After spending over a decade as a member of the Rajya Sabha, which elects its members indirectly, former Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi’s daughter, Kanimozhi, 51, is finally making her electoral debut from the Thoothukudi, or the Tuticorin, Lok Sabha constituency in southern Tamil Nadu—considered a safe seat for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).
Kanimozhi is taking no chances, even though it appears that the DMK enjoys popular support after the collapse of its main rival, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). In the blistering heat of the port town, she is campaigning hard against Dr. Tamilisai Soundararajan, the state president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Ready with a smile as she steps out of the campaign van, Kanimozhi, in an interview, speaks about her electoral debut, jobs, the controversy over Sterlite Copper’s industrial unit and the debate over welfare and populism. Edited excerpts:
How is your first Lok Sabha election campaign going?
I feel it is positive, not just here, but all over the state, where there is a very strong anti-BJP, anti-Modi wave. There is a large possibility of the DMK-Congress secular alliance doing very well, including in Puducherry, and help us repeat our 40 on 40 record like we did in an earlier election.
The DMK was wiped out in 2014. What has changed since then?
The change was the BJP government at the centre and the non-functioning, non-existent AIADMK government in the state. Corruption is rampant in every department and the people are fed up. There is also confidence in the DMK because of our leader.
You speak about creating jobs. But most jobs here are related to industries, which leads to pollution?
We don’t not have too many industrial units here. Barring Sterlite, which is a major polluter. There is an opportunity to bring in so many other MSMEs. Additionally, you can bring in information technology parks, automobile, food processing. Palm is a huge crop here and we have lakhs and lakhs of palm trees.
It’s almost a year since the Sterlite protests. How do you plan to tackle this issue?
I can see that anger among the youth and even those who don’t live in Thoothukudi because of the shooting incident. People have not forgotten, nor have they forgiven the government. They believe that Sterlite does pollute, must be shut down and never be reopened. My solution is to give people what they want.
You target Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP, but they barely have a presence in Tamil Nadu. Why is it so?
Demonetization and GST (goods and services tax) had an adverse impact on the people here. The wave of hate and communal politics is another reason. The BJP does not have presence in Tamil Nadu. The people are also angry with the AIADMK for aligning with them. Bringing NEET examinations, not visiting Tamil Nadu when there were floods and cyclone, when people died, they did not even put out a message on Twitter. People have not forgotten this.
What impact will the parliamentary elections have on the state government?
The bypolls for the 18 assembly seats will take place along with the Lok Sabha polls. There is a possibility that the AIADMK will further break into smaller factions during the polls. I am sure there will be a change and the DMK could form the government after that.
Are the Congress and the BJP trying to enter Tamil Nadu with the help of regional parties?
We have been in alliance for a few decades, barring a few elections in between. I don’t think it is anything new for the DMK and Congress to share an alliance. It works good for both parties. Yes, it was against the Congress, but then the BJP is clearly a party that stands for Hindutva, while the Congress believes in secular credentials. Don’t think it is possible for the BJP to get any foothold in Tamil Nadu, which is deep rooted in Dravidian politics and the social justice movement.
How do you respond to accusations of playing the caste card?
They say I do not belong to any community. The opposition has been playing this. I have never believed in caste or using it. I am very proud of being a hybrid.
How do you respond to corruption allegations against you?
Anybody who followed the 2G case, must have realised after a few months that everything was false. When it comes to my part in the case, I was hardly a director in the company for two weeks. CBI had charged me saying I had signed a particular document, but it wasn’t my signature. So, the entire case fell through and I was acquitted. How can one bring such a charge after I was acquitted? Don’t think the BJP should be talking about corruption after the Rafale and insurance scams.
But UPA (United Progressive Alliance) lost power because of these very corruption charges.
UPA faced the charges and it’s not that they tried to cover it up. They paid a heavy price. But today, what is the BJP doing when there are corruption charges against it? They are not even explaining.
The Congress and the BJP have promised several cash transfer schemes. Don’t you think there is a risk of populism?
You can look at some schemes as populism or welfare measures. The MGNREGA was called populist, but actually it was a programme to reach out to the rural poor who did not even have 100 days of jobs. It was the same thing when the DMK said that it will give rice for ₹1—you can call it populism. When our leader said that we will give money for the wedding of women who were educated up to Class X, people called it populism. But you must understand the idea behind that. We said till Class X because at least girls will be sent to school. You can’t call this populism. Once you make sure there is one square meal with ₹1 for rice, families will not be pushed to a point where they will have to send their children to work. So when that is taken care of then children are allowed to study. So these schemes are farsighted. They are social welfare schemes and just not populism.