The Sun shines on Karunanidhi in TN polls

BY Sanjay Bharthur| IN Media Practice | 30/03/2011
The DMK front rally was telecast live by Sun News. With a control of over 60 per cent of electronic media, the DMK holds an edge in Tamil Nadu elections.
SANJAY BHARTHUR reports on this stranglehold. Pix: M Karunanidhi and son.
Thiruvarur is a sleepy town in South Central Tamil Nadu. Carved out as a District in 1997 from peripheral portions of Thanjavur and Nagapatinam districts, the district and town is now under media glare with the Chief Minister and patriarch of the DMK plus alliance, Kalaignar M Karunanidhi, filing his nomination for the assembly segment and also flagging off the election rally.
It is freebies galore for the electorate with rivals announcing a slew of offers such as laptops, gold, and 20-40 kg of rice. Television, bicycles and Pongal grocery are now acceptable items for card holders in the state. The media is calling it competitive wooing. The joke in some circles is that the freebies would include free cell phones, SIM cards and free recharge through PDS outlets.
When Kalaignar arrives in Thiruvarur, the town wakes up and the roads are rendered citizen and vehicle friendly. There is caution and concern among the district and police administration as the leader may suddenly decide to get into a lane or want to call on somebody. The fact that Thiruvarur is the home town of the MK family is already well propagated. The fact that this town has other parameters of historical and cultural importance including the fact that the trinity of the Carnatic Music tradition were born here is overshadowed. Karunanidhi is unhappy and has registered his unhappiness at the excessive control and monitoring of the process by the EC.  His grouse is mainly over transferring of key officials and seizure of cash and jewellery from vehicles that the small traders claim they need to transport. The Madras High Court has taken suomotto cogniscence of this matter and the EC is defending its role in such matters.
The   DMK front rally was telecast live by Sun News. Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu this time will bring to the fore the cumulative stranglehold that the alliance has over the electronic media and to some extent the print media including sympathetic media partners belonging to the so called mainstream media. Live telecast by Sun News raises the question of balance and judgment although this may invoke discordant voices among professionals and owners of the media. When the spectre of paid news was raised in the context of last assembly elections in Maharashtra, the point that was singularly missed is what happens when the grand alliance controls the eyeballs of more than 60 % of the television audience?  Sun TVhas an enviable channel share of 69 per cent in Tamil Nadu, according to TAM. Vijay TV, a unit of Rupert Murdoch's STAR TV, has 7.6 per cent. Jaya TV of rival All India Anna DMK has even less: 4.1 per cent.
This control is in fact part of the rallying that J Jayalalitha does not miss in her election speeches going as far as to announce free cable connections. Free television sets have already been provided by the present government. In the context of free cable connection she also referred to Sumangali Cable Vision. Apparently targeting the Maran brothers who hold a near monopoly over the cable TV distribution across the state, she also promised nationalisation of multi-system operators. Sumangali Cable Vision, owned by the Sun Network of media baron Kalanidhi Maran and his brother and Union Minister Dayananidhi Maran, grand nephews of Karunanidhi, commands a virtual stranglehold over the cable TV business.
The Average Issue Readership of the Tamil print media has declined according to the recent IRS report. Further, print may not be significant a factor as television is, particularly in the rural and semi urban areas. Business alliances and support seems to be assured for the DMK alliance. As Business Today in its story reported, Tamil Nadu's Chief Minister does not need to necessarily seek funding from big business: his family members are great at starting businesses and making them thrive. No other political family in India that dabbled in business has managed to grow so big and dominate the businesses they are in as the Karunanidhis. Their businesses span TV and print media, FM radio, TV distribution, movie production and distribution, real estate and even airlines. The market capitalisation of its listed firms exceeds Rs 22,600 crore.

With an enviable media control and support, the ruling alliance is clearly in an advantageous position as far as reaching out to the electorate is concerned. Two English papers that reach us in the town, The Hindu and New Indian Express, try their best to strike a balance. With all the restrictions in place the non-media campaign has to be on low key. Psephologists will be there to analyse the results and it will be interesting to see whether they will factor media control as a variable in the outcome of TN elections in addition to the caste and other familiar variables that are usually considered. Some analysts dealing with political economy of media in Tamil Nadu, recognising the awesome control of the first family, do refer to the cross media restrictions that TRAI has referred to. However, since it is not on the mainstream media agenda we may not get an intervention.

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