Just about 5 years ago, on May 21, 2011, things could not have been worse for the DMK and Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, as she was being walked into Tihar jail after the 2G court in Delhi refused her bail. DMK had just put up its worst performance in decades, in the 2011 assembly polls. The shock and worry over being jailed was evident as Kanimozhi was escorted out of court by the police, her head held low and looking away from the cameras.
On May 11, 2016, there is a different Kanimozhi on offer. Wearing an orange-colored saree, just a few shades off from the salwar-kameez she was wearing when jailed, security men are now escorting her on the campaign trail across Madurai. The Kanimozhi who shied away from media and evaded questions now embraces the camera and fights out posers.
She is not known to be a great orator like her father, but what she lacks in theatrics, she tries to make up for in substance with ample inputs from her team. Campaigning in Madurai city, she tells the electorate that rowdyism and thuggery will not be tolerated – a strategic statement to assure people that the days of Alagiri and his henchmen are over.
Further down at Usilampatti, a Thevar community stronghold, she steps out of her campaign van to garland a Thevar statue evoking loud applause from the massive and mildly violent crowd. “This time AIADMK has dumped the Forward Bloc (a Thevar party), so we are fighting hard to grab their votes. Garlanding the statue will make people happy,” explains a DMK man, adding that they have been garlanding statues of BR Ambedkar and Kamaraj too.
The 2G Mahabharat
Long after the 2G scam broke, the taint associated with it invariably lands at her door. An unfazed Kanimozhi, however, will have none of it. “It was entirely politically motivated. And people know that it is not a poll issue this time. People have understood the truth,” she says, as we settle down in her campaign van, on the way to Sholavandan, her next campaign spot.
But doesn’t it bother her that the 2G taint could still affect the DMK? “It will not affect the DMK. And my conscience is clear, why should it bother me? I was least interested in what was happening in the company (Kalaignar TV). I never attended a single meeting after I resigned as a director. I was a director for two weeks only. I never attended a board meeting, never benefitted from the company,” she retorts, and adds, “And it’s a joke when Jayalalithaa, who has been convicted in the DA case, uses it against us.”
But there is no denying the controversy took away a lot from her. Are the scars of 2G healing?
“Well, what can I say? I have learned a lot from it, about people, about politics. It was quite an experience,” she says.
So what has she learned, personally and politically?
She laughs at the question and says, “There are lot of things I can say, but I am not sure it would be right to do so openly!”
I press her for answers, and she takes a long pause. She looks to her political aides, rehearses some answers in her mind, and then gives a cryptic reply with a smile, “Mahabharata is not a complete myth.”
Her answer perhaps refers to what she, and many others in the DMK, see as the political conspiracy which led to her incarceration, and it has much to do with the DMK-Congress relationship and internal dynamics of the Dravidian party. Several DMK leaders have only recently pieced together why exactly the Congress ‘betrayed’ the DMK, who orchestrated the fallout, and why Kanimozhi, the daughter of TN’s most powerful man, was sent to jail.
Building a base and being DMK’s woman face
Ever since, Kanimozhi has been on a mission to build a base for herself in southern Tamil Nadu, amidst the Nadars, and also capitalize on her image as the woman-face of DMK.
While Karunanidhi is from the Isai Vellalar caste, his third wife and Kanimozhi’s mother Rajathi Ammal is a Nadar. Over the past few years, there have been consistent requests from the Nadars of the state to her to take up their concerns, say DMK insiders. As early as January 2011, Nadar groups in the state supported her nomination to the Rajya Sabha openly. Kanimozhi however says she is “not thinking about her future.”
“Whatever political work I do, it is to build the party and not my own career,” she says, and adds with emphasis, “I am not looking at any area in isolation.”
She has also maintained a good relationship with her brother MK Stalin she says, and dismisses reports of any differences between them as a “media creation”. However, her role as one of DMK’s key players in Delhi is alive and kicking. DMK sources say that she had held important meetings with Sonia and Rahul Gandhi to lock in the alliance ahead of 2016.
The centerpiece of her campaign, irrespective of the location, is prohibition. Across Tamil Nadu, the DMK is banking on alcoholism to get votes from a key constituency — women. This makes Kanimozhi, the woman-face of DMK, a key player. Even she agrees that DMK was late to the prohibition party in the run up the polls, but insists that they had caught the wind of the issue long ago.
“I have been holding meetings with DMK’s Women’s Wing as far back as early 2015,” she says, “We did take time to announce our decision to bring in complete prohibition, but we were trying to understand its effect on people. Once we saw how passionate women were about it, we went ahead,” she says.
That the DMK beat the AIADMK in announcing complete prohibition however hasn’t saved them from criticism as Jayalalithaa, and even PMK’s Anbumani Ramdoss, took to Twitter over how the DMK was speaking in different voices on the issues.
“It is Jayalalithaa who is responsible for the present situation. She has increased the number of TASMAC shops. She set targets for the TASMAC shops and encouraged indiscriminate selling of alcohol to even young students,” she responds.
Anbumani’s criticism is however met with snarky dismissal. “I am sure he knows enough English and Tamil to understand the word prohibition. When the media raised the question of some family members of DMK owning distilleries, we said they will shut them down too, that’s all,” she says.