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A special relationship: Sitaram Yechury

Print edition : August 31, 2018

Sitaram Yechury with Karunanidhi at the World Classical Tamil Conference in Coimbatore, in June 2010. Photo: R. Senthil Kumar/ PTI

September 1, 1998: CPI (M) General Secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet with Karunanidhi at his residence in Chennai. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

“Sitaram, I think you are behind all this galatta (colloquial Tamil for mischievous ruckus). You speak to me in Tamil, to Chandrababu Naidu in Telugu, to Jyoti Basu in Bengali and to Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav in Hindi. No one else is able to follow what you have talked to the other person in a different language and the collective confusion mounts. Now, it is up to you to resolve this and set things on course.” In an association lasting several decades, I have had very many interactions with Kalaignar Karunanidhi, but the memories of this exchange, laced with a kind of avuncular sense of humour, keep coming back to me. It was in April 1997, during the period of the United Front government at the Centre, in the days immediately following the selection of Inder Kumar Gujral as Prime Minister to replace H.D. Deve Gowda. The choice of Prime Minister had been made, but there were differences in the finalisation of Cabinet Ministers.

Early discussions on the replacement to Deve Gowda was advanced by our party general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet but he had to leave for Russia before it could be concluded and I was deputed to represent the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—CPI(M)—in the deliberations. It was in the midst of this that Kalaignar came up with this jocular comment.

I had known Kalaignar for long, initially from a distance and later more closely. His stature as a politician and his skills as a writer, poet and interpreter of Dravidian thought were well known to me. One had also seen the subtle humour that peppered many of his film scripts, but this was the first ever first-hand experience of that humour. From this experience, I also realised that banter was one of the devices that Kalaignar employed to play down the stress between difficult negotiations.

I believe that playful exchange resulted in both of us developing a special relationship in later years. He was very fond of me as a junior politician and I sought to study and learn from this veteran giant of South Indian politics. Indeed, we found each other on different sides of the political divide on many an occasion after 1998.

During the United Front period between 1996 and 1998, Karunanidhi and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) were committed opponents of the divisive Hindutva ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar, and our alliance was founded on the firm commitment to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party ( BJP) out of power. However, one year after the fall of the United Front government, the DMK moved on to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Still, our personal connect remained. I used to visit him every time I was in Chennai and we used to discuss almost everything under the sun. Even the dilution of his anti-Hindutva, anti-communal politics came up during these interactions. He came up with a unique reasoning when questioned on this. Comparing the long sway over power that the Left Front had in West Bengal at that time, Karunanidhi was of the view that the DMK was not in a position to display an ideological steadfastness similar to the Left owing to the very absence of such a massive hold on the people’s verdict. “Ours is a kind of seasonal politics and we have to struggle hard to protect our political and organisational interests,” he said.

However, by 2004, he realised the need to get back to his original ideological positions. Spurred by the constant interactions with Comrade Surjeet, he turned around and once again became a fierce adversary of the divisive and fascist Hindutva politics. Once again, Surjeet convinced the then Congress president Sonia Gandhi to call Kalaignar and I was present when these three leaders met to work on the formation of a broad coalition against the BJP in 2004. This coalition later became the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which gave a stable government at the Centre from 2004 to 2014. Through all these years, our interaction continued, touching on not only political and policy issues but also common interests like literature, language and sociology.

One special moment amidst these widespread discourses was when he invited me to be a speaker at the World Classical Tamil Conference in Coimbatore in 2010. When he called me up to invite, I responded saying that I have no connection with Tamil literature and hence may find myself out of place in such a special gathering. Kalaignar’s response was that this was not only about Tamil literature but about the propagation of the larger culture of communities that had got displaced from the Indus Valley civilisation. There was no way I could say no.

Even the trip to Coimbatore was memorable. My flight from Delhi to Chennai got delayed by two hours and there was no way I could get the connecting flight to Coimbatore. I suggested cancellation of the trip but Kalaignar would have none of it. Ultimately I was “airlifted” from Chennai to Coimbatore in the Chief Minister’s helicopter. I made the presentation on the Marxian perspective of seeing language as the link between the base and the superstructure. It was later published both in Murasoli and as a pamphlet by Kalaignar.

Our interactions continued till his last days, although we had a real conversation like old times about four years ago. But as Kalaignar himself would say poetically, the breath may have stopped but the message of his life and politics shall remain for long.

Sitaram Yechury is general secretary, CPI (M).

As told to Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

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