‘BJP can teach lessons to the entire world in corruption’: Kanimozhi Karunanidhi

Published : Mar 13, 2024 14:21 IST - 24 MINS READ

Lok Sabha MP Kanimozhi Karunanidhi said that the DMK party will focus on social justice and inclusive development in the upcoming election.

Lok Sabha MP Kanimozhi Karunanidhi said that the DMK party will focus on social justice and inclusive development in the upcoming election. | Photo Credit: Thamodharan B

Three-time MP and deputy general secretary of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam speaks to Frontline.

Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, the Lok Sabha MP from Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, and deputy general secretary of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), speaks about the upcoming Lok Sabha election, the prevalence of dynasty politics in the State, the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s system of governance in India over the past decade, and more. Excerpts:

“BJP can teach corruption to the whole world”: Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, Member of Parliament | Video Credit: Interview by R.K.Radhakrishnan, Edited by Sambavi Parthasarathy and Mridula, Camera by Thamodharan B and Shiva

From 2024, when we look back, there has been a defining question every 10 years or so. In 2004, it was “India Shining” versus the real India. In 2014, it was corruption and nepotism versus the Gujarat model of development, which we later realise is not much of a development model. What is the defining question of the 2024 election?

I think the question itself is to save the country, like the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister [M.K.Stalin] says, this election is another freedom struggle. This government is completely becoming totalitarian; [it is] a dictatorship and a politics which is solely based on religion. This is not what our forefathers wanted for this country. This government is completely against democracy. And I think you would agree with me—that there’s no freedom of speech, expression, the media is completely controlled. Anybody who says anything against the government has to face a lot of things. So, I think this election is about making India what it was meant to be. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been vocal in his criticism of the DMK government in his recent visits to Tamil Nadu. He has come down heavily on politics by dynasty. And of course, you are also a dynast. What is your response to charges of this dynastic rule and corruption, which is frequently thrown by the Prime Minister during these four visits?

I’m not supporting dynastic politics…You can bring anybody into politics, but finally, the acceptance has to come from the people. Even the Chief Minister, you can call him a dynast. But he has worked hard for over 40 years or more than that, more than 50 years he has been in active politics, and today, people have voted for him and accepted him as a leader, as the Chief Minister of the State. So it is finally in the hands of the people to accept a person or reject, and that comes from the person’s own credentials—not only because who my father is or my brother is or whatever it is.

So, I think the Prime Minister should understand that, and it is not that there are no politicians in the BJP who don’t come from dynasties. I can name quite a few. Just because they have shifted from Congress to BJP doesn’t, you know, make them no longer dynasts. 

And I don’t think it is only the dynasty which is the problem. There are problems much more than that. The most important thing is, when you join the BJP, your past crimes are completely wiped away. The impunity you get, like everybody says, the huge BJP washing machine. Once you step into it, it’s like [saint] Nandanar getting into the fire and coming out as a person who can be allowed into the temple (before that he is a Dalit who cannot step into the temple). That’s exactly what is happening.

I can name journalists who get away with so many things because they are ardent supporters of the government. There are so many politicians who have molested, raped people and we’ve seen dharnas by wrestlers, women wrestlers. Has the government taken any action against their MP? Whereas in Maharashtra, a party was split. There were so many cases hoisted against [NCP leader] Ajit Pawar, and today he joined the BJP [in the ruling alliance in Maharashtra]. What happened to all the cases?

So I can list out so many. So once you join the BJP, then you’re cleansed of all your crimes. I think that is of a bigger concern. And when you talk about corruption, I think the BJP has paved a path, and I think it can teach lessons to the entire world in corruption. Can you ever believe that a government has passed a bill, which legalised corruption in the name of electoral bonds? How can one single party get 70 per cent of the money that comes through electoral bonds, and they will not reveal who has given them the money, and all [other] political parties not even get 30 per cent? So isn’t this legalised corruption?

I don’t think it gives the BJP any right to talk about corruption, and corruption charges are something they use against the opposition leaders, leaders who they don’t approve of or who do not approve of them. 

There have been a lot of comments about the manner of functioning of the Parliament. You’ve been in Parliament for three terms—two terms in the Rajya Sabha and one term in the Lok Sabha. There are video clips where you know you are trying to tell the Chair “Talk to me in a language that I can understand” when the Chair was talking to you in Hindi. On another occasion, you end up saying something like, “Naa Tamil la pesna unakku puriyuma?” [If I spoke in Tamil would you understand?] These are, of course, viral clips. But beyond that, has Parliament been actually doing the things that it is supposed to be doing?

The Parliament hardly functions; the number of days of Parliament is drastically reduced under the BJP’s rule. And the Prime Minister is hardly there, we get a few glimpses of him in Parliament, unless he’s speaking. So that is how important they consider Parliament today. Anybody who has a difference of opinion and who’s trying to protest is easily suspended and sent out, and as you even remarked [in a post on the social media platform X], that I am one such suspended MP.

There is no space for debate. There is no space for discussion. And one very good example of how much importance they give for debate and discussion is when the Farm Bills were passed. There was ruckus in the Parliament and people were again suspended. And when the Lok Sabha was raising slogans and supporting the people who have been suspended in the Rajya Sabha, and we walked out, in that gap, they passed the workers’ laws [three labour laws were passed at that time]. In 10 minutes, it was passed without any debate. So this is the kind of parliamentary functioning you see today.

They don’t care about Parliament, they don’t care about debate, and I can count the number of bills that have been sent back to standing committees or to select committees. So just because they have the numbers, everything is bulldozed. I don’t think they believe in the parliamentary functioning at all. And none of the questions are answered. You can see during Question Hour, the way Ministers answer, the question is something entirely different from the answers you get. And the Chair doesn’t intervene and say that—I mean, they were days even in the UPA government and I think at the beginning of the BJP government also that when the Chair has intervened and said that this is not the answer—but now whatever the Minister gives is the answer and it does not have to be an answer to the question, which has been asked.

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You’ve been an MP from 2006 to 2014 when the UPA was in power, and then the NDA comes to power… From 2014 when the NDA came to power, the AIADMK had overwhelming numbers like 38 or 37 Members of Parliament for the first term, and from 2019 to 2024 [current Lok Sabha], the DMK has had overwhelming numbers, of course, plus the Congress have had significant numbers from Tamil Nadu. Do you think that you have been able to bring in projects to Tamil Nadu? Or has that been a total failure in the past 10 years? And is it the failure of the Members of Parliament themselves?

You know how the BJP treats the opposition. There are some Ministers who understand that it’s not a personal favour we are asking for ourselves, it’s for the constituencies, and it’s for the people of this country. So, we are able to bring projects and we are able to get things done through MPs who can look beyond politics. But there are some of them who will not do anything when the request comes from an opposition MP.

Despite that, I think we have raised issues that are important to the State and the nation. We have been able to question, in spite of the evasive answers, we have been able to question the government on issues and like the Kulasekharapatnam rocket launching pad in my constituency, I mean, consistently—first, our leader, Dr Kalaignar [former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi] wrote to the then Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, and after that, I have been consistently raising it in Parliament and meeting the ministers. And finally, the Prime Minister came and inaugurated it. So I think we can do quite a bit for our constituency, but I think with a government that believes in the Parliament, we will be able to raise more issues and have a healthy debate about the Bills which are being passed.

You represent a constituency south of Tamil Nadu—Thoothukudi. And generally people from the southern districts, their affinity towards Malaysia and Singapore is much more than the affinity towards Delhi, which is almost equidistant. Is it possible for people to even realise what a Member of Parliament does? Let’s understand that of course, there is sufficient education in Thoothukudi and other neighbouring districts. Do people realise the value of a Member of Parliament? Do people come over in overwhelming numbers to meet you with issues and all of that are the local issues, or is it something concerning your job as a Member of Parliament?

See, there are people who understand what an MP’s job is and there are people who do not separate both. People come to me with issues like railways [connectivity or stops for trains] and certain things that have to be raised in Parliament, with absolute clarity about what a State subject is and what a Union subject is. But there are people who come and talk about a [street] light or some water, water connection, which is not there in their ward, or house, something like that. But I think people have voted for you, and I don’t think I have the right to say that I’m an MP and I cannot look into this. So as far as possible, I, try to solve whatever problem it is they come up with.

Since you were at one point in time leading the women’s wing of the DMK, I have to ask this: Do men and women vote differently? I’m asking you this because you’ve been in Parliament for so long, and you’ve been deputy general secretary of the party for quite a while now. Before the death of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, there was a perception that women’s vote was in her favour. You campaigned relentlessly in the 2019 Lok Sabha and 2021 Assembly elections. What is the sense that you get, have the women switched loyalties to another political formation?

See, I really don’t understand why women and men should vote differently because, for any human being, the concerns are the same. Because this question seems to be loaded that, you know, men have better political understanding and understanding of issues. And women, you know, don’t. I think that is not the truth, because women have, I mean, I interact with women, speak to them, and sometimes I am very happily surprised about the depth of knowledge and understanding they have about politics and how much they know about what is happening in other states… when you talk about money and what is happening in Manipur, what is happening in other states, they seem to know about what is happening. If you really look at certain things, of course, I think education of children, health, employment, these are issues which concern women a little more than men, and empowering women is also important because they’re the most suppressed in every community you come across. So women’s education and empowering them makes a lot of difference to the women. I think what you say is, you know, looking at a woman leader, either makes them feel a little more empowered. And it could have been true that Madam Jayalalithaa had more followers as women. But today, I see a change, because the Rs.1000 rupees the government is giving [one of the DMK’s polls promises], they feel empowered, and the free bus ride also [another DMK poll promise]. Because they do not have to go and ask anybody, any male member of the family, even if they’re not earning, that “I want to go out, you know, I need money for the bus.” They don’t have to wait for permissions, they do feel empowered, and this Rs.1000 rupees, yes, it is their money which they can spend as and how they like, and they understand the power of, you know, their own money. And I am very sure that it will make them understand economic independence. And, you know, ensure that even if they cannot change their lives, they will ensure that the next generation of women understand what economic independence is. So I think that women are changing and they are looking towards DMK much more than they did.  

You went to Manipur, and met the two women, the mother and the daughter who were, subjected to horrible rape and molestation that we can possibly imagine. In your entire career as a politician and poet, human being, journalist, is that the worst thing that you’ve ever seen? Or is there some other transgression that you felt was much more bigger than what you’ve seen in Manipur? 

What I saw in Manipur was, I mean, meeting them, you know, because of what they went through, and there were viral videos… I just could not understand how so many people could all join together and harass them sexually. It is not just molesting, it was a cruel harassment and showing power over a community and women. And it’s one of the worst forms of cruelty we’ve all seen. And when I met those women, I mean, you meet them with so much pain and guilt. But the strength of character they had, of course they were hurt, they were shattered within and I don’t think the confidence they will have on a fellow human being can be easily brought back. But in spite of all that, the composure and the strength which they had within, I think, you know, every woman has to learn from that. And, I think it is just not this one case. What happens to children, like even in Pondicherry yesterday [a nine-year old girl child was raped and murdered] and what happens to children, what happens to women, you know, all over the country, it is very depressing and it raises a lot of questions, you know, have we really progressed? Is this what we want? Look at women, and this is how we’re going to understand what a woman to us means. Like, you know, sexual objects and to show your crass arrogance and all the cruelty which is pent up within you against them. I mean, what does education mean in the society? What does humanity mean in the society? And the more and more and more you say, you know, strong men and bravery, valour, in whatever form, you start celebrating that, celebrating…like Periyar said “Aanmai ozhindhal dhaan penmai madhikapadum.” [Only if masculinity is destroyed, womankind will be respected]. It does not mean men have to be done away with. That is not what he meant. The quality of celebrating the male, the man, and what that characterizes, that should stop somewhere and sadly that is what we are doing. And that is what politics is doing today. 

And when you see this impunity with Bilkis Bano case, Brijbhushan Saran Singh or Manipur or somebody actually thinking in Pondicherry or Tamil Nadu thinking they can get away with rape. Does that set kind of a new kind of narrative in the country itself? Does this have anything to do with the kind of politics that is being practiced today across the country? 

Definitely, when you say a man—I mean we saw the kinds of comments which came when a woman is being raped you know, you should have dressed well, you shouldn’t have been there and the kind of violence which goes against people who celebrate Valentine’s Day or, you know, women who are out and dressed in what society thinks as inappropriate. So, when all this is accepted, when all this is accepted by a ruling political party, and there is impunity for people who do this, then this is what you think anybody can do and get away with. You’re sanctioning it. So how can women in this country be safe when the ruling government and the political party sanction all this behaviour? And say, it’s fine? 

You’re referring to the BJP at the center?  

Yes, definitely. Or any government. I’m not just, you know, saying only the BJP. Any government which does that is actually sanctioning what happens to women or what happens to people who are helpless against the government…You know whatever happened with Gauri Lankesh also, and many others. 

Coming back to the DMK party itself, there is an election. Obviously, there is a manifesto. You’re the chairperson of the manifesto committee. Obviously, you can’t tell me what is there in the manifesto, but then largely, of course based on social justice and, you know, women’s empowerment and all of that. What will be the DMK’s theme, this time when you’re going to the elections given that Tamil Nadu is already quite high in the development scale?

DMK has always concentrated on development and inclusive development. We don’t talk about development for a handful of people and say our GDP has gone up. We talk about inclusive development and development in all districts of Tamil Nadu. So I think social justice, development, inclusive development, is what we will be concentrating on. And so of course, state rights, federalism.  

Every time a DMK leader utters the word Sanatan or Rama or Hindu, a controversy is not very far off. What’s the DMK attempting to achieve by these speeches? Does the party get the perception that people begin thinking about religion and related issues because of this? As you would have seen, it is an excellent fodder for the media which identifies itself with the current regime. 

Today, this country has moved away from debate, different opinions, everything, so nobody can actually say anything [against], which they make you believe is majority sentiment. This is a land where, you know, many leaders spoke about so many different things. And when the majority government with 303 [BJP’s number in Lok Sabha], you know, in the Parliament says something to hurt the feelings of people, then it’s okay, fine. Today the [Tamil Nadu] governor keeps, advising us, telling us, about how to call Tamil Nadu. People have killed themselves, people have died, people have fasted, you know, till death to call Tamil Nadu as Tamil Nadu. But today the governor comes and tells us call it Tamizhagam and not Tamil Nadu. He insults us. He tells us what Thirukural is. He gives it a religious colour. And yesterday he insults a scholar like [Robert] Cladwell, and he says “Oh he’s a nobody”. So all that does not hurt anybody’s feelings, that doesn’t hurt the Tamil people’s feelings. But anything a leader from DMK says, becomes an issue because social media and the media as such is in the hands of the government and they can change it, twist it, cut it and paste it in whatever way they want to. DMK does not want to hurt anybody’s feelings, CM has time and again stressed that we do not want to hurt people’s feelings, and we are the ones who are actually protecting the majority Hindus, the schemes are for the majority Hindus, if we are giving Rs.1000 to the women, it is to empower the majority Hindu women. Of course, the minorities are also included, but the majority who benefits, even through reservation, is the majority Hindus. So we are not against the majority. Actually, we are the ones who are standing by the majority Hindus, who are backward communities, Dalits, and people who have been suppressed and not given a space in society. It is the people who actually use these majority Hindus to win an election for political benefits, are the ones who are actually against the majority Hindus. And I think people will realize that, in Tamil Nadu people have realized that. 

And last two more questions. One is about this temples takeover. I mean, why is it that only Hindus temples are under government control, set a raging debate and it keeps coming up every election, and even when there is no election? There are cases being fought over this. What is the government’s view on this? What is the DMK’s view on this? 

There’s a Wakf board for mosques. Churches, of course, you know, for one kind of Christians, you have the Vatican. And for others, they have their own, like you have the bishops and so, it also comes under an authority which questions when something goes wrong. So I’d like to ask you, who will do this for the Hindus? Because we’ve seen in the past that so much of temple property, not just temple property, jewellery, the statues, now many of the statues, the bronzes, and even the you know, idols inside the temple, which is made of stone is in many museums around the world. Until today, we see that no idols and ancient bronzes, which are being smuggled away with the help of people inside the temple premises. And so much of temple property has been reclaimed by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department, after we’ve assumed power in 2021 which was under some private person and they were actually getting the gains out of it and profiting out of it. So, if you give it back to the same people, it is actually not protecting the temples or the deities or the gods there. So we want to protect the Hindu temples and ensure that what is the god share has to be with a God and we have to protect the temples. So that is what the government is doing. 

Lastly, there are things that a politician or even a person considers a big achievement in his or her life. What is yours? Is it being with your father on the night of June 30, 2001 when he was arrested and ensuring that he lived to see another day? Or is it when you were acquitted in the 2G case? Or is it something else? 

Being with my father is my duty as a daughter, and I cannot call that an achievement, I should be with him. And you know the way he was treated. And getting acquitted [in the 2G case] is…I was unfairly brought in. I was not even a director. I haven’t signed any papers. I was hardly involved. But so, acquittal is the only fair and just thing. I don’t…if you ask me what is my achievement, I think the work done in my constituency, and in Parliament, and I think my work during the floods now, being with the people, I think that could be one of my proud moments. And when I look back, at that time, it was much more than that. But yeah, now I think that I could be there with them and could get different agencies to work together to, you know, reach out to people. And, of course, the CM and the government missionary was really supportive. So that I think would be something I would like to remember.

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A lot of time has passed since 2001. We have had people you know, who were born then who are going to vote now. They don’t know what happened. Can you briefly describe what happened on June 30 2001, when your father was arrested? 

I actually was not in my parents house, we were living separately, and I switched on the TV, and I saw—actually the previous day, my journalist friends were arrested. So I just wanted to watch what was happening to them. And I switched on the TV. And then I saw the breaking news that he’s being arrested. Then I got a call from someone saying that my father has been arrested. I went home and by then they taken him away, and I left my child with the people at home and drove to the commissioner’s office, and he was inside. We tried to stop the car which was taking him because nobody knew what was happening. And my mother was running from room to room to find out where he was. Then from there, they took him all over Chennai, and we’re taken to a police station. That is where Mr.Maran [former Union Minister Murasoli Maran] was manhandled, and he had to be taken to the hospital because he had a pacemaker and because he was manhandled, it was a problem. And like, my father also was getting very tired, because they were moving him from place to place without saying what is happening. Then finally, he was taken to the judge, Ashok Kumar’s house. And the judge clearly specifically said that he has to be taken to the hospital first, examined, and then, after that only he can be taken to jail or whatever it is. But when I got into the car with my father, and they did not take us to the GH. They went straight, and stopped in front of the central prison. And they were not telling us, we were asking what is happening? Why didn’t you bring us here? And nobody was answering. So I got out of the car and I asked the police officers who were there on duty, what is happening and when I met Mr. George, and asked him—

The Commissioner at that time.

The Commissioner, yes. I asked him what is happening, you know, why are you keeping him in the car? He was supposed to be taken to the GH. He asked me, “Are you trying to stop police officer from doing his job?” And so I said, “No, I’m just asking you for a clarification.”  

You were not a politician at that point of time. 

No I was not. But you know, that was the way they were treating us, that harsh—and then, by then, party people had gathered around the central jail and they were trying to be removed. Some of them were hurt and bleeding. Police were very harsh to them. Then finally my dad’s doctor came there and we didn’t know what was happening. So my father said, let us get out of the car and sit there, at least you know, 

That is the iconic picture of him sitting on the ground with a lungi. 

Yes, and we were there waiting. And then finally, they did not take us to GH. They took him inside the jail premises. And again, we were made to wait there and nobody had a clarity. Nobody knew what was happening. And there was a bench in the jailers room, and he was so tired. So he just put his hand under his head and he was lying down, trying to sleep, catch up some sleep in that wooden bench. Finally, late in the evening, they decided that they’re going to take him inside, and there was no medical help or anything. He was arrested and when they were arresting him, he was also manhandled, and he had shoulder pain, and they were bruises and blood clots in his hand, which I think he showed the journalists also. And then we don’t know what happened to the case, why he was arrested or anything. After few days he was released. And that is it. My grandmother who was at home and she was very old, and she was too shocked to see what was happening, and she passed away in two days. He had to come on parole for her funeral. So this is what happened.  

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