Chennai, June 12: The strain of having his sons squabbling shows on his face but he is as unflappable as ever. Eighty, yet rock-like, M. Karunanidhi says should Sonia Gandhi propose ahead of the general election, he is willin’.
“We are not on the lookout for open doors, but at the same time we will not be indifferent to those who knock on our doors,” the DMK patriarch, elected party chief for a record ninth time, told The Telegraph today in an exclusive interview.
Pushed harder on chances of the DMK renewing ties with the Congress, he says: “The DMK will take a decision in the run-up to the polls depending on the national situation and the likely prognosis at that point in time.”
It is quarter past nine in the morning. “What is all this!” exclaims the former Tamil Nadu chief minister in his Thanjavur-accented Tamil as a party official, Trichy Selvendran, offers him a reddish-brown silk shawl at his Gopalapuram residence.
Selvendran, in charge of the party’s publications wing, fumbles for words. Another former DMK minister, Ponmudi, looks on, in the spartan book-lined first floor room where Karunanidhi meets visitors.
“You know, I did want to retire, stand on the margins, guide the Kazhagam (the DMK) and motivate its forward momentum from there. But senior leaders at several stages stopped me from taking that decision,” he says, explaining why he had gone back on his declaration to give up political responsibility and pursue his literary interests.
But Karunanidhi disagrees that the “younger generation was yet to mature to take on the leadership mantle”. “That is not the case,” he says, getting a little charged up when reference is made to his sons, M.K. Azhagiri and M.K. Stalin.
Stalin, former Chennai mayor, is now a deputy general secretary. Madurai-based Azhagiri, the older of the two, was recently arrested in connection with the murder of senior DMK leader P.T. Kiruttinan when the party organisational poll was underway.
So, what is his advice to them' “Just as they (Stalin and Azhagiri) are my two sons, there are hundreds of Stalins and Azhagiris in the DMK. Over the decades, this organisation has been served by their fathers and grandfathers and whose descendants these youngsters are. The hard knocks the DMK took in the past should serve as the guiding posts in fulfilling the expectations built around the youth in the party and they should not ignore the lessons of the past.”
But he is unusually self-effacing when asked what the “most significant achievement” in 67 years of his public life is.
“What is perhaps noteworthy is that while in office, I have been able to translate some of DMK’s policies into reality through the enactment of laws (like conferring equal property rights on women), and generally… I have not deviated even a fraction from the basic ideological concerns of the DMK,” he says.
The patriarch turns a trifle defensive when asked why the DMK — one of its avowed principles is secularism — is still part of the National Democratic Alliance in spite of a supplementary chargesheet being filed against L.K. Advani and other BJP leaders in the Babri demolition case.
“I may continue to head a large political movement but that does not give me the powers to function like a dictator,” he says. There are several party fora — from the top level policy-making body to the general council — and the DMK’s continuance in the NDA would have to be thrashed out there, he adds.
Though he hints that ties with the NDA would come up for review, he clarifies that the DMK’s opposition to the Centre’s economic policies and the recommendations of the second Labour Commission does not signal “a moving away or distancing from the BJP”.
“The question of distancing from the BJP does not arise as we are not with the BJP,” he says. “We are in the NDA, of which the BJP is also a constituent. That is all there is to it,” he says.
But Karunanidhi is firm that the Prevention of Terrorism Act should be revoked. He says the DMK had backed it in Parliament on the Prime Minister’s assurances that it would “not be misused to wreak political vengeance”. But with the ADMK “misusing” it by arresting MDMK leader Vaiko, it is totally unacceptable, he says.
He has also not forgotten his June 2001 midnight arrest by the Jayalalithaa regime, that too when the DMK was part of the central coalition continuously for four years for the first time in its history. Asked how this reflected on the DMK’s demand for more powers to the state, he retorts: “The ADMK government arresting me in an Emergency-days style of midnight swoop has nothing to do with our stand on state autonomy.”
“State autonomy is a voice for freedom that stems from the principle of federalism, but what prevails in Tamil Nadu is jungle raj,” he adds.
Moving on to the Tamil language, Karunanidhi says he is disappointed it has not been declared an official language at the Centre yet. But that does not mean language as an ideological weapon has lost its political relevance. “It may seem so, but the language issue will be eternally relevant, and has mixed with our flesh and vital breath,” he says.
So is Lord Krishna’s nishkaam karma — doing one’s duty without expecting reward as mentioned in Bhagwad Gita — his policy in public life' “What has inspired me is the couplet which says that perseverance can help people triumph over even the unconquerable,” he says, quoting from the secular Tamil classic, Thirukkural.