x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

India's telecoms scandal looks like a family affair

The party at the heart of the investigation into alleged billions of dollars of losses for the state in the sale of 2G telecoms licences, Tamil Nadu's DMK, is largely controlled by Muthuvel Karunanidhi, 86, and his clan.

NEW DELHI // As investigating agencies probe a corruption scandal in India's telecommunications ministry, they are increasingly focusing on the activities of a large political clan in the state of Tamil Nadu.

That family's patriarch, 86-year-old Muthuvel Karunanidhi, has been the state's chief minister since 2006.

He also occupied that position four times previously, and the party he heads, the Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), has been nearly synonymous with Tamil Nadu politics since its founding in 1949.

The DMK is a crucial partner of the Congress Party in India's coalition government.

But if the investigations result in prosecutions, Cho Ramaswamy, a Tamil Nadu-based political commentator, said he did not "see how the Congress and the DMK can continue working together".

Andimuthu Raja, a DMK politician who served as India's telecommunications minister from 2007 until his resignation last November, has been accused of using his post to sell mobile phone licenses far below market prices, resulting in potential revenue losses of up to $38 billion (Dh139.57), according to a report from India's comptroller and auditor general. Mr Raja is in custody.

The Central Bureau of Investigation has extended its scrutiny to Kalaignar TV, a Chennai-based satellite television channel owned by members of Mr Karunanidhi's family.

Kalaignar TV is suspected of receiving nearly $45 million from a telecom entrepreneur who is thought to have benefited from Mr. Raja's controversial sale.

In December, investigators also raided the offices of the Tamil Maiyyam, a non-profit closely associated with Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, Mr Karunanidhi's daughter.

Simultaneously, Subramanian Swamy, a lawyer and politician in Tamil Nadu, has sought permission to prosecute Mr Karunanidhi for misusing his powers in land allotment.

Since the investigations into the scandal began, members of Mr Karunanidhi's family have largely refused to talk to journalists about these controversies.

However, in separate statements, Mr Karunanidhi has said he believes Mr Raja is innocent and has called Mr Swamy's charges "motivated by … personal malice, political rivalry and clamour for cheap publicity".

Mr Karunanidhi, recognised for his penchant for thick sunglasses and now largely confined to a motorised wheelchair, began working as a screenwriter for Tamil films in the early 1950s.

His scripts were often starkly ideological in nature; they served as vehicles for the nascent Dravidian political movement, which espoused atheism. It was against the imposition of the Hindi language and against Brahmins, the highest level in Hinduism's caste hierarchy.

The DMK, as a party, was born of that political ideology, and Mr Karunanidhi took firm control of it in the 1970s. In the past decade, his family - comprising three wives and their children, as well as his nephews, has grown increasingly influential in business and political circles.

For instance, one of Mr Karunanidhi's grandnephews, Kalanidhi Maran, owns the Sun TV cable network, radio stations, a Tamil newspaper named Dinakaran, and SpiceJet, a leading low-cost airline. Mr Karunanidhi's wife and daughter control Kalaignar TV. Two of Mr Karunanidhi's grandsons, Udhayanidhi Stalin and Dayanidhi Azhagiri, own film studios and cinema theatres in Tamil Nadu.

The family's control of the media and film business has grown so rapidly that Mr Karunanidhi was forced to retort, at a recent public event in Chennai: "Why shouldn't I have children or grandchildren? And why shouldn't they get into films if they like?"

In politics too, the family's members are almost exclusive representatives of the party's interests. When the Congress party began to negotiate with allies to form a coalition government in 2009, Mr Karunanidhi demanded positions in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's cabinet of ministers for Mr Raja as well as for his son, his daughter, and his grandnephew. Only his daughter lost out.

The recent leak of transcripts of government-authorised taps of a prominent lobbyist's cell phone conversations revealed the jockeying for cabinet positions that occurred between the DMK and the Congress after the 2009 elections.

Ms Karunanidhi, the chief minister's daughter, spoke on multiple occasions to the lobbyist Niira Radia, who acted as a go-between for the two political parties.

The transcripts also hinted at bouts of infighting within the large family. "They've already told us they will give us telecom," Ms Karunanidhi told Ms Radia at one point.

Then, referring to Dayanidhi Maran, another grandnephew of Mr Karunanidhi and a former telecommunications minister himself, she continued: "Now it shouldn't be given to him because he is going around planting stories … and trying to get somebody from the Congress to say things against Raja to dad."

Mr Ramaswamy is sure that these controversies have caused the DMK "to lose credibility in a big way. They always have money and muscle power, and they can misuse that.

"But ahead of the elections, these scams have really encouraged the opposition now," he said.