V Shoba catches up with Kanimozhi Karunanidhi as the charismatic DMK leader makes her electoral debut in Thoothukudi
V Shoba | 10 Apr, 2019
THE SUN SETS OVER Mazhavarayanatham, an inaccessible hamlet near Alwarthirunagari in Thoothukudi district, just as Kanimozhi Karunanidhi proclaims a new sunrise in Tamil Nadu, waving her arm about like the palm trees flickering darkly in the distance. “We have to send Modi home. That is what this election is about. Vote for the sun, vote for me, and I promise we will soon come to power and fulfill your wishes,” she says with schematic neatness from atop her campaign van. Then, to break the seriousness of the stump speech, she flashes a coruscating smile at the crowd, throwing the floor open for questions. An elder who has already made his way to the van, his arm outstretched, shouts above the rousing vocals of the party song. Kanimozhi scoots down into the passenger seat to hear him out. There are complaints tucked into miseries. The road joining the village to SH-40 is a wreck—and we can attest to this, having scrambled after her long convoy to get here. There are just two buses connecting Mazhavarayanatham to the outside world. School-going children have to hazard cycling several kilometres on the dusty path twice a day. No elected representative has visited the village of about a thousand people in years. The 51-year-old daughter of the late Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) patriarch M Karunanidhi listens intently, appearing ironically detached from her own celebrity. Besides her last name, her emotional quotient, she knows, is her competitive advantage. Contesting from the Thoothukudi Parliamentary constituency, she is pitted, in the most high-profile electoral battle this southern outpost has ever seen, against the BJP State President, Tamilisai Soundararajan. Soundararajan, by her own admission, is perceived as “lacking a heart” for supporting the AIADMK government, which presided over an inglorious episode of police firing on May 22nd, 2018, at anti-Sterlite Industries protesters, killing 13. In the aftermath of the Sterlite imbroglio, Kanimozhi, a two-time Rajya Sabha MP, has pitched herself as the empathic alternative—a poet fighting to keep her father’s emotional legacy alive in a world where death and despair seem to pass like shadows without a trace. The incident, according to locals who have been protesting against polluting and hazardous industries in Thoothukudi since 1996, has become a Rorschach blot onto which political outfits have been projecting their own ideologies and expectations.
“We know she is not from around here. She is a city girl. But she already knows people in Delhi. If we elect her, maybe she will speak for us in Parliament,” says A Lakshmanan, a 77-year-old Panchayat leader. The wall behind him advertises the Tamil Nadu Village Habitation Improvement Scheme (THAI), a government programme introduced in 2011 by the then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa to develop village infrastructure, including arterial roads. “They cleaned a village tank, that’s all. When we pointed out that the road had not been repaired in the past 13 years, they said they ran out of funds,” Lakshmanan says. “That Amma cheated the people. Let’s see if this Amma keeps her promises.”
It is not a comparison Kanimozhi is thrilled about. The head of the DMK women’s wing has said in the past that she was no match for Jayalalithaa, whose rugged individualism made her Karunanidhi’s bete noire and a towering fixture in Tamil Nadu until her death in 2016. That did not stop the media from drawing parallels between their lives—they had attended the same school in Chennai, had launched their careers from the Rajya Sabha and were fluent in English. They also shared a more sordid connection— incarceration on charges of corruption. In 2014, a special court had found Jayalalithaa and her co-conspirators guilty of misusing the privilege of public office to amass wealth, and the conviction had forced her to step down as chief minister—for the second time. The following year, the Karnataka High Court overturned the trial court’s verdict, acquitting the accused of all charges and making way for Amma’s return to power on May 23rd, 2015. Sloughing off her prison robes wasn’t as easy for Kanimozhi, who spent 193 days in 2011 in Tihar jail after being accused of conspiring with partyman and former Telecom Minister Andimuthu Raja and of accepting a bribe through the conduit of Kalaignar TV for the award of a 2G licence. After years of investigation into the alleged $40 billion spectrum scam, a special court in Delhi, on December 21st, 2017, acquitted the accused, stating that “some people created a scam by artfully arranging a few selected facts and exaggerating things beyond recognition to astronomical levels”. It placed Kanimozhi, a low-profile politician, former cultural festival organiser and journalist—and from what her partymen say, a victim of circumstance— on the right side of the law.
In 2007, after the ugly rift between Karunanidhi and his grand nephews, the Marans, Kanimozhi had been given a plum role—some partymen say she was put out to pasture, but at the time, she was unlikely to emerge as a challenger to her half-brother MK Stalin’s eventual coronation—in Delhi as the emissary of and the cultural heir to her father. Senior Congress leaders easily warmed to the soft-spoken Rajya Sabha MP who had published two volumes of modern poetry and seemed to harbour little ambition even after the UPA’s victory in the 2009 General Election. The only spot of trouble she got into was for her conversations with corporate lobbyist Niira Radia, where she appears to wrangle the telecom ministry for Raja. It was her association with Raja that made her a prime accused in the 2G spectrum case, in a major personal and professional upset that people close to her say “fortified her”. Her image has since been restored by the gradual march of triumph-over-adversity stories in the media, which finds her to be friendlier than Stalin. “Prison turned her from a pet daughter into a politician standing on her own strength. She started to take politics seriously after this, much like Jayalalithaa after her electoral debacle of 1996,” says Maalan Narayanan, a writer and journalist who has tracked her career. The fact that Kanimozhi is now contesting her first-ever election, hoping the people will extend her the benefit of doubt, even though the Enforcement Directorate and the CBI have filed appeals against the 2G verdict in the Delhi High Court, is proof that she now has skin in the game.
“In politics, everyone has their own interests. Everybody faces opposition. My father did. The present leader does. What I am and what I have delivered is what matters,” says Kanimozhi
“I have always wanted to contest, to work in a constituency,” Kanimozhi says, talking to Open at her residence in Thoothukudi, an impersonal interstitial space that is a copy of her campaign office next door. Both are bare but for a few generic pieces of furniture, campaign material and, more than anything, shawls. The zari-drenched drapes of welcome fester everywhere, competing with the sun to spill brightly over the counter of the disused kitchen at the back of the office. In the kitchen at her residence, the aroma of fish being cooked makes for a different kind of welcome, away from the fever dream of pre-poll politics. Since morning, a stream of visitors—party workers, well-wishers, community leaders, representatives of alliance partners, deracinated television journalists—has kept Kanimozhi on her toes. “I was considering contesting from Thanjavur, too,” she says, when I ask why she picked Thoothukudi, presumably a safe constituency considering the local anti-incumbency factor and the number of Nadar voters—Kanimozhi’s mother hails from the community of traders, as does her opponent from the AIADMK-BJP alliance. “I have been working here for a while and people have been asking me to contest. There is so much potential that is untapped. Look at the kind of poverty and unemployment that exist here in spite of the natural wealth around. Of course, Sterlite was a factor behind my choice of constituency. The government has completely ignored the families of the victims and failed to listen to the problems of the local people.” Isn’t she worried that ousting a corporate that created thousands of jobs in the region would send the wrong message about the DMK’s attitude towards industry and turn potential investors against Thoothukudi? “No. There are any number of agri-based industries that can be set up. The Kovilpatti matchbox factories and peanut candy making units can be revived, for instance. So you see, this is not really a safe constituency. The BJP brought in their party leader Amit Shah to campaign here.”
Party workers we met over plates of coconut milk-soaked string hoppers the previous evening saw Kanimozhi as an interloper, a leader of national standing who could have used her identity to break new ground instead of parachuting into a nearly-indefeasible Lok Sabha seat. When she had adopted the village of Srivenkatesapuram in Sathankulam taluk under the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana, the DMK cadre in the district felt like they had snared a prize, but they did not read it as a sign that she was evincing political interest in the southern region, and perhaps marking her territory in her own low-key way. “The leadership seems to think that she could emerge as a counter to the rabble-rousing MK Azhagiri in the south, while not posing a threat to her leader,” says an aspiring district secretary of the party. “While there are no established names in the party here other than that of P Geetha Jeevan [the MLA representing Thoothukudi], we expected a young local leader to be given a chance. Had the AIADMK contested the election alone, without allying with the BJP, half the partymen in town would have worked to ensure Kanimozhi’s defeat,” says a 30-year-old, implying that the consensus among supporters of either Dravidian party was to drive out the BJP, which is contesting five out of the 39 Lok Sabha seats from Tamil Nadu: Kanyakumari, Sivaganga, Coimbatore and Ramanathapuram besides Thoothukudi.
KANIMOZHI, TOO, IS hoping to ride the anti-BJP wave that is sweeping Tamil Nadu, swelling with anger against Hindi imposition, NEET, unemployment, communal disharmony and the dilution of fiscal federalism. When the Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill, 2019, to provide 10 per cent reservation to the economically weak in the general category, was tabled before the Rajya Sabha early this year, she was among those who opposed it, moving a motion to send it to a parliamentary committee for scrutiny. The motion was denied, but the remarks in Hindi of Deputy Chairman of the House Harivansh Narayan Singh, that she had taken twice the time allotted to her, and her response to it, have unwittingly made her a blue-chip icon for Tamil pride. “Sir, can you speak in a language I can understand?” she replied, forcing him to make his point in English. Kanimozhi doesn’t take credit for these civilisational missions as other Dravidian politicians are wont to. “She is not a natural politician. She has been pushed into the job and therefore is unlikely to cling to position and power as though they were life rafts,” says a friend who went to school with her. Seemingly happy to defer to the leader despite reports that their relationship is on a constant simmer, with a section of the party projecting her, rather than Stalin’s son Udhayanidhi, as the heir to the DMK, Kanimozhi says they have both learnt to ignore such precarious artefacts of the imagination. Take, for instance, her poem about missing her father and wishing he would come back, which was given an insurrectionary colour by a gossip columnist who interpreted it as Kanimozhi’s dissatisfaction with the present leadership. “When people take a picture, I often think that it’s after all my brother and let me stay away, let other people stand in the picture because they don’t get a chance to meet the leader every day. Even this can be read wrong—as my wanting to keep away or his not giving me space,” Kanimozhi says. “After a point you realise these inferences don’t matter. You know the truth and he knows the truth and it’s ok. We are fine and we are doing our work. Giving other people space is the right thing to do.”
“Sterlite was a factor behind my constituency choice. The government has completely ignored the families of the victims and failed to listen to the problems of the local people,” says Kanimozhi
There is a congenial awkwardness to her speech, and she sometimes pauses deeply or leaves a sentence hanging, as if stumbling over its sudden immateriality. Even in the whirlwind of campaigning, she seems to lapse, now and then, into contemplation. For the consumption of others, however, she puts out stock replies to questions about her evolution as a leader, preventing me from probing her on her place in the party—if she ever felt minimised or caught up in a swirl of parochialism—and whether she grew up with an ambient awareness of patriarchy. I hazard a question about her detractors within the party and she shoots a beam of alarm in my direction. “In politics, everyone has their own interests. Everybody faces opposition. My father did. The present leader does. What I am and what I have delivered is what matters,” she says.
She points out that Stalin is committed to keeping their father’s fight for federal autonomy alive. “He was among the first to write to chief ministers about why the use of 2011 population data by the 15th Finance Commission to allot money to the states was unfair to south India [which has been doing a better job of controlling population growth than the north].” Instead of addressing such concrete issues, the BJP, Kanimozhi says “has been making the election about only one person. [Modi] has taken the country back in every way. Look at unemployment—we have lost 500,000 jobs in the state. Not a single job has been created. Traders are affected in a big way. They promised to increase MSP and double farm income. What happened? On their way out they are now handing out Rs 6,000 as charity.” She doesn’t want to write off the BJP yet, however. “We were surprised to hear that the BJP state president intends to contest from here. I had never seen her before. She has been going around asking for votes on the basis of caste and religion,” she says. “I am glad that she says I don’t belong to this caste. My father didn’t think of himself as belonging to a caste, and neither do I.”
On the national highway that connects Tirunelveli to the port in Thoothukudi named after VO Chidambaram Pillai—the freedom fighter who launched the first indigenous shipping service between India and Sri Lanka—industrial clusters materialise with scenic regularity on the dry, desolate land. The embattled Sterlite copper smelting plant, a titanium pigments factory and an enormous power station announce Thoothukudi before you arrive, a maritime gateway that once flourished with trade, fishing, and pearl-diving. To the east, salt pans seem to palpitate and the sun is so hot you can feel the windows sizzle. “The election is not all about Sterlite. There are five other segments in the Parliamentary constituency besides Thoothukudi [Ottapidaram, Vilathikulam, Srivaikuntam, Kovilpatti and Tiruchendur],” points out Tamilisai Soundararajan, 57, the BJP’s face in Tamil Nadu, on the drive to Ottapidaram where she is campaigning today, accompanied by former AIADMK MLA from the region and the present organisation secretary of the party, ST Chellapandian, and Kadambur Raju, the party’s MLA from Kovilpatti and a sitting minister. The two, and other factions within the AIADMK, have patched up to lend their collective strength to the BJP candidate, for whom this is a crucial election. Having unsuccessfully contested from the Chennai North Lok Sabha constituency in 2009, and the Assembly polls twice– from Radhapuram in Tirunelveli district in 2006 and Velachery in Chennai in 2011—Soundararajan is taking a moonshot. “There are silly allegations about the BJP micro-managing the shooting in Thoothukudi. If I don’t take up the constituency, it is like accepting our collusion,” she says. “My parents were both from the erstwhile Tiruchendur district and the temple there is close to my heart. I want to rid Thoothukudi of the black mark that it has acquired with the Sterlite problem. Is Sterlite bigger than 2G? We’ll find out.” For Kanimozhi as for Soundararajan, a loss could be deeply damaging and winning is a means to put their pasts behind them.
“Akka [sister] will return victorious as a Union Minister,” hollers Kadambur Raju, asking the people of Ottapidaram—which is one of 18 Assembly constituencies where bypolls will be held along with the General Election on April 18th—to vote for the party that has a national narrative in place. “They are saying, make me your MP. We are talking about who your prime minister will be. This is an election for a strong India,” Raju says, to a raucous reception. Soundararajan plays the local underdog, turning the jibes about her dark skin on their head. “Who looks like one of you, me or Kanimozhi?” she says. “Dark is our colour. I am a medical doctor who delivers babies and I want to assure you that I care more about my people than a corrupt dynast could.”
Whatever the verdict, it is not an election that will herald change, say activists who bemoan the apathy in both Dravidian parties towards the well-being of the people. “It was a people’s movement that was appropriated by political outfits,” says M Krishnamoorthy, an Unorganised Workers’ Federation leader. “The Sterlite protest was not about a town or a constituency. It is symbolic of the corruption built into the political system. The people of Thoothukudi will not forget. There are tens of thousands of salt workers and casual labourers waiting for work, will anything change for them?” Among Soundararajan’s brace of promises is a job for every household, a plank she hopes will be a game-changer..
Kanimozhi, on her part, sets out today to woo the cosseted Brahmin community of Alwarthirunagari. “When we talk about secularism they immediately say we are against Hindus. That’s the only narrative they have. They have nothing to say about what they can do for the people. What have they done for Hindus? The DMK has stood for social justice. Reservations cover depressed classes in the Hindu community. We have fought for the right to temple entry of all Hindus. Periyar fought for it, not the RSS,” she tells me. The convoy hugs the Thamirabarani river and the landscape shifts as we cross Athinathapuram, winding through dreamy fields of paddy and banana. But here too, there is opportunity. Kanimozhi stops to address a small flock at an unlikely place: a bund in the middle of nowhere. “This dried-up pond is called Tenkarai,” she says. “There are hundreds of such water bodies that I want to desilt and revive. It is time to clean up and rebuild.”