The narrow, crooked lanes in the Saidapet market area in Chennai are busy. White powder markings on either side of the main road announce an unusual visitor. Every five metres, red-and-black flags fly high. Loudspeakers fill the air with singer-politician Nagoor Hanifa’s most popular number, ‘Karunanidhi yengal Karunanidhi’.
Party workers cheer as DMK president M. Karunanidhi appears in a wheelchair and ascends the ramp to a stage erected in the middle of the busy road. His grandnephew and former Union minister Dayanidhi Maran helps him move from his wheelchair to the well-cushioned seat from which he is to address the roaring crowd.
The 91-year-old looks his age. His voice is not as vibrant as it used to be. Yet, he exudes confidence, and the crowd goes wild when he calls them, “Yen uyirinum melana udanpirappugaley [My brothers and sisters who are bigger than my life].”
His speech begins on a soft note. It gathers momentum as he starts tearing into the misrule of the AIADMK government. “I understand your suffering,” he says. “But I am powerless now. Give me the power; vote for the DMK.”
He takes a dig at Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa and her ministers for not visiting victims of the floods that ravaged Chennai last year. “The chief minister is more like a royal,” he says. “How will those who fly understand the people’s sufferings?”
It has been nearly a month since Karunanidhi began campaigning for the assembly elections. Unlike in the past, he has decided against leading roadshows and has chosen to address people through mammoth public rallies. Accompanying him on his travels by road and rail is Rajathi, his wife, and Dayanidhi. The job of staging roadshows has been left to his son and DMK treasurer M.K. Stalin.
The sight of huge crowds seems to rejuvenate Karunanidhi. At every rally, he speaks for at least 45 minutes, listing out the misdeeds of Jayalalithaa and her ministers and the failures of bureaucrats. He accuses the AIADMK government of being inefficient and Jayalalithaa of being autocratic. He mocks her for using helicopters to campaign, and praises Stalin for having his foot firmly on the ground. “He has toured the entire state and there is nowhere that he has not set foot,” says Karunanidhi. It is clear that age has not withered his oratorical skills.
Karunanidhi knows that Stalin’s outreach programme, called ‘Namakku Naamey’ (we, for ourselves), and his upbeat roadshows have boosted the rank and file of the party. But it seems the equations within the family would continue to prevent Stalin from taking over the reins from his father.
“Stalin has all the qualities to take over the leadership,” Karunanidhi tells THE WEEK. “But he himself will reach that position with his tireless hard work and leadership qualities. The time frame for this cannot be decided.”
Karunanidhi has made it clear that his family would not call the shots like earlier. He is quick to dismiss questions about his family’s influence in the DMK. “Of course, the DMK is a family party,” he says. “It has lakhs and lakhs of families working together. So the contribution of families is an age-old proposition in the DMK.”
He appears determined to get elected as chief minister for a record sixth time. His swift tongue and sharp repartees add to his calls for bringing back the DMK to power. “It is time for a change,” says Karunanidhi. “Appoint me. Do not disappoint me.”
Interview/ M. Karunanidhi, DMK chief
There is no timeframe for Stalin’s takeover
By Lakshmi Subramanian
What are the chances of the DMK winning the elections?
The chances are very bright.
The DMK’s election manifesto promises no freebies. Will that be a gamechanger this time?
Rather than a gamechanger or a turning point, calling our manifesto the people’s belief point is more apt. People do not expect freebies. They want only a good, peaceful life and longstanding support to live. Our freebie-less manifesto has been well-received. People don’t believe in the AIADMK’s freebies, because they know it would only cheat them.
After 1991, Tamil Nadu has alternated between electing the AIADMK and the DMK every five years. Do you think the trend will continue? Or will the DMK come to power because of the people’s anger at the ruling AIADMK?
Change will happen and the DMK will come to power. People will give the DMK a brutal majority. This will happen because of the people’s mentality of alternating between the two parties. Not only that, the resentment against the AIADMK and its government, which has failed on all fronts, has changed into wrath.
You have promised to bring prohibition at a time when the state exchequer is earning Rs 22,000 crore from liquor sales. Do you think total prohibition is possible?
It is possible. In Bihar, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has proved it.
Has the time has come to pass on the baton to your son M.K. Stalin?
The leadership of a political party is not something that one person hands over, while the other person takes it. There is no change in my statement that thambi (my son) has all the qualities to take over the leadership. But he himself will reach that position with his tireless hard work and leadership qualities. The timeframe for this cannot be decided. Can we predict when a flower will blossom?
Has the time come for the next generation in the party to take over?
In a party like the DMK, which is an age-old party and which has been growing generation after generation, the evolutionary nature will automatically generate time and space for the next generation to take charge of party affairs, without any outside interference.
Will Stalin be deputy CM again if the DMK comes back to power?
First, the DMK’s victory has to be confirmed. Only then can it be decided as to what position thambi can take.
It is often alleged that your family interferes and influences party affairs at every level.
The DMK is not a family party. The entire party itself is like a large family. The DMK is a massive movement in which lakhs and lakhs of families work together at every level. There is no leader-cadre difference here. Instead, it is a party where all are brothers… the affection towards each other is above all.
Those who cannot pinpoint other allegations against the DMK blather that family members interfere in party affairs. There is no truth in this. There are many family members who are living with [Tamil Nadu Chief Minister] Jayalalithaa in the same house. They interfere and influence in a massive way to get things done—both in the party and in the government. Will anyone talk about this?