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Will NRI businessman's charges sink Maran?

Last updated on: June 8, 2011 13:02 IST

Will NRI businessman's charges sink Maran?

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Surajeet Das Gupta in New Delhi

Non-resident Indian businessman C Sivasankran is a global jet setter and a consummate dealmaker who has rarely lost money in selling a business at the right time or winning a battle against companies or politicians.

But Siva, as he is popularly known, is now fighting perhaps his biggest battle, this time with Textiles Minister and former telecom minister Dayanidhi Maran.

Siva, who deposed before the CBI on Monday in Delhi, told the sleuths that he was forced to sell his telecom business - Aircel - to Malaysia-based Maxis Communications under pressure from Maran in 2005.

And if insiders close to him are to be believed, he was also made to promise that he would not enter this business at all - a promise he did not keep.

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Image: Sivasankran is a global jet setter.

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Maran has rubbished the allegations, but is under fire for allegedly striking a deal with Sri Lankan-born Anand Krishnan, the promoter of Maxis, and for also roping in the Reddy family of Apollo Hospitals as a co-investor in the deal.

The allegation is that in return, Maxis invested about Rs. 600 crore (Rs. 6 billion) in Kalanathi Maran's Sun TV.

Maran says this allegation, too, is baseless.

Insiders say that during most of the period 2004-2007, when Maran was the telecom minister, Sivasankaran shifted his base from Chennai (his home town) to the US and the Seychelles.

The reason: He feared he would be hauled up on various charges and be taken into custody.

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Image: Maran has rubbished the allegations.

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Aircel's application for licences in various telecom circles was stuck in the Department of Telecommunications on various grounds during Maran's regime from as early as 2004.

Without these permissions Siva's dream of becoming a pan-Indian telecom player would never take off and he would have to be content with being a small player with eight licences.

But DoT officials who were there during his tenure say there was nothing unusual, as there were many other companies that had applied for licences and were waiting.

It was only after December 2006, when Maxis bought over the company, that Aircel was granted licences for 14 circles and became a pan-Indian operator.

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Image: Aircel's application was stuck in DoT.

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That accounts for more than half the new licences granted during Maran's tenure. Aircel, like all other operators that were granted licences at that time, only paid the 2001 prices (the CAG has indicted former communications minister A Raja for giving licences at throwaway prices to new operators in January 2008).

Yet Sivasankaran's relationship with the Marans has not always been acrimonious. Insiders say that Siva and Dayanidhi's father Murasoli Maran were friends, and that some members of the family even worked for Siva's companies.

After the senior Maran's death, however, the relationship with his sons soured dramatically.

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What added fuel to the fire, say insiders, is the fact that Siva came closer to Ratan Tata, and is said to have helped him get attractive discounts on telecom equipment for Tata's telecom network rollout (he had maintained a close relationship with all the global vendors) by playing off a US multinational against a European giant.

This, however, could not be confirmed. The relationship with the Tatas was cemented further when Siva bought a 10 per cent stake in Tata Teleservices.

It is now known that the Tatas did not have a cosy relationship with Maran and were anxious to know if he would get another term as telecom minister.

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Image: Siva came closer to Ratan Tata.

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The tension in their relationship, say insiders, was because of Tata's decision to enter the broadcasting distribution space with Tata Sky, which would clash directly with Sun TV's DTH foray.

Neither side is willing to confirm, but it is believed that Sun was keen that Tata undertake the venture with it as a partner.

Will Siva re-ignite an old battle with the Marans after so many years? The man himself is not talking.

But, says a Siva watcher: "Siva is a fighter; he does not accept defeat and will not be browbeaten. He will get back."

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Image: Tata's broadcasting plan was clashing with Sun TV.

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Siva periodically enters newer businesses and exits others. So, apart from his interest in ethanol, wind energy, shipping and media, he has made a proposal to the government of the Seychelles to lease the 930-hectare island of Coetivy, 290 km south of Mahe.

The project will include villas, condominiums, hotels and leisure facilities. He has invested money in edible oil company K S Oils as well as in projects of the Sahara group, including its TV channel (and Ambi Valley, which he has exited). During A Raja's tenure, Siva bounced back into the telecom arena through S-tel, which won one of the dozen-odd new licences that were given by the minister.

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Image: Siva wants to lease 930-hectare island near Mahe.

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This operation (a joint venture with Batelco), however, is limited to six circles which include the smaller states of Orissa, Bihar, Himachal and the Northeast, among others.

However, his investment in the company has come under the scrutiny of the Enforcement Directorate, which says that Siva had indirectly funded the telecom company and bought into the mobile company only after it secured the licences.

Among his projects that could not take off was his joint venture with Subhash Chandra of Zee to get into direct-to-home business. Zee, subsequently, went on its own.

His foray into expanding 'Aiwo', a restaurant chain for the health-conscious, which started in Singapore and Chennai, has remained a small outfit despite his ambitious plans. His undersea cable project from India came a cropper.

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Image: Siva's plan with Zee's Subhash Chandra did not work.

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Once, in a pensive mood, he had elaborated upon his philosophy of business. "You should not be emotionally attached to the business. You should see whether you can make money or not," he had said.

Perhaps that is why Maran clarified to the press that Siva is not a mere multi-millionaire, but a billionaire who could not be coerced into selling his businesses.


Image: Maran says Siva is a billionaire.

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