The DMK leader talks about fighting polls without Karunanidhi, says DMK is at forefront of fighting BJP’s polarising tactics in TN, claims Rajinikanth would not have been a factor, and rules out any tension with the Congress over seat-sharing talks. The session was moderated by National Editor (Mumbai) Nirupama Subramanian.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: You have already started campaigning in the western and southern districts of Tamil Nadu. This will be the first Assembly election that the party will contest without your father and former DMK chief M Karunanidhi. How difficult will this election be for the party as you take on the AIADMK that has the BJP’s support?
We have already faced the Lok Sabha election without him (M Karunanidhi), under the leadership of M K Stalin. He steered the party to an amazing victory. Except for one seat, Theni, we won everything else. The difference in votes between the winning and the losing candidates was in lakhs. So, I think we have already proven that we can win… Our founding leaders have made sure that the core ideology of the party is very firm in the minds of the cadre and all the leaders… It is well-established… Our present leader has been in the party for many years, he knows how to guide us in these elections. We have faith in his leadership.
Of course, there are going to be challenges. The AIADMK is going to completely depend on money for votes. The BJP, we all know, never shies away from using anything to win an election. So that will be a challenge. They (the BJP) will use their usual techniques of polarising voters, bringing in religion, which has never happened in Tamil Nadu… This is not just a challenge in these elections, it is a larger issue that the entire country has to deal with. The DMK will be at the forefront of working against it.
What I have seen during campaigning is that people are quite fed up with the AIADMK. They always give in to what the Centre wants, they never stand up for our rights. Take the farmers’ issue. Even though there are no protests in Tamil Nadu, when you speak to farmers individually, they feel very let down because of the AIADMK government’s support to the farm Bills. People are disillusioned with the AIADMK government, and they believe that a DMK government is the answer… Employment is a huge issue in these elections and when the DMK comes back to power we will bring in investments and industry so that there is more employment. Administration will also be much better under a DMK government.
LIZ MATHEW: So far it seems that in the Tamil Nadu elections you are going to follow the Bihar formula, where the DMK will contest together with the Congress and the Left. But giving the Congress more seats in Bihar didn’t work very well for the Opposition’s alliance. Will you keep that in mind during seat-sharing talks?
I don’t think there will be any issue over allocation of seats. There is a good understanding between the leadership of the Congress and the DMK. We will be able to work around it (the seats) to everybody’s satisfaction. Everybody understands that it is an important election for the state also.
LIZ MATHEW: The BJP was trying to woo superstar Rajinikanth. Will his decision to exit the poll fray before even entering it affect the BJP’s prospects in the state?
Mr Rajinikanth has given a statement saying that he will not enter politics, and why it is not right and fair to do it now and get others involved and then let them down… I don’t know if they (the BJP) can find anybody on a par with him.
Also, even if he (Rajinikanth) had come into politics, I don’t think it would have made a difference in this election.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: As somebody who has been a part of Tamil Nadu politics for many years, how do you look at the attempts at polarisation in the state that you mentioned? How does it impact the state’s secular fabric?
Fortunately, the BJP, at the most, tries to paint the DMK as an anti-Hindu party or something like that… They haven’t been able to say anything against the minorities in Tamil Nadu. And, they also understand that even the Hindus in Tamil Nadu are not like that (communal). I think, even in Kerala, people will not accept divisions on religious lines. We have all lived together comfortably… Even caste-wise… There have been no issues in living with people from other religions, or a temple being built… It’s a different kind of culture here. People don’t feel threatened. They are very comfortable. I don’t think polarisation on religious lines would be a problem here… They (the BJP) will not be able to create fear of other religions… That is what they play with, and that will not work in Tamil Nadu.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: The BJP has found resonance among some sections in Tamil Nadu. Over the next five years, do you see the party emerging as an important player in the state?
They would want to become a prominent party (in Tamil Nadu), and it cannot be denied that they are working towards it. And, I cannot deny the fact that the BJP has more cadres and leaders now in the state. But I don’t think it has had a significant growth that should worry us. They are working towards it… And, despite all the confusion within the AIADMK, eventually they will be able to sort themselves out.
ARUN JANARDHANAN: The BJP seems to be working to a plan. They are trying to become the main opposition party in Kerala and Tamil Nadu by 2026. Do you see that happening? And, can you say that the DMK will never ally with the BJP in the future?
… The DMK is one of the most vocal parties against many of the things that the BJP stands for. I don’t see the possibility of an alliance with the BJP because we stand for two different things completely… I really believe that in Tamil Nadu and Kerala politics, you cannot divide people on religious lines very easily.
ARUN JANARDHANAN: But do you think the BJP has made parties such as the DMK and the CPM in Kerala more careful while talking about religion?
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Also, how do you respond to the charge by the BJP, and by many others on social media platforms, that the DMK is an atheist party in a state where people are quite religious. They are religious in a non-communal way, but people in Tamil Nadu are religious…
Why should someone be charged for being an atheist? It’s not a crime. Why should we defend it? I don’t think there is a need to defend it. I am an atheist and I am very proud of it. The DMK has atheists, but our leader MKS (Stalin) has said that 90 per cent people in the party are Hindus also. So, it is not like the DMK is against Hindus. We have Muslims, we have Christians, agnostics and atheists. We are not saying that we are a Hindu party or an atheist party. When Anna (C N Annadurai) started the party he said there is one God, that God can be anything to anybody. Or, you don’t have to have a God. I don’t think we have to defend ourselves for being atheists.
(On being careful) They (the BJP) are saying that the CPM and the DMK are against the majority, so we have to give an explanation. We have to say that we are not against the majority. If we will fight for the Muslims, we will fight for the Hindus too… The DMK does not want to take away the right to believe from anybody. But of course, we stand against the caste system, against untouchability, against anybody who takes away others’ rights on the basis of caste or religion. We believe in social justice. We are not saying everybody should become an atheist. We don’t force it on anybody. Being an atheist also is not wrong in our party.
ARUN JANARDHANAN: Where do you place Kamal Haasan in Tamil Nadu politics, given that an alliance with his party doesn’t seem likely?
With Kamal Haasan or without him, the DMK is winning this election. If Haasan wants to work with the DMK or the latter with him, it is a decision that the leadership has to make. We did very well in the Lok Sabha elections without any new additions to the alliance. So, who comes in and goes out is the party leadership’s decision.
HARISH DAMODARAN: Do you think Tamil politics has gone beyond the Dravidian identity? Periyar (E V Ramaswamy) statue being vandalised would have been unimaginable once. Do you think the politics is now more conservative?
Periyar’s statue was vandalised because of the weak, backbone-less government that we have. The police should have taken action but they are scared to do so. But in one way, I think, attacking Periyar ideologically and even vandalising his statues… it has brought in more youth who are interested in finding out about Periyar and his ideology. You can see on social media platforms that now there is a strong presence of people defending the Dravidian ideology. They are not a part of the AIADMK or DMK. So, I don’t think it has become negotiable. People are doing it (defending the ideology) from the comforts of their homes on social media and not on the streets. That is the change. And, Covid-19 also has contributed to it.
Most of the exchange of ideas now happens on social media. And, it’s political parties like us who still take to the streets and meet people. Nobody is against learning another language, whether it is Hindi, Malayalam, German or anything… We are saying don’t impose a language on us. Don’t take away our right to choose. You don’t have to make the choice for us, whether we have to learn Hindi or Sanskrit. If people just want to learn only two languages, they have the right to choose… I think we still believe in social justice. That is the core of the Dravidian ideology. I don’t think we have moved away from that.
MANOJ CG: Do you think the Congress has failed to provide leadership for the Opposition at the national level?
All the opposition parties have to come together to work towards creating a strong Opposition. We can’t expect only one party to do that… I think it (the Opposition coming together at the national level) will happen as time passes by because it has not even been two years since the Lok Sabha elections. Parties are also concentrating on state elections. We have elections in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and in West Bengal… As time goes by, the Opposition will come together more strongly and work out strategies on how to deal with the issues facing the nation.
AMRITH LAL: Tamil language and culture used to be a very important aspect of the Dravadian movement and Dravadian assertion. Now, increasingly, both the DMK and the AIADMK generally tend to speak more about governance. The emphasis on culture and language has reduced…
When the Jallikattu protests happened, everyone asserted that it is an important part of our culture. So, nothing has changed when it comes to protecting our culture and language… See, Tamil is not being threatened today. Even if the Central government and the BJP are trying to impose Hindi in different ways, Tamil (language) is in a very comfortable space. It’s not being threatened in any way. There is no need to talk about preserving the language as such. If there is a threat to our culture and it has to be protected, it’s not just political parties… the people also react… The DMK has to talk about governance and development because we have had zero governance and development in the past 10 years.
VANDITA MISHRA: You said that religion doesn’t play the same role in Tamil Nadu as it might in the northern states. But apart from religious mobilisation, the BJP puts a lot of energy into constantly manufacturing some kind of mobilisation among people on different issues. How can regional parties reinvent themselves to face this challenge?
The needs, the problems, the issues, everything changes, and every party has to keep reinventing and adapting to changes. That cannot be denied… The DMK is a cadre-based party and we reach out to people directly. Now, of course, with modern technology, and we know that the BJP uses social media… we also have to adopt social media to reach out. We have to make it part of our election process… This is one thing we have to keep working at. This election, investment and employment are the most important issues in Tamil Nadu. We have to talk to people about it and give them the confidence that Tamil Nadu will be put back on the growth path.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: The DMK is focusing a lot on women’s rights in its campaign. After Jayalalithaa’s death, there is no big woman leader in Tamil Nadu politics. Do you see yourself taking that place?
I’ve always taken up women’s and human rights issues… There is a need for more women’s participation in politics, and that is why the DMK has been insisting on 33 per cent reservation for women… I don’t understand why the BJP, which made it a part of its manifesto, is refusing to bring it in.
I do see women coming in larger numbers for our election campaign because there are a lot of issues which have not been addressed. The self-help groups, for example, had created a solid base for many women, especially in rural areas, and enhanced their social participation. But because the SHGs are not getting loans and support from the government, they are not functioning as before. This has taken away empowerment from these women and they are quite disillusioned. It is a major issue in this election.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: In December 2018, Stalin had proposed Rahul Gandhi as the prime minister candidate for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Since then, there has been a lot of confusion about the UPA alliance. Do UPA members meet?
The UPA in Tamil Nadu is very strong and we are working together. We do meet… We shared the stage in support of the farmers protesting in Delhi. Our leader had invited leaders from all parties to come and be part of it. As far as Tamil Nadu goes, I don’t think there’s any confusion. We work together and there are regular meetings. At the national level, in Delhi, leaders meet when there is a need to… When Parliament is in session, we have regular meetings about how we are going to respond to a Bill etc.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Recently, M K Stalin’s son Udhayanidhi Stalin was elevated to star campaigner. He has also become the secretary of the youth wing of the party. Are these signs of a leadership progression in the DMK?
I don’t think we should be discussing leadership right now. We have a leader and everybody is focusing on his leadership. This whole election is about the DMK coming back to power. Our election campaign is completely focused on our CM candidate, M K Stalin.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: The CBI has appealed against the acquittals in the 2G case. Will it become an issue in the election campaign?
We have all been acquitted. Nobody was convicted. The judge has very clearly said that there is no evidence… How can they use this against the DMK?
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Following Rajinikanth’s decision to not enter politics, do you think the space for film stars in politics has reduced?
I will not say that. Who you are, what you stand for, and what you are capable of is what is going to decide what you become in politics. Just because somebody is a popular star… If you’re talking about somebody like M G Ramachandran, he was not just a star. He came from the Dravidian movement and he worked for the DMK for many years. He had a base and that is what made him what he was. So, I will not say that no other film star can ever make it in politics… You can come from any field but you will have to understand the kind of hard work that is needed. This doesn’t happen overnight because you are a face which everybody likes or you have been popular in films. People may recognise you more than anybody else, but your face doesn’t mean that people will accept you as a leader.