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Dardas have gardens, mills, media, money, clout

Nagpur’s well connected Dardas’ garden flaunts trees planted by heavyweights from politics, entertainment, religion from both India and abroad.

Mamta Chitnis Sen  MUMBAI | 9th Sep 2012

An iron sculpture of Jawaharlal Darda in a public garden opposite the Darda bungalow.

he immense political clout enjoyed by the Dardas, one of Nagpur's most well-connected business families, can be seen at Congress MP Vijay Darda's garden patch at his spacious bungalow in Yavatmal. The highlight of the garden, apart from its orange trees and fountains, are the numerous tree saplings planted by politicians, businessmen and celebrities, both from India and abroad. Each sapling has a huge board named after its planter in block letters.

From former Presidents A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and Pratibha Patil to Sri Sri Ravishankar, the Darda bungalow has accommodated them all. Even the garden opposite the bungalow, which is reserved for the public, bears the signature of Jawaharlal Darda, father of Rajya Sabha MP Vijay and Education Minister Rajendra Darda (whose names figure in the FIR filed by the CBI) in the form of an expensive iron sculpture sitting on a bench.

Jawaharlal Darda, a small time Marwari businessman, went on to make billions after he founded Lokmat, a Marathi fortnightly that later brought him close to former Maharashtra Chief Minister Vasantrao Naik and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Jawaharlal had two wives, Veenadevi and Usha. Both Vijay and Rajendra are the sons of the first wife, Veenadevi. Former minister Shalinitai Patil, who was Jawaharlal's Cabinet colleague, recalls that Veenadevi and her sons were based in Yavatmal and Usha, who had a daughter, resided in Mumbai.

"The senior Darda first established the opulent Lokmat Sadan in Nagpur, which is almost as grand as Mantralaya. After that he set up Lokmat Bhavan, again in Nagpur," recalls Patil.

Sources close to the Dardas allege that land for these buildings was obtained wrongly. "The Dardas being Marwaris are businessmen by blood. Their entry into politics was with the sole intention of improve their own businesses and both these two buildings have been constructed on plots reserved for institutions," claims a top Congress functionary. He adds that plots reserved by Maharashtra Industrial Corporation (MIDC) as industrial zones across Nagpur, Chandrapur, Aurangabad and many more were added to the family business on the pretext of starting a printing press, but were later converted into commercial zones by constructing towers on them and selling off the new offices on exorbitant rates.

He gives the example of the Lokmat Bhavan at Sanpada in Navi Mumbai, which is constructed on a plot reserved by CIDCO for an education institute, but which now apart from the newspaper office also houses an automobile showroom and a fine dining restaurant. "With the takeover of these plots, the fortnightly edition of Lokmat went on to become a daily newspaper and later every city had to have its own separate edition with a separate printing press. Right now, Lokmat, which is worth over Rs 2,000 cr, has printing presses in Nashik, Jalgaon, Aurangabad and Navi Mumbai." He recalls how in the early 80s the Aurangabad MIDC was fast getting developed and the Dardas were the first in line to demand plots in the area. According to government officials, the family has over 500 hectares of land around Nagpur, including a few thousand acres at Butibori, soon to be developed as a 5-star industrial zone by MIDC.

"Their newspaper helped them not only in creating a strong base across Yavatmal and Nagpur but also in various regions of Marathwada. An English edition and later a foray into television sector in the form of IBN-Lokmat, a Marathi news channel, made them even more powerful," says a veteran Marathi journalist on the condition of anonymity. The family also developed its loyal set of followers in the form of local MLAs and small time politicians, journalists and businessmen. Every single employee of their newspaper were christened as "district coordinators" and allotted areas to identify with and report anything worth "reporting". Thus the Dardas kept themselves informed of all developments and potential competition. A Yavatmal-based reporter recalls how Vijay Darda would hold "breakfast durbars", which would be attended by local politicians, reporters, government officials and zilla parishad heads. "Over the years, the family has financed newly elected MLAs, upcoming politicians and even ministers. It was a sure way of getting access to secretaries and officials, who would help them in their many business projects without any hitch." He adds that lately, Vijay Darda's proximity to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi might have upset his applecart within the Congress and affected his relations with the Gandhi family.

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