who was jettisoned by the DMK and aligned with the AIADMK, dumped her with this insult: You can even meet the Prime Minister in 10 minutes but not the imperious lady.

All the 11 assembly bypolls that were held after Karunanidhi was elected to office, for the fifth time, were won by his DMK party or its ally, the Congress. The icing on the cake was that in the 11th bypoll in Pennagaram the AIADMK candidate lost his deposit.  There was sonrise in the DMK just like its rising sun symbol and political obituaries were written for Jayalalitha whose party had lost many of its leaders in the south, its bastion, thanks to the poaching by the DMK led by its southern leader, M K Azhagiri, the CM's elder son.

High Five
By March, one of Karunanidhi’s pet projects, the Rs 450 crore Assembly and Secretariat complex, was inaugurated so he could thump his chest about his achievements in addition to all the freebies he was announcing regularly. Seven months later, construction continues and all the offices which were in Fort St George are still " in transit". But who's counting? Karunanidhi’s wishlist included lording it over at the World Classical Tamil Conference (WCTC) in June in Coimbatore and he made it happen, even though Tamil aficionados said it was hastily put together so Karunanidhi could bask in the glory of being a protector of Tamils. They even pointed out that he had circumvented the original organizer of Tamil conferences . It turned out to be a forum for his clan to show-off their silks and diamonds and showcase what many consider is a modicum of talent as one granddaughter danced and another read poetry. But you could not throw a stone at the venue – where Rs 400 crore was reportedly lavished – without hitting a member of the “first family”.

We are Family
As the year progressed, the family was everywhere. The first generation was in politics – Stalin was the deputy CM and Azhagiri a union minister. The second generation – Udayanidhi Stalin (Red Giant Movies) and Dayanidhi Azhagiri (Cloud Nine Movies) had turned producers. Udayanaidhi’s wife Kruthiga after her turn at bringing out a magazine (Inbox 1505) and making a documentary film on Aids last year, showed herself off as a green campaigner. She was even roped in as the brand ambassador by Civic Exnora, which seemed unconcerned that Chennai’s roads had turned into gutters and uncleared mounds of garbage dumps stank to high heavens and displayed the wide usage of plastic by this metro’s denizens.(Incidentally governor Surjit Singh Barnala’s grand daughter too emerged as a green campaigner according to official photos released). The CM’s granddaughter (daughter Selvi’s daughter) showed off her Bharat Natyam talent at the WCTC while a great grand-child used the forum afforded by the Millenium celebrations of the Big Temple to be one of the thousand dancers who put up a spectacular show. Kayalvizhi, the poetess daughter of Azhagiri tried to impress grandpapa at the WCTC with a speech in praise of him.

The Acorn Falls Far from the Tree?
The two disappointments, at a personal level for the Kalaignar were his pet child Kanimozhi and, to a lesser extent (relatively speaking), Azhagiri.  Kanimozhi with her ethnic chic, shy demeanour and accessibility had done her papa proud even if people say her learning curve was too long. It’s another matter that she was the queen of evasion – I don’t know if it is a good thing or a bad thing, but her evasiveness was transparent not brazen, a talent most politicians have.

After replacing Dayanidhi Maran, she fought hard to keep her new position, even if her father occasionally publicly praised the man to keep him happy and in the process his daughter on her toes. Besides, what choice did the CM have with wife Dayalu making no bones about liking Dayanidhi Maran? They say that Dayanidhi’s father Murasoli Maran, a former union minister, all but ignored Rajathiammal and all his sympathies lay with Dayaluammal. That kind of loyalty is something Dayalu will not forget in a hurry.

But, although the CM has not said anything publicly, Kanimozhi has driven the DMK into a tizzy after she has been heard on the Niira Radia tapes lobbying for the disgraced A Raja. Even Karunanidhi’s defence of Raja has been considerably diluted after his initially tigress-defending-its-cub act. Kanizmozhi was made to fend for herself and she said suitably evasively: “The law has to take its own course. It is a process to prove us not guilty. Definitely, we will come out clean.” 

With Congress president Sonia Gandhi decreeing that corruption has to be fought on a war footing, one will have to see how Karunanidhi will solve the conundrum of having a daughter who is very close to the man who is identified as the architect of the 2G Spectrum scam.

There’s one more dilemma that son Azhagiri has laid at Karunanidhi's doorstep by virtually challenging him publicly to go through with the anointment of brother Stalin as the next CM. And then there was his truancy in Parliament that made it to the front pages but Azhagiri, it was rumoured, was feeling like a fish out of water and wanted to come back to his comfort zone, the state in general and Madurai in particular.

The only comfort (if it can be called that) is with the winds of change setting in TN and everyone chanting that the Spectrum scam has put Jayalalitha in an advantageous position, Karunanidhi may not have to decide on his successor. The people will decide in six months time and may stick to their track record of voting out the incumbent.

Spectrum Changes the Equations
Three years ago, Dayanidhi Maran and his uncle Azhagiri were on opposite ends of the spectrum. An opinion poll carried by Maran’s newspaper Dinakaran incensed Azhagiri so much that his henchmen allegedly torched the Madurai office of the paper killing three employees. Azhagiri set up his own cable network and he and Maran fought a pitched battle through their proxies. Maran used his popular Sun TV channel to expose Raja and also projected Azhagiri as a goonda. What Radia is heard saying about Maran’s summing up of Azhagiri is what he made sure everyone heard through his channel. But with Kanimozhi squirming in embarrassment and Raja in the doghouse, Maran and Azhagiri have apparently decided to patch up. In a stage-managed gesture, Maran genuflected to Azhagiri on a stage in Madurai. Is all forgiven now that Maran has publicly said Mea Culpa?

Mr Goody Two Shoes
While his father was tearing his hair out over the alleged transgressions of his two children, Stalin remained focused and steered clear of controversy during the year. Peripatetic was his middle name as he tirelessly travelled around the state, even went to South Korea and China, and in general, kept his nose clean, and his eyes on his work. Even when brother Azhagiri made it clear that only Kalaignar could be his leader – a direct challenge triggered by Karunanidhi’s wish to retire and put Stalin in his place – he waded clear of the controversy.

Stalin went to Madurai ( Jayalalitha had said he needed a visa) for the “Wedding” and even met the PM in Delhi along with brother Azhagiri to project that all was well. The family came together when Azhagiri’s son – the proud father wore a suit and even sang old Tamil film songs – Dayanidhi celebrated his wedding last month in an affair that was described as lavish even though Raja’s alleged role in the Spectrum scam was getting closer and closer. They say the Azhagiri wedding is to the DMK what the marriage of the foster son of Jayalalitha was to the AIADMK some years ago.

In America, they kiss babies at election time to get votes, here apparently they attend weddings. Both the CM and Stalin have a diary that is crammed with attendance at weddings. And depending on how close they are, the CM either gets down from his specially-rigged up van to bless the newly-wed couple or the couple and their political patrons flank Karunanidhi at the door of his van where he gives his blessing from his specially-designed seat. Stalin, of course, strides to the stage and wishes the couple. He will probably be the most heartbroken should the electorate return a result not favourable to the DMK.

The year of the wives
This was the year when both of Karunanidhi’s wives made news. While Dayalu positioned herself firmly beside the CM at every opportunity as the official consort, Rajathiammal (the mother of daughter Kanimozhi) kept the rumour mills buzzing. But what was common was that both made headlines because of the Radia tapes. One conversation of Radia claims Dayalu was given Rs 600 crores by Dayanidhi Maran to become a minister. Karunanidhi has not defended any of the revelations that have emerged on the tapes but this one he scoffed at saying how could a grandson (Maran) bribe his grandmother (Dayalu). He threatened that if the media could not independently prove it, then they should be prepared to come to court. “When I saw the report in some dailies I thought no one would be stupid enough to believe what it said. I did not deem it worth a denial. But after Cho Ramaswamy chose to answer a question relating to the matter in his magazine, I saw a malicious attempt to repeat a lie many times to make it seem like a truth,” Karunanidhi wrote in party organ Murasoli. But Radia said it, matter of factly, not his detractors.

Then it was the turn of Rajathiammal to issue a denial after she was heard on the Radia tape asking Niira “What happened?” She denied buying any prime land on Anna Salai after reports that Royal Furniture, a furniture mart owned by her, had bought a piece of land worth many crores currently housing the Tata-owned Voltas. Rajathiammal, in a statement, said “Saravanan, a former employee of Royal Furniture who is currently involved in the realty business, had got the power of attorney of the said land transferred to his name and sold it to a Malaysian businessman named Shanmughanathan. There is no link or transaction between our Royal Furniture and Shanmughanathan,” She too warned of legal action and even daughter Kanimozhi backed her up in a statement: “I don’t see how we are linked to it,” she said.

Voltas, for its part, too clarified that they “never bought or sold the land.” Their statement was: “Voltas took the plot on a 30-year lease in 1975 and constructed office premises on it. Voltas filed a suit after the owner challenged the extension of the lease by another 30 years in 2005 and the matter is sub judice.”

Oxygen for Amma
Jayalalitha began the year badly: there was defection from her party, she has lost all the bypolls, after her hopes for a comeback in the Lok Sabha election were dashed last year, she became the butt of taunts from Karunanidhi, Azhagiri and Stalin about her prolonged bouts of absence from Chennai while she retreated into Kodanadu. Her only presence was through regular statements all demanding one thing – that Karunanidhi be dismissed.

Since she’s a great believer in the stars, June was the turning point for her. Her rally in Coimbatore, weeks after Karunanidhi’s WCTC was a resounding success. Ditto Trichy in August. By October, she was unstoppable, taking on Azhagiri on his turf in Madurai and coming up trumps. Then 2G took on a life of its own, and with it Jayalalitha and her sharp attacks. Her open invitation to the Congress to depend on her after dumping the DMK was not snapped up by a wary Sonia. Her reputation for being “unreliable” and mercurial stood in the way. But she should not fret yet because the Congress, as a result of Sonia’s decree that it should be seen to fight corruption, might find it hard to keep the DMK company.

With elections four to five months away, the arithmetic is still to be worked out. But after the Congress was cold to her invitation, she is back to attacking it although her focus continues to be Karunanidhi. She has now accused the CBI of “monumental lethargy.” Like all her statements this one too was bombastic. “It is abundantly clear that though the scam reached Himalayan heights during Raja’s tenure, his predecessors, including his party colleague and CM Karunanidhi’s grand-nephew Dayanidhi Maran, have not been saints by any stretch of imagination.”

And then she warned: AIADMK will join hands with like-minded political parties cutting across the political spectrum for the “justified demand” of insisting on a JPC probe. She also said, “The scope of the CBI investigation is limited to certain parameters. It cannot and will not include the conspirators and accessories to the scam, many of whom are in positions of considerable political power, both in the state and at the Centre. The whole truth has to come out.” 

Phew.

Family, Friends…
It’s no secret that “chinnamma” (Sasikala Natarajan, the long time friend of Jayalalitha) wields considerable power in the AIADMK and often has been accused of putting her people in crucial positions. So far she has been merely a member of the AIADMK but at year-end she was appointed as one of the executive council members of the party’s women’s wing. What it means is still not clear because without the title she was pretty powerful in the party.

Will Jaya and Vijayakanth team up?
That’s the million dollar question. After most of the DMDK candidates lost their deposits in the 2009 Lok Sabha election, it has hit home that his party’s survival depends on teaming up with another party. Whether it is the AIADMK whose votes his party is taking away or the Congress, he will decide closer to the election. Meanwhile the Captain (the title he got from one of his popular films) has got a Dr prefix. Not unusual since Karunanidhi, Jayalalitha, Stalin, even Azhagiri have it. Again not that any of these worthies warranted such a title or got it without leaning on some university, but Vijayakant attracted opprobrium with his.

The US-based International Institute of Church Management (IICM) conferred an honorary doctorate on Vijayakant “For the outstanding service he had rendered to society”. But the website became a talking point. It said, “One of the following Honorary Degrees (D.D, D.Min, D.Litt, D.Ltts, D.Hum, LL.D., Ph.D.) will be conferred upon the candidate, whenever we have our Monthly Conference in USA, India or other Countries, after the candidates give a certain minimum contribution towards the Honorary Doctoral Degree and a one-time contribution of the Life-Time Membership.” In other words, Vijayakant bought his doctorate. Many would say, "So what?". Sometime ago, the MGR Deemed University conferred a doctorate on director Shankar and actor Vijay.

Vetri (Victory) for the New Phase
Speaking of Vijay, is he going to be the next actor who’ll jump into politics? After his film career hit its nadir during the year, December saw Vijay’s father, director S Chandrasekhar, meeting Jayalalitha. Vijay had earlier got cold feet after meeting Rahul Gandhi but after the recent fracas with Udayanidhi Stalin, he apparently has decided not to be faint-hearted about his political intentions.

Vijay’s run-in may have to do with Kuruvi (produced by Udayanidhi) and Vettaikaran and Sura (produced by the Maran-owned Sun Pictures), flopping miserably. Then to add insult to injury Vijay floated the Vijay Makkal Iyyakam reportedly angering Udayanidhi and Maran further because it was a sign that politics was his next stop. At year-end, the release of Vijay’s Kavalan has been delayed and rumour has it that Udayanidhi had something to do with it. Vijay supporters allege that Udayanidhi used his considerable clout with film distributors to delay its release so that his own film, Manmathan Anbu (starring Kamal Hassan, Madhavan and Trisha), would have a smooth release. Udayanidhi’s defence is, “The audio release for Kavalan was in December, there is no way that the film can be released this month.”

Chandrasekhar seems to agree. “Vijay and Udayanidhi are close friends. Vijay has no problem with Udayanidhi or Sun pictures. The Kavalan release is set for Pongal due to a delay in production.” But despite all the bravado, the buzz is that Chandrasekhar went to amma as a last resort. And amma could use someone like Vijay, who, after Rajnikanth is the biggest crowd-puller.

Rajni’s Cup Runneth Over
Rajnikanth cannot complain. He’s had a great year, professionally and personally. Endhiran set the record for being the most expensive-ever film made. That’s a personal record for director Shankar although, going by his track record, he’ll beat his own record the next time. And by year-end he was battling plagiarism charges because writer after writer – six at the last count – claimed it was their story that Shankar had stolen. When the film released on October 1, Shankar had said his novel was inspired by the late Sujata’s novel, En Iniya Enthira (My Beloved Robot) but at least two went to court saying they had proprietary rights over the story. That in itself is an indication of the film’s success.

By November he was on a high with daughter Soundarya – who had earlier got embroiled in a controversy after boyfriend, Varun Manian, took her to court over the non-payment of money which he claimed to have loaned her and her company (Ochre Productions) – happily married to real estate magnate’s son, Ashwin. Rajni pulled out all the stops doing the rounds of CM, Stalin, Azhagiri, Jayalalitha, Congress leaders, Communist politicians and everyone in the industry as he celebrated his pet daughter’s wedding. Weeks earlier, his other daughter Aishwariya (who is married to actor Dhanush) made him a grandfather for the second time. One could say his cup runneth over.

By the time he started the film, Rajni was not yet 58, but by the time the film was released and created waves, he was pushing 60. But he proved to be bankable because Endhiran (which came out as Robot in Telugu and Hindi) made the cash registers happy. His legion of fans may not have be in sync with a sci-fi film, but were faithful to the man they have made into a one-man industry.

In fact, his 60th birthday gift – in addition to all the Rajni jokes circulating over the net and in SMSs – was from a corporate duo, C Balasubramaniam (director of Matrix Business Services) and Raja Krishnamoorthy (director of TalentMaximus). They brought out a book on 30 of Rajni’s one-liners, called Rajni’s PUNCHtantra – Value Statements on Business and Life Management saying these statements had inherent management mantras embedded in them. For instance, Rajni famously said “En Vazhi thani vazhi” (My way is a unique way” – the takeaway from this in the book is that one needs to be different to succeed.

Singara Chennai?
Muck one one side and malls on the other. That’s how an outsider described Chennai. That seemed so true after the rains – there’s been a lot of it this year both from the South West monsoon in August and the North East monsoon in November/December – with even arterial roads reduced to slush and rubble. There was no area in the city which could be described as befitting its status as an industrial destination where people flocked for jobs. Even the houses of the rich would be swanky from the inside but a few feet from the gate would be an overflowing garbage bin. What was the use of spending crores on murals all over the city’s walls or constructing or refurbishing parks? It seemed even Mayor M Subramaniam had thrown in the towel vis-à-vis Neel Metal Fanalca (NMF) which was given the contract for keeping the city clean. Everyone said Onyx had done a better job but our city fathers favoured NMF. Go figure.

What seemed amazing is Chennai’s bovine attitude to garbage on the roads, potholed roads which drastically cut down the amount of space for vehicles which had jumped 10 times to what they were even five years ago. Civic minded citizens would pick up an issue that concerned them and make a noise, environmental groups would protest loudly at the controversial Elevated Expressway (that is expected to run 29 kms), but there was no one protesting about the filth on the street. More grade separators and more flyovers were planned in addition to the ones inaugurated this year, but all these made flooding worse and traffic chaotic. As Sathish, a driver, said, “The fun will start when work for the MRTS (Mass Rapid Transport System) picks up momentum.”

At year-end Chennai (Tamil Nadu, actually) was in danger of falling off its perch as the destination that investors flock to. With its power problems which are going to get worse, labour trouble and Gujarat CM Narendra Modi baying at its heels, talk was that investors were looking to expand beyond TN’s shores, possibly in Gujarat with Modi promising them clearance within two hours if papers were in order. Corruption was also the reason investors were looking elsewhere. And after the Radia tapes, TN or its politicians did not come out smelling of roses.

But on the upside, Chennai beat Mumbai as the second most competitive city, propelled by two factors, its educated workforce and good logistics infrastructure. Last year, Chennai was ranked four. The report was done by the Institute for Competitiveness (IFC), New Delhi,

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