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Why Karunanidhi became an Indian nationalist from being a Tamil secessionist

In this interview, former Tamil Nadu chief minister Karunanidhi said he firmly believes in a united India now since their demands are being fulfilled and the state has been able to provide for its people.

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This rare interview with M. Karunanidhi was recorded in October 2007, when he was the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. His daughter Kanimozhi was a Rajya Sabha MP during the rule of UPA-I, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

In this episode of Walk The Talk, Kanimozhi presents herself as an interpreter to translate Karunanidhi’s answers.

SG: Jawaharlal Nehru’s family has only one child in his direct dynastic politics, but you have more than one family member in politics.

Karunanidhi: It’s not a question of numbers. It’s more important that those who join the movement to which their father or grandfather belongs should follow the principles. It so happens that there are a few such people in my family.

SG: Do you think the nuclear crisis could have been averted? It should not have come to this if the Congress and the Left had talked to each other a bit earlier.

Karunanidhi: It is not possible to talk about that now, after the problem has risen. The prime minister has already negotiated with the US and a stage has been reached. It was only thereafter that the problem arose.

SG: But what is your view on the nuclear deal? The Congress has said it will keep talking to the Left. As an ally, where does your party stand on the nuclear deal?

Karunanidhi: If I have to answer the question in one sentence: this is not the time to talk about it.

SG: The Communists opposed the deal. They said it is wrong for India. The Congress says the deal is good for India. Other allies generally support the deal. What is the DMK’s view on the deal and the merits of the deal?

Karunanidhi: As far as the use of nuclear energy is concerned, we have no problem with it. However, when it becomes a problem, when the Left parties have apprehensions about it, it should be avoided.

SG: You are not going to oppose the deal. So in DMK’s view, this nuclear deal does not run contrary to India’s national interests.

Karunanidhi: There can be no two opinions that for India to become a prosperous nation and for its security requirements and for other productive purposes, we have to use nuclear energy. However, I also consider that there is merit in the Left parties’ argument that for the sake of nuclear power, you need not accept all the conditions imposed by a foreign power.

SG: Yes. But you would trust Dr Manmohan Singh with looking after India’s national interests as prime minister.

Karunanidhi: How can we not trust him? However, we have to take note of the doubts that have been raised. We cannot ignore these doubts raised by the Left parties.

SG: Doubts of the Communists. But you and the DMK don’t have doubts? I’m asking for your view and your party’s views.

Karunanidhi: However many questions you may ask, you cannot make me say something against the Communists (laughs).

SG: No, no, that’s not the intention. I’m asking for your party’s view. Your party members — senior party members — are in the Cabinet which approved the nuclear deal. So, obviously, they did that with your approval.

Karunanidhi: We are a part of the ruling alliance. We are part of the government, while the Communists are not. We do not have the same freedom as them. We can’t have a minister in the Cabinet and yet go against the government.

Also read: M. Karunanidhi had declined to be prime minister saying, ‘I know my height’

SG: But before they expressed doubts, did you have doubts of your own about the deal?

Karunanidhi: I began to have some doubts and they were strengthened by the Left parties.

SG: You had doubts even before the communists raised these doubts?

Karunanidhi: It was only because I had doubts that I spoke up for the Left. After discussing with both the sides, I felt that in the present circumstances, it should not become a very big crisis and the government should not damage itself, for it had a lot more schemes to implement for the people in the remaining two years. We should continue till then. It was in this spirit that I worked towards a resolution (of the issue).

SG: What is the correct approach now? Is the correct approach now to forget the deal forever? Or to keep the discussions going with the Left?

Karunanidhi: Both sides have reached a particular point. The Congress wanted to operationalise the deal, while the Communists wanted the government to go slow. This is where I came in. And people like me. We talked about it and said we should neither proceed with the deal nor dump it altogether. Therefore, the present situation is neither here nor there, like trishankhuswargam (Trishanku’s heaven). This decision has been accepted by all to avoid an immediate Parliamentary election and to prevent the chances of the BJP returning to power.

SG: How would you like this current crisis to be resolved, say, six months from now? Would you like to see this government survive so that no elections take place? But would you like the government to survive at the cost of the deal?

Karunanidhi: What we had in mind was what sort of a government will succeed us in Delhi. If the BJP captured power, what will happen to religious harmony and Hindu-Muslim unity? We should look at the country’s interests. For that, the present regime should continue. If this government goes, it will not be in the interests of the country.

SG: Would you advise Dr Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi: ‘If you cannot resolve this, then put the deal in the cold storage for now. Don’t make an issue out of it and carry on with the government?’

Karunanidhi: I’ll ask you something: if this government falls, who will pursue the deal?

SG: Sir, did you think sometimes, because you are the most experienced man in politics in India today, that there was immaturity on both sides in the way the crisis became so big? For three months this country has been in suspended animation.

Karunanidhi: I don’t wish to reply to this.

SG: Tell me about your experience in dealing with different coalitions. So give us a few lessons (gurumantras) in sharing power in Delhi from a regional party’s point of view.

Karunanidhi: Generally, it is one of the DMK’s most important principles that states should become powerful. By this, I do not mean they should go their separate ways. But they should have full rights under a federal set-up. What we now have is not genuine federalism, going by the party’s vision. This is only a coalition government. Just because the party that wins the election does not have sufficient numbers it draws support from different parties from different states to form a government. This is not federalism the way the DMK sees it. Since the days of Anna (DMK founder C.N. Annadurai), we have put forward an idea that the Constitution should provide for moving towards federalism. The DMK has been campaigning for this concept for long. It has been calling for suitable constitutional amendments to this effect from time to time.

SG: What kind of Constitutional changes would you want?

Karunanidhi: When we talk of a federal philosophy, it should not be a mere alliance of parties as we now have, but it should be a genuine partnership among the constituent states. The states should have autonomy in administering their own affairs and this principle should be enshrined in the Constitution. All states must have equal rights, and the Centre should not be an overlord. It should be one in which all states are partners with equal rights and powers. The Centre should not have any superfluous power and all residuary powers should be transferred to the states. However, in the present system, we have only alliances between various regional parties based on a numerical majority or minority. It is merely a coalition government if some 10 people come together; it is not genuine federalism. In Tamil Nadu, in a sense, we can say we have a coalition government.

SG: Can you say that in English, just this, that you stand for a federal government. Not just a coalition?

Karunanidhi: Yes, federalism.

SG: From what I understand, you mean that you would like the Constitution to be modified or amended in such a way that the idea of a federal government is institutionalised, so that parties from various states can get together and form a government, not necessarily in a numbers-based coalition, as now. Which means, Sir, that irrespective of who gets how many numbers elsewhere, one party from Tamil Nadu, the leading party from Tamil Nadu, the leading party from Karnataka, the leading party from Punjab, the leading party from Maharashtra, Gujarat and so forth should have a share in the Cabinet. Is that what you mean?

Karunanidhi: No. It cannot be any leading party from the states. The system I have in mind is that, regardless of who comes to power, we should reduce the powers of the Centre and these powers should be devolved to the states. Then we will become a 100 per cent federal state.

Also read: Karunanidhi ensured DMK representation at Centre & in state like no other regional leader

SG: So you see a coalition government as a step towards a genuinely federal constitutional system and government?

Karunanidhi: Those who come to power on their own and sit in Delhi will not easily agree to a federal set-up. This is my opinion. They have a tendency to usurp the powers of the states, one by one. Real federalism cannot happen easily. What we need is mobilisation of public opinion throughout the country. The Sarkaria Commission is a case in point. It is all eyewash. Justice Sarkaria is no more but his voluminous report remains. Therefore, whoever it is, those in whom power is concentrated, people in Delhi, do not want to let go of their powers. For this, we need some thinker like Dr Ambedkar. If not, there will only be confusion in future.

SG: Now, India is firmly in a coalition situation for the next 20 years. Would you like this coalition situation to evolve into a new constitutional arrangement for India?

Karunanidhi: The Constitution has been amended more than 70-80 times, perhaps a hundred times. All these changes were brought in because there was a need to do so. Therefore, you can now identify all the requirements at present and bring forward a new Constitution.

SG: So for that you would demand at some point the setting up of a new Constituent Assembly? Like last time there was a Constituent Assembly under Ambedkar that wrote this Constitution.

Karunanidhi: Only then is it possible.

SG: Sir, a new Constituent Assembly, a new Constitution — these are very radical ideas. Don’t you think that in this country, these ideas will be destabilising?

Karunanidhi: No, no. It’s only an instrument to change laws and systems suitable to the requirements of states from time to time.

SG: If I may remind you, if you had said the same thing in the 1960s or 1970s, you would have been immediately called a separatist. Today, nobody will say so. So, India has moved on. India has matured.

Karunanidhi: I agree with you.

SG: But you were called a separatist for many years.

Karunanidhi: Yes (laughs). I wasn’t called a secessionist. I was a secessionist.

SG: How did it feel then?

Karunanidhi: When we asked for a separate state, we felt it was right; and when we gave it up, we felt it was not the right demand (laughs). After the Chinese aggression and the Pakistan war, we dropped (the demand for) Dravida Nadu.

SG: But why Sir? How did the Chinese aggression and Pakistan war make you give up the demand? Tell me a little about what went on in your very wise heads then?

Karunanidhi: It was a time when India’s unity, integrity, and sovereignty were being greatly emphasised. At that time we felt external aggression would damage these ideals. Just as we were united during the freedom struggle, we wanted to put up a unified front in the face of foreign aggression by sinking all our differences.

SG: So you now believe firmly in one big, united India?

Karunanidhi: Yes.

SG: But where power is being shared on a federal basis, preferably under a brand new constitutional arrangement?

Karunanidhi: If there were one common government for India being conducted in a spirit of unity, we would desire that. That is why we have given up our separatist demand for good. We don’t even think about it now.

SG: And you don’t regret it?

Karunanidhi: When we gave up the demand, Anna said in the Assembly that the demand had been dropped but the reasons for it remained. In the last 10 or 15 years, these reasons are coming down one by one. Now, we are able to get our demands fulfilled and we are able to provide for our people.

This is the second part in a two-part series. It was originally published in October 2007.

Read the first part here

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