India Intelligence Report
 

Maran’s COI and Bigger Issues

 

A New Indian Express (NIE) investigative report alleged that Minister of Telecommunications & IT Dayanidhi Maran abused his position to try arm-twisting the Tata Group to share part of its Dish-to-Home (DTH) business with his own Sun TV business. NIE followed through with an election campaign allegation of Maran’s erstwhile ally Vaiko, who is partnering with a rival, that Maran has a conflict of interest (COI) with his business and the portfolio that he owns. Vaiko further alleges that Maran tried to arm twist one of the most respected Indian business houses in the world, the Tata Group, to share its DTH business or else suffer the consequences.

The NIE report sent detailed questions to the Tata Group and the Star Group owned by media baron Rupert Murdoch and set up interviews with Maran and his brother Kalanidhi Maran. The Tata Group has essential said “No Comment” while Murdoch’s group has not responded to the questions. Maran ended up badmouthing Vaiko and his brother claims that he does not need a partner as he already has a DTH license. The NIE says that per the DTH licensing deal, the content provider (Star or Sun) cannot hold more than 20% of the DTH provider business. Hence, Tata Sky has 80% participation from the Tata Group and 20% from Star. Based on the licensing agreement, the Sun group will have to find a partner who can carry sun and also bring in billions of dollars to kick off the venture. Hence, their interest in trying to muscle their way into the Tata Sky venture to piggyback on the investments already made by Tata. However, NIE says that the Maran brothers demanded 33% of the business and at a discounted initial concept price. However, both Ratan Tata (Chairman of the Tata Group) and Rupert Murdoch (Chairman of the Star Group) refused to accept the demand.

 

Maran apparently threatened Tata, that he will “finish off” Tata Telecom by using his position as the Federal Minister of the Telecommunications portfolio to hold up normal clearances for that business. The Telecommunications segment is a very competitive replete with low margins and price pressures. Governmental delays can create financially unviable losses for an operator forcing them out of the business and NIE says that this is what Maran meant to do. Evidently, Tata has approached Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who has promised an independent committee of Secretaries who will manage Government approval of Tata Group projects.

Maran and his brother Kalanidhi Maran own Sun TV, a popular commercial channel in many vernacular languages that is often used as a political mouthpiece for the Maran family political patrons, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Maran’s late father, ‘Murasoli’ Maran, is the DMK Chief Karunanidhi’s brother-in-law and used to run a Tamil vernacular rag called ‘Murasoli.’ Many believe that Maran, with no apparent background in politics or education, got a ministerial berth in the current national Cabinet because of his father’s relationship with Karunanidhi. Many analysts also believe that Maran coveted this Ministerial spot because it would give him access to powers to further his own business and financial interests. When this apparent COI was highlighted as soon as he was appointed as the Minister for Telecommunications, some communist-oriented newspapers, including a respectable national English paper, which has family ties with Maran, trashed the suggestion. Unfortunately, such incestuous relationships are assuming alarming proportions threatening to consume well-heeled honest companies and such unbridled travesty of such COI will arrest economic progress of the nation. Reportedly, Murdoch said that he has never met a Minister who is so aggressive to aggrandize power and wealth. Vaiko recognized this and ridicules the DMK as “Dayanidhi” Munnetra Kazhagam (party to promote Dayanidhi) and not Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (party to promote Dravidians). 

However, there may be a larger pattern of behavior.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has incessantly alleged that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government at the Federal level was blocking aid, financial grants, and projects to Tamil Nadu for political considerations. What she is saying is that the DMK, which is part of the UPA, is blocking deals to Tamil Nadu because they do not want Jayalalitha’s party, DMK’s arch rival AIADMK, to be successful. So far, many have discounted these allegations as election posturing. However, UPA Chief Sonia Gandhi confirmed her allegation in an election campaign speech in Chennai. She said, “if our alliance is voted to power, I assure you the full support of the Center in all schemes and programmes.” Though Gandhi’s own admission, the Central Government has not been giving full support to the State for political convenience. If nepotism, wealth accumulation, and personal interest is the goal of someone seen being closest to Karunanidhi, it is plausible that the 13 Ministers from Tamil Nadu in the Cabinet have been blocking projects and development in the State. 

Circumstantial evidence lends credence to this suspicion. Federal programs implemented in the state such as national highways, telecommunication projects such as BSNL programs, etc. break convention-giving prominence to Karunanidhi and Sonia Gandhi rather than Jayalalithaa or Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Paper advertisements are routinely used to brand the DMK and UPA and not as means to convey information of the projects.

Indian democracy has to graduate beyond petty political interests. It needs to grow beyond viewing politics as a financial profit-making enterprise. There needs to be stronger and deployable laws that can monitor, control, and arrest inbuilt conflicts of interest. More importantly, Indian voters need to recognize these conflicts and politically ostracize such individuals who profiteer on the country.

This is yet another Federal Minister who is an embarrassment to the Prime Minister.