Rajya Sabha MP and DMK leader Kanimozhi defends DMK’s role post-Jayalalithaa, explains why the party has issues with BJP, talks about Kamal Haasan’s political aspirations, justifies poll freebies, accepts revival of caste in the state, and discusses why men find it difficult to concede ground to women in politics
MANOJ CG: How is the DMK benefiting from the political developments in the AIADMK?
I wouldn’t say that the DMK is benefiting. But, obviously, when the ruling party is in disarray, any opposition party will benefit from it. People have lost faith in the AIADMK and the ruling government in Tamil Nadu today. They are sick and tired and are turning towards the DMK. There are no industries, there is no investment coming in. You must have heard about the dengue epidemic, it’s really bad and nothing has been done to contain it.
The DMK has had its differences with Jayalalithaa, her style of administration and governance, etc, but I don’t think that the people who voted for her deserve this. The entire Cabinet says that it lied about what happened to the former CM—her medical condition, the treatment that was given to her. We were a progressive state. We were doing very well economically, our social indicators were good, people were looking up to Tamil Nadu. But now, it is very sad that Tamil Nadu is grabbing national media’s attention for the wrong reasons.
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MANOJ CG: What about sympathy for Jayalalithaa? Will that not play a role in the next election?
I’m not saying there is no sympathy. People are angry and they want to know what happened to her. They hold her in high respect and there is a lot of affection. But as far as sympathy is concerned, they are not looking at AIADMK leaders as people who have been loyal to her (Jayalalithaa). That is the truth. EPS (Edappadi Palaniswami, Tamil Nadu CM) has not been loyal to her nor has OPS (O Panneerselvam, Tamil Nadu deputy CM), and there is a lot of anger against the family that was around her. So, people don’t look at them as loyalists, and have no sympathy for them.
RAVISH TIWARI: How do you look back at Jayalalithaa and her politics? What is your assessment?
She was a very strong leader. She kept the party together after MGR (MG Ramachandran, AIADMK founder) passed away. She had to face a lot of trials. In her own words, ‘It was trial by fire’. As a DMK person, of course, I do not approve of her methods of working in politics, like stalling every project the previous government introduced. So, we had our differences, but nobody can deny that she was a very strong mass leader. Also, while you cannot look at a politician after a point as a woman or a man, but we all have to agree that it is much more difficult for a woman to be in politics, and to be at the helm of affairs, and she did that. In that sense, she was an achiever.
AMRITH LAL: There has been a lot of talk about how the DMK didn’t do enough to take advantage of the crisis in the AIADMK. You had the numbers, you could have pushed for a vote of no-confidence and toppled the government.
Everybody is saying that the DMK should have done something. I would really want to know what the DMK should have done? There are anti-defection laws and our working president (MK Stalin) is very clear that we do not want to bring the government down, and come into power in this manner. We do not want to get into horse-trading—buying MLAs and bringing them to our side and then toppling the government. The DMK has taken a clear stand on the matter.
COOMI KAPOOR: Do you see space in Tamil Nadu politics for a third party to emerge?
I cannot predict what is going to happen in the future. But if there are elections now, I definitely see a DMK government (coming to power).
COOMI KAPOOR: What do you make of the role of the Speaker and the governor in the present crisis?
Earlier, we had a governor whom we had to share with Maharashtra, and who was hardly there. Every time people wanted to meet him, he was not there and we simply had to wait for the governor to come. That became an excuse to delay a lot of things too. Now, finally, we have a governor and I think there will be a big change in how things function.
HARISH DAMODARAN: Is your party averse to doing business with the BJP? Do you see a difference between the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP and the Modi-led BJP?
There are a lot of issues that Tamil Nadu has with the present BJP government. But, I think, decisions such as these need to be taken at a higher level in the party. I think now the Opposition has come together nationally. Let’s see how that works. Look at what happened recently in Tamil Nadu with regards to NEET (National Eligibility and Entrance Test)… A girl lost her life (Dalit girl S Anitha, who fought against implementation of NEET in Tamil Nadu committed suicide in September this year). (It shows) the rigid stand and the refusal of the BJP government to understand Tamil Nadu… The incident shocked everyone. A lot of our students lost an opportunity. Tamil Nadu stands for social justice. Such cases go against the core and grain of Tamil politics and Tamil society. How can we compromise with something like that? The way they treat the minorities, we’ve all seen the lynchings, their stand on food and Hindutva… Everything is very different from what it was.
LIZ MATHEW: Do you think a party like the BJP can find space in Tamil Nadu politics? And if not, what do you think is blocking the BJP in the state?
Tamil Nadu is very clear about certain things—its stand on religion, language, the Tamil identity and social justice. A party that does not accept these cannot find space in the state. Whoever it is. If the AIADMK loses, I don’t think they can ever expect to come back to power.
SHOBHANA SUBRAMANIAN: How successful do you think Kamal Haasan would be if he were to finally join politics?
I really can’t say because I don’t know what he stands for and what he will bring to the politics of the state. A political party should clearly state how it plans to achieve its goals. They need to have a clear stand on issues—the Cauvery issue, NEET, etc. Without knowing these things, it would not be right for me to comment (on Kamal Haasan).
RAVISH TIWARI: Why is there political support for prohibition in Tamil Nadu?
I understand where your question is coming from but it is a major issue in Tamil Nadu. It is not social drinking we are talking about, we are talking about alcoholism. Just because we have to take care of the interests or entertainment of a small number of people in cities who are social drinkers, we cannot turn a blind eye to what is happening in the state. Alcoholism is rampant. There are so many young people who are addicted and cannot work. There is nothing that they can give to society, because the first thing they do is get up and go to TASMAC (the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation, which sells alcoholic beverages in the state) shops. Families are suffering. It is a very big problem. So, we have to let go of some things to take care of the larger majority that is being affected really badly.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: Can Rahul Gandhi lead the Opposition against the BJP in 2019?
He is doing well. There is a lot of hope in him and the Congress. He connects with people. When he addressed the public in Tamil Nadu, they were very happy with the issues he raised.
LIZ MATHEW: Do you think succession will be an issue in the DMK?
The DMK is very clear that (Stalin) is going to take the party forward. There is no issue or confusion there.
SHOBHANA SUBRAMANIAN: You said that in Tamil Nadu politics, certain issues matter. However, at the end of it, it all seems to boil down to a contest of freebies—fridge, TV, laptops, cycles etc.
There are two ways of looking at everything. You say they are freebies, but they can also be looked at as welfare schemes. You look at giving rice at `1 as a freebie but I look at it as a measure to make sure that nobody goes hungry to bed. Cycles are not a part of our schemes, Jayalalithaa introduced them, but I will talk about that as well. In villages, when you finish Class 5 or 6, then a high school isn’t close by. You have to travel and the buses are not that frequent. For a girl, it is very important to find transport to reach school or else she will be stopped from attending classes. So every scheme serves a purpose, it is important. They are not just freebies. And it happens not just during the elections. These are poll promises which are then executed. When the DMK promised rice for `1, we delivered it. We didn’t forget about it after the elections.
Our farmers have been protesting here (in New Delhi) for months. They want to meet the Prime Minister. Nobody is talking about them. Our leader Kalaignar (M Karunanidhi) waived off farmers’ loans, which helped agriculture. Today, look what is happening to agriculture and farmers all over the country. How many suicides are we talking about? So everything is not an election freebie. There are things which people need. When the DMK government was in power, our CM Kalaignar announced a scheme which promised a girl educated up to Class 8—now it is Class 10—Rs 25,000 for her wedding when she’s 18. Many people asked us why put the Class 8 condition, why not just give it to any girl. The reason was that at least families will ensure that the girl child is educated up to Class 8 because they are getting Rs 25,000 for it.
SHAILAJA BAJPAI: You said that women find it very difficult to grow in politics. Can you share your own experience
with us? Also, what do you think of dynasty politics?
I cannot say that I faced many hurdles. I come from a political background and I grew up with people from the field around me. I can’t say that they treated me badly. But when you are a woman, in any field, you have to be twice or thrice as good as the man next to you to be treated equally. That’s the case in politics also. You can make an argument, but when the man makes the same point, it’s heard more seriously, keenly and more attentively. That’s a fact. Even in the case of Jayalalithaa, you can talk about her governance, etc… character assassination is common while targeting a woman in public life. When you talk about a man, it’s a feather in his cap. So that’s a big difference. It hurts and it is not that easy to walk away from it. I am a part of the women’s wing of the party. When a woman worker comes in, the way she is treated… the problems are not the same that a man faces.
There are other kinds of issues. The family has problems with her timings—in politics you can’t say I will come in at 9 am and leave at 5 pm.
Everybody supports 33% reservation for women (in Parliament), but it doesn’t happen. Men find it convenient to have a woman who will listen to them, who will not question them… Politics is about power and it is very difficult for a man to give up that space of power. It is human psychology. I am not blaming the men, but the struggle is much bigger for a woman. (On dynasty politics) It is easier to get into something if you are familiar with it. It is easier for me and it is easier for the people to accept me. There is an initial push and I cannot deny that. But after that, unless you prove yourself, you cannot be there. You stand for an election, people have to vote for you. You have to prove yourself to continue and be successful in politics.
HARISH DAMODARAN: Why is it that despite the good social indicators of the state, the status of women and Dalits is still backward in Tamil Nadu?
Sadly, there is a revival of caste in many states. That is also happening in Tamil Nadu. Until a few years ago, Dalits were treated much better. I am not saying that we had done away with caste and untouchability, but it was much better. Now we have reached a very sad low. Action is not being taken when there are atrocities against Dalits. As for women, I think they are treated badly everywhere, not just in Tamil Nadu. We have a long way to go. Women’s education is much better, there are more working women in Tamil Nadu, but there is a lot more that needs to be done.
AMRITH LAL: The Dravidian movement has been accused of being anti-Dalit.
There is criticism, but it isn’t true. The Dravidian movement is against oppression, so how can it be against Dalits or anybody who is oppressed?
MUZAMIL JALEEL: How do you look at PM Modi and how is he looked at in Tamil Nadu?
I think the DMK has made it very clear that we are not with the present BJP government and many of its policies. Initially, we did welcome demonetisation but the way it was implemented, we had a lot of issues with that. Even GST… the way it has affected businesses, we have strong objections to it.
COOMI KAPOOR: You were jailed for the 2G scam. Can you share with us your experience in prison?
It was an experience, it opened up a lot of things to me. Being from Tamil Nadu, I’m not that exposed to how people live here (in Delhi). (In Delhi) I have only met politicians, writers and journalists. I haven’t met women from backgrounds other than mine. (The jail experience) opened me up to that—what they go through, how they think, the issues they face. It was an important experience for me.