“The chief editor ‘Mathrubhumi’ didn’t have”: M.P. Veerendra Kumar, the socialist media baron who brought two globalising forces to their knees in Kerala: Coca-Cola and ‘The Times of India’

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The small division looking after the printing of currency notes is one of the outposts of North Block in New Delhi. The bosses can barely be bothered with its expenses. But for a brief while during the I.K. Gujral regime in 1997, it received some serious love.

“What paper are we using?”

“Why is there so much wastage?”

“Can’t we refurbish this note press and run it a little longer rather than burn up cash importing a new machine?”

The searching questions came from the Minister of State for Finance, which is something given the genius who occupies the chair today. But M.P. Veerendra Kumar had an intimate knowledge of printing technology like nobody else before him.

After all, he was the big boss of Mathrubhumi, the No.2 Malayalam newspaper, and if there was one thing in his genes, it was presses, paper, plates, ink and chemicals.

“If you are out of money, just tell me,” the MoS told friends, in jest.

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In a tribute (above, right) to mark the demise of Veerendra Kumar in today’s Mathrubhumi, Thomas Jacob, the former editorial director of the rival Malayala Manorama, calls him “the Chief Editor Mathrubhumi didn’t have”.

For, while the hard numbers for the 84-year-old media baron lay themselves out neatly—24 books, 27 positions held, 106 awards and honours—a vital blank is helmsmanship of the paper he was director for 43 years, and its chairman and managing director for 41.

But even without his name in the imprint line, it was Veerendra Kumar who guided Mathrubhumi‘s stellar role in puncturing Coca-Cola’s plans in Plachimada in the early 2000s, by channelling the resistance of adivasis and dalits into the national consciousness.

“His has been a prophetic voice, which warned our society of the coming dangers of globalisation, the fight over natural resources of indigenous peoples,” reads a sentence on his website.

It is not an exaggerated claim.

In a recent interview with N.P. Chekkutty of The Kochi Post, Veerendra Kumar explained Mathrubhumi‘s philosophy in its opposition to a giant transnational like Coca-Cola. 

“Indeed it was a risky affair, but we do not go for advertisements selling out our fundamental interests. The newspaper did lose a lot of money by way of advertisement revenue – crores of rupees worth of ads. And I will tell you the loss to me: The agents for the company approached me at the time with a deal. They offered five percent of the revenue from the plant to me, for a small favour! It was that we should agree to appoint a lawyer to fight the case in the court, named by the company…I said, “thank you. I do not want your money. Veerendra Kumar is not for sale.”

With George Fernandes, Gopala Gowda, Ramakrishna Hegde and J.H. Patel among his close friends, Veerendra Kumar was every bit a socialist like his Kannadiga kinsmen, and an acknowledged expert at the intricacies of GATT (general agreement on tariffs and trade) and WTO (world trade organisation).

When Manmohan Singh was winning the trust vote in 2008 over the nuclear deal with the US, guess who was the last MP shouting to be heard in all the din: Veerendra Kumar.

Despite his opposition to globalisation, he had travelled all around the globe. On his website, Veerendra Kumar lists at least 53 countries he visited.

“When he went to the World Association of Newspapers meeting in Ukraine, he did not hesitate to climb down the slopes of the catacombs despite his weak limbs,” recounts K.S. Sachidananda Murthy of The Week. “When he wrote on the Himalayas, he wanted to experience it himself rather than depend on second-hand accounts.”

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But much before Coca-Cola, Veerendra Kumar had bested the other great globalising force of Indian public life: The Times of India group.

Mathrubhumi, had been founded in 1923 on tiny donations from the public. In return, its conscientious founders had issued share certificates to donors. Over the years, the five-rupee shares had been lost , destroyed or fallen into disuse.

Enter, M.D. Nalapat, the son of the poet Kamala Das. Nalapat, whose grandfather was one of Mathrubhumi‘s founders, went around buying back these Rs 5 shares from small share holders across Kerala, one for as high as Rs 7,000.

In 1988, with Samir Jain in the company, the Times group picked up 400 shares in Mathrubhumi from Nalapat.

The plan was to exploit synergies: ToI was to print in Cochin using Mathrubhumi‘s presses, and Mathrubhumi was to print at the ToI press in Bombay to serve Malayalam readers in the Gulf at daybreak.

A full-fledged culture war against “North Indian monopolists” broke out, spearheaded by Mathrubhumi’s chief editor N.V. Krishna Warrier, and the paper’s redoubtable Delhi bureau chief V.K. Madhavan Kutty. 

As opposition to its entry grew, ToI conceded defeat and withdrew its plans, although it had to absorb Nalapat and his brothers Chinnen Das and Jaysurya Das in the company.

In 1998, when Bennett Coleman & Co Ltd (BCCL) chairman Ashok Jain was embroiled in a foreign exchange case, the Times group began pushing the panic buttons in Delhi. It reached out to a Jain in the Gujral ministry: M.P. Veerendra Kumar.

Veerendra Kumar bought back the 400 shares from Times, says the media scholar Robin Jeffrey (above). The reverse-sale, says the former UNI general manager B.R.P. Bhaskar, strengthened Veerendra Kumar’s hands in the Mathrubhumi company.

In the exorable march of globalisation after 1991, ToI eventually arrived in Kerala but it should have secretly pleased Veerendra Kumar that in the month he has moved on, the Times group too is beating a hasty retreat from his state in all but Cochin.

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Twice elected to the Lok Sabha from Kozhikode, twice a “junior minister” at the Centre, and once a minister in Kerala for 48 hours, Veerendra Kumar was thrice chairman of the Press Trust of India (PTI) and once president of the Indian Newspaper Society (INS). 

And it was during his first stint as PTI chief in 1992-93 that the news agency began exploring the possibility of branching out into television.

Within the PTI board, Veerendra Kumar was able to muster the support of a few fellow travellers: Ramnath Goenka of The Indian Express, Aveek Sarkar of the Anandabazar Patrika, and Philip Mathew of Malayala Manorama.

But there were others who had their own ambitious of entering the TV space and were not in favour of PTI getting into the electronic medium.

Eventually PTI dropped its plan but the man who had registered the title for its TV channel quit and decided to pursue the dream on his own.

Veerendra Kumar agreed.

Thus was born India’s first private news channel: Asianet News.

“Maybe because he was from Wayanad, he had this strong sense of friendship and loyalty,” says Sashi Kumar, who launched Asianet News. “When Mathrubhumi wanted to launched its own TV channel, he sent his son Shreyams Kumar.”

PTI TV is still to see the light of day.

HTV from Hindustan Times is long dead.

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For a newspaper that was born in the pre-independence movement, Mathrubhumi retained its “strongly secular and fairly progressive” character, but with Veerendra Kumar now gone, a rightward shift in the paper is not unthinkable.

BJP needs a big media ally in Kerala to give fruition to its plans in the southern state which boasts the most number of RSS shakhas in the country.

The opportunity arose on the eve of the 2019 general elections. Prime minister Narendra Modi tweeted to newspaper barons to use their medium to ensure greater voting. The Malayalam newspaper he chose was not Malayala Manorama but Mathrubhumi.

Naturally, on the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, the edit page piece in Mathrubhumi  was written by RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat.

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External read: M.P. Veerendra Kumar‘s last interview

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