Of Free Televisions, Politics and Business

Tamil Nadu is known to have a fickle electorate that has learnt to maximise its interests with every regime change over the years. It’s historically known to alternate between DMK and AIADMK every 5 years, especially since the death of MGR. There is no ideology left in Tamil Nadu politics and the election results are largely decided on a combination of populist manifestos and anti-incumbency factors.

As a Policy Analyst, one thing that is constantly drilled into your mind is “Read between the Lines”. The ulterior motives behind Government Policies are not always what they seem to be on paper.  I tried to apply this to a subject familiar to me – Tamil Nadu Politics. Especially from the context of the 2006 DMK Elections Manifesto.

Among many populist schemes enlisted in the manifesto document, one particular scheme that caught not only my attention, but also of the electorate and the media was the “Free Television Scheme”. This scheme simply states “Free colour TV to every family for women’s recreation and general knowledge.” It has been implemented since with unseen fervour by the DMK Government which came into power in 2006 riding the success of its unprecedented populist election manifesto.

Let’s look at some of the numbers:

  • The DMK government has already distributed 9.1 million TV sets and has placed orders for another 5 million TV sets to be distributed by the end of fiscal year 2010-2011.
  • Each set costs Indian Rupee symbol.svg2,965 at the minimum. That makes it a staggering cost of  Indian Rupee symbol.svg4100 crores of tax payer money at the minimum! Some sources claim this to be more than Indian Rupee symbol.svg5000 crores.
  • The 2001 census figures says close to 92 lakh households in TN do not have access to a toilet.

Now, here’s another set of numbers:

  • Sun TV Networks (STNL) is a leader in 3 out of the 4 lucrative southern TV markets through its bouquet of 20 channels across genres. Its flagship channel – Sun TV enjoys a commanding market share of 68% in Tamil Nadu.
  • Sun Direct is the fastest growing DTH service provider having garnered over 6 million subscribers since its launch in December 2007.
  • Sun Network-owned Sumangali Cable Vision (SCV) controls over 85 per cent of Set-Top Box cable connections in the state. Players like Hathway have been bullied out of the state using DMK party machinery.
  • Sun is Asia’s most profitable broadcaster according to a study.
  • Kalanithi Maran, the grand nephew of Karunanidhi, CEO of STNL is the 20th richest Indian according to Forbes and the highest paid CEO in the country.

It’s obviously clear that the populist scheme devised by the DMK Machinery served three purposes:

  1. Sway the Tamil Nadu electorate towards itself for the 2006 Assembly Elections.
  2. Strengthen the already monopolistic Sun TV Network with unprecedented sales and revenues.
  3. Obtain unmatched political and advertising clout for the DMK through the Sun Network, with literally every household set to have a television set.

This is a clear case of misuse of public office for private gain.

On a recent visit to a remote village in the Nilgiris district which has a predominant tribal population, I had the opportunity to interact with many from the tribal communities. They receive free electricity, rice at Indian Rupee symbol.svg1/- per kg through the PDS, free gas stoves and all households have a free TV set thanks to the scheme. Now a TV without a cable connection renders it totally useless. So what do they do?

They pay Indian Rupee symbol.svg1100/- per year to Sun Network to use the free TV set with free electricity.

Talk about the market penetration Karunanidhi’s scheme has achieved!