August 04, 2020
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The Solar Eclipse

With elections just four months away, as the Sun TV group proves to be bigger than the DMK, media power appears to dictate the course of politics in Tamil Nadu.

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The Solar Eclipse
Control the media and you can remote-control politics. Chennai-based Sun Network, India’s second largest television network—with thirteen TV channels, four FM radio stations, two daily newspapers and four magazines—has emerged as a player even bigger than the party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, whose headquarters (Anna Arivalayam) it functions from. Given that Sun TV’s closest rival is sister-channel KTV, the network’s chairman and managing director Kalanithi Maran seems to have scored the word ‘competition’ out of his dictionary. Controlling close to 80 percent of the state’s TV viewership with a stranglehold over the cable network, the Maran group has stormed the print media as well. However, with the DMK chief and Maran’s granduncle M. Karunanidhi recently announcing his family’s decision to divest his wife Dayalu Ammal’s holding of 20 per cent stake in the Sun Network and Sumangali Publications (with a turnover of Rs 600 crore), the cracks that remained hidden till now have become starkly visible. The Sun group now has only the Maran family as stakeholders.

While there have been reports of a drift—rather than a rift—between the Maran and Karunanidhi families, it is only two years after senior DMK leader and former union minister Murasoli Maran’s death that there has been a public acknowledgement of the growing distance. It was the late Maran, Karunanidhi’s nephew, who had insisted that Karunanidhi’s family be made stakeholders 15 years ago. Today, while many believe that Karunanidhi’s divestment owes to his disillusionment with the lack of coverage for his son and DMK deputy general secretary M.K. Stalin on Sun TV’s news bulletins and on the 24-hour channel Sun News, it is actually the Maran camp which seems to have sought and secured the "amicable settlement", according to party insiders. With the expansion of Sun’s media plans, Kalanithi Maran should be happier to have the Karunanidhi family out of his way.

Maran this year made a major advance in the print media, buying and relaunching two daily newspapers—Tamizh Murasu (an eveninger) and Dinakaran (the third largest selling Tamil daily). Dinakaran, till recently known for its pro-DMK bias, has not necessarily prioritised the party’s interests post-Maran. "Unlike Sun TV which blacks out large sections of the Tamil polity and even Karunanidhi’s family, in Dinakaran you could read about the PMK, MDMK, Left parties, the Congress and other DPA allies in Dinakaran. Today, Dinakaran behaves like Sun TV," says a DMK worker. Some of the old Periyarist outfits, like the journal Naathikam (Atheism), today refer to Sun TV as the "brahminical channel". In the past few years, Karunanidhi has occasionally vocalised disenchantment with Sun TV’s coverage of party affairs. But now, conceding that the DMK can no longer rely on Sun TV, the DMK chief has introduced new editions of the party mouthpiece Murasoli in Trichy and Madurai, entrusting them to son M.K. Azhagiri. Karunanidhi has even revived The Rising Sun, an inconsequential English weekly, after three decades, giving a pivotal role to Stalin.

Stalin, in fact, has been subjected to "partial solar eclipse". It is not just non-DMK parties and leaders whose appearance on the dominant channel is disproportionate to their importance and work. Members of Karunanidhi’s family and sections of the DMK not considered close to and Union Minister for Communications and Information Technology Dayanidhi Maran have been cold-shouldered. Some of the famous ‘blackouts’ effected recently by Sun TV are the non-reporting of the launch of a platform for freedom of expression  by Kanimozhi (Karunanidhi’s daughter) and Karti P. Chidambaram (union finance minister’s son) in the context of the gagging of Khushboo; the non-reporting of chief minister J. Jayalalitha’s meeting and signing of an MoU with Microsoft Corporation’s Bill Gates; the general policy of not covering MDMK leader Vaiko; the near-absence of coverage for the political party (Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam) launched by actor Vijaykanth; the one-sided "panic coverage" of natural disasters; and the inadequate coverage of most non-DMK leaders "unless they are accidentally caught in the same frame as Karunanidhi in a public function," as one union minister put it.

When Outlook contacted Sun Network's CMD Maran and vice-president (programming) Hansraj Saxena about these "charges", they refused comment.

A close aide of Vaiko told Outlook: "During the last parliamentary election, our leader campaigned in all the 40 constituencies for DPA candidates, including for Dayanidhi Maran in Chennai, but Vaiko was never shown on Sun." Says Congress leader and minister of state for commerce and industry E.V.K.S. Elangovan: "TV channels with a large share of the viewership have the social obligation to provide complete, correct news. People have the right to know what’s happening. Personal/family issues should not inflect reporting." Elangovan is one among the 12 DPA ministers in the Union Cabinet, but unlike Dayanidhi who has become for Sun what Rajiv Gandhi was for 1980s Doordarshan, Elangovan’s appearance is as rare as a solar eclipse. In a state where the pro-AIADMK Jaya TV and the pro-DMK Sun TV blockade "rival parties", the PMK chief and Anbumani’s father S. Ramadoss last October talked of launching his own channel which would "focus on people’s issues".

Says Vijaykanth: "These two channels bother only about their parties. They do not care about the people." Denied space on the two ‘politicised’ channels, Vijaykanth has been forced to purchase weekly slots on Vijay TV (controlled by the Star group) to reach a TV audience, an exercise MDMK’s Vaiko had resorted to a few years ago. Today, the 24-hour Sun News channel monopolises the current affairs slot. Jaya TV and Malar TV (of the Dinamalar newspaper group), which had applied for 24-hour news channels, have been made to wait for more than 18 months. Says a senior Jaya TV executive: "After the I&B ministry’s clearance, we imported and installed a teleport for uplinking and even completed the required test telecast. We got the mandatory clearances from most of the 18 central agencies. But the Communications Ministry and other DMK-controlled ministries have been delaying clearance." Jaya TV will be soon petitioning the Madras High Court against "the inordinate and unjustified delay".

The victims of monopolistic control over television are not just political players. The latest victim is the cricket fan in Chennai, which is perhaps the only city that will not get to watch the India-Pakistan series. The Conditional Access System (CAS), which necessitates the use of a set-top box (STB) to view ‘pay channels’ was introduced in Chennai on an experimental basis September 2003. The experiment continues after 28 months. Back then, the DMK was part of the BJP-led NDA government. The Sun TV group, whose phenomenal success hinges on its near-total control over cable networks, was one the important players who lobbied for CAS. Back then, Dayanidhi Maran was CEO of Sumangali Cable Vision (SCV), one of the multisystem operators hawking STBs. Today, the DMK continues to be a part of the union government, if anything as an even more powerful player. And CAS rules in Chennai.

It is interesting that Maran’s vision as IT minister is not any different from what his agenda as head of SCV was. On the Sun Network’s website, some 18 months ago, Maran had stated that SCV was looking "beyond cable TV" to provide "high-speed internet access on TV… to be made possible through enhanced set-top boxes". SCV’s vision is now the IT ministry’s vision.

Says Kannan, publisher-editor of Kalachuvadu , an alternative magazine: "This is probably the only instance in the world where a family-owned business has control over both politics and media, using one to strengthen the other. Even Rupert Murdoch does not wield direct political power."

With elections just four months away, Karunanidhi cannot and does not want to antagonise the Marans—whose media empire the DMK will find indispensable. In fact, Karunanidhi appears to be firmly with the Marans. In a recent interview to the popular Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan, he disagreed with Kanimozhi’s opinions on la affaire Khushboo and dubbed his daughter’s forum Karuthu as pointless. Quoting Annadurai, he said, "You cannot air karuthu (opinions) as casually as a burp." Kanimozhi is the daughter of Karunanidhi's relationship with Rajathi Ammal (whom Karunanidhi refers to as a "companion"), unlike Stalin born to Dayalu Ammal, his legal "first wife".

Besides, the 82-year-old patriarch largely relies on Dayanidhi for the DMK’s channels with the Congress and its chief Sonia Gandhi. Sources in the DMK, wary of the Marans, regret that the Marans are indeed planning ahead for a post-Karunanidhi scenario. Their aim seems to be to eventually wrest control of the party, fronting Dayanidhi Maran as the chief ministerial candidate against Stalin. For now, Karunanidhi, who even put off a colon surgery that could have rendered him inactive, is in control. Unlike King Lear, he seems keen to hold on to whatever he can as long as he can.

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