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As she waves hello to people lined up on the side of the road, Kanimozhi notices a woman with a child waving frantically, signalling for attention. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) MP gets out of her vehicle to hug the woman who then tells her that Kanimozhi’s father Kalaignar Karunanidhi had come to the same place several decades ago and hugged her father the same way.
A campaign trail with DMK MP Kanimozhi is unlike one with other leaders – she has been making an effort to woo people who are not traditional DMK loyalists.
Ahead of the 2021 Assembly elections, which are expected to begin in April, The Quint travelled with Kanimozhi on her Tiruppur tour to understand DMK’s promises to its voters, the party’s assessment of the ruling governments – All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu and the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre – and political controversies surrounding Kalaignar’s family.
“The DMK has always reached out (to people) this way, but maybe not during a campaign. However, when you talk about the differently-abled and the transgender persons, we've always worked with them. It was under DMK Karunanidhi’s government that in Tamil Nadu an order was passed for the first time to recognise the transgender community, giving them the respectful name ‘Thirunangai’. We even had a separate department for the differently-abled, which was headed by the chief minister,” Kanimozhi told The Quint.
We first asked Kanimozhi why she predicts loss for the AIADMK, DMK’s political rival in the state. The BJP, which is struggling to find a foothold in Tamil Nadu, has forged an alliance with the AIADMK.
The AIADMK Report Card
DMK leaders have been canvassing across the state under the campaign heads ‘Vidiyalai Noki Stalinin Kural’ (Stalin’s Voice Towards the Dawn) and ‘We Reject ADMK’ accusing the ruling party of poor governance.
Kanimozhi pointed out that Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami’s government had failed to bring new investments to Tamil Nadu in AIADMK’s last two terms. This has resulted in a surge in unemployment, she accused.
"“Basic facilities were not given to people. Roads, drinking water and even Primary Health Clinics have been completely neglected. India has touched the lowest in employment (generation) in the past few years and in Tamil Nadu unemployment rate is double to that.” " - Kanimozhi, DMK MP
During her campaign in Coimbatore and Tiruppur where many Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) are situated, Kanimozhi said that COVID-19 has badly affected their functioning. It is estimated that over 35 percent of MSMEs situated in Tamil Nadu are struggling for survival. The DMK leader said that her government would provide a boost to MSMEs to create employment.
While DMK’s development plans dominated the conversation, Kanimozhi responded to The Quint’s queries on her party’s internal faction feuds. The DMK leader also responded to queries on the BJP’s chances in Tamil Nadu.
Alagiri to Make a Comeback?
Kanimozhi’s brother MK Stalin has been seen as DMK’s president ever since their father MK Karunanidhi named him the heir in 2013. However, DMK has been accused of favouring family members who have had corruption charges levelled against them.
Speculations are rife that MK Alagiri – the eldest son of the late DMK patriarch MK Karunanidhi – would return to the party even though he has had decades-long rivalry with Stalin over their father’s legacy. The feud had led to Alagiri’s expulsion from the DMK in 2014.
After the death of Karunanidhi in 2018, Alagiri made an attempt at reconciliation by expressing wiliness to accept Stalin’s leadership. Stalin, however, did not allow Alagiri to return to the DMK.
Responding to the speculation surrounding Alagiri’s return, Kanimozhi said, “It is his decision to do what he wants in politics. About him coming back to the DMK, it is the leadership’s decision.”
Talking Numbers, Taking Chances
The anti-incumbency wave against AIADMK has given an advantage to the DMK, some analysts believe. Other say that it could be a close race. The ABP CVoter Opinion Poll for the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections had predicted that the DMK will come to power in the 2021 Assembly elections. According to respondents of the survey, the vote share of the DMK alliance would be about 41.1 percent and that of the AIADMK alliance would be 28.7 percent.
"“I have no doubt that the DMK alliance is going to sweep the elections.”" - Kanimozhi, DMK MP
Refuting the BJP’s claim that it will win 25 seats in the state this year, Kanimozhi said, “I think it is more of posturing before the elections. I don’t see the BJP finding any space in Tamil Nadu.”
Meanwhile, the leader has decided to invest in DMK’s core strengths – minorities, women, and students.
Minority Outreach Program
In every district Kanimozhi visited, she called on representatives of Muslim and Christian communities for discussions.
The DMK, which has been in the Opposition during the last 10 years, had earlier accused the ruling party of not standing up for the minorities. The AIADMK-run state had supported the Centre when it came to Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC). DMK at several instances had pointed out that AIADMK’s association with the BJP would mean a threat to the minorities in the state.
“Home Minister Amit Shah today has said that CAA will be implemented after COVID-19 vaccination is done. I'd like to ask the chief minister what he has to say about that. What happened to their minority concerns when they supported CAA,” Kanimozhi asked.
Tamil Nadu’s Long-Drawn Fight Against NEET
The National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET) has been a contentious topic in Tamil Nadu for the past many years. The Opposition has promised to do away with the exam even though NEET technically falls under the purview of the Union government. One of the posters for DMK’s campaign ‘We Reject ADMK,’ in fact starts with the story of the NEET aspirant Anita who died by suicide.
Kanimozhi said, “NEET goes against the basic idea of education for all. Everyone should be given equal opportunity. When you have an entrance examination, it is only the affluent who can go for a course. A lot of deserving students from rural areas who cannot reach this kind of courses or a child from a family that can't afford these courses, will not be able to aspire to get into a medical college.”
In the past, Kalaignar had made sure that engineering students enrolled in engineering colleges based on their Class 12 marks, she said, adding that “We will fight it legally and will win this battle.”
Where Are the Women?
Tamil Nadu was once governed by a powerful leader, J Jayalalithaa, but today her party AIADMK has hardly any women in its top rungs. While Kanimozhi is a well-known face, even the DMK does not have any other prominent woman leader other than her.
When asked why, she said, “I don’t think there is a balance in the country’s political arena. It is really pathetic but we can't single out any party. It is a very difficult battle for women because politics also means being in control of your assets, life and power structure at home. When it comes to all that, a woman finds it a huge struggle to face. That's why DMK has been insisting that the government should pass 33 percent reservation for women in politics bill.”
The Tamil Nadu Assembly elections are scheduled to be held in April-May 2021. These would be the first elections without veteran leaders Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. Will the DMK be able to win against the AIADMK-BJP alliance with their report card on the ruling party’s performance in the last regime? Kanimozhi is confident they will win by a huge margin.
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