By Vinod K Jose
When I met Kanimozhi in January, while researching a profile of her father for Caravan magazine, she was reading an issue of Granta, a London-based literary magazine praised for high-brow literary taste. Not something that one associates with an Indian parliamentarian.
This week, at the 2G trial in the Special Court of the Central Bureau of Investigation in Delhi, she had in her hand filmmaker Pradeep Kishan’s botanical catalogue, Trees of Delhi, and a colonial-time anthropological chronicle of the Tamils by Simon Casie. Chitty: The Castes, Customs, Manners and Literature of the Tamils.
Knowledge of the botanical demography of Delhi will likely come handy for someone who will be making the city her home for a while. She may not remain in Tihar jail the entire time, but for the next few years, Kanimozhi will have to make daily trips to the Special CBI court, and in due course, to the inevitable appeal hearings in the Delhi High Court and Supreme Court.
She will be living the greater part of her life shuttling between dingy courtrooms and Tihar. A life of broken toilets, police constables who stink of sweat and gutka, women inmates who include spies, pimps, and even the innocent – led, of course, under the scornful scrutiny of the journalists and their cameras.
Political business as usual
The charges levelled against Kanimozhi are undoubtedly serious. But when you study the evidences, she has merely done what many Indian politicians do all the time: raise funds for a project that her party once felt was necessary.
But Kanimozhi was ‘foolish.’ She brought money, in ‘white’, to Kalaignar TV and her NGO, Tamil Maiyyam. The companies and individuals who benefited in the 2G Spectrum auction, transferred over Rs 200 crore ($50 million). And did so in a manner that allowed investigators to easily trace the money trail even after two years. Had it been a seasoned politician in India, he would have accepted the cash in ‘black’, delivered to him in a truck, and without a trace of documentary evidence.
Politics in this country is for the shrewd and the crude, the straight and simple ones who take their money straight up, end up in Tihar.
Kanimozhi is now not only regretting her foolishness, but her very decision to enter politics. The situation has changed inside the DMK from the time she raised these funds.
In 2007, an aggrieved Karunanidhi and his children felt that Karunanidhi’s grand nephews, Kalanidhi Maran and Dayanidhi Maran, cheated when they undervalued their shares in Sun by an estimated 600 million rupees. They also feared “the Maran brothers were like foxes that would make two goats (MK Stalin and Azhagiri) fight and lick the blood,” as a party insider told me. The incidents that led up to the murder of three journalists in the Dinakaran office gave a public reason for Karunanidhi to eliminate the Marans. To counter Maran’s Sun TV, the DMK however needed money. And so it is that A. Raja, then telecom minister, and Kanimozhi raised the funds, as is made clear by the evidence tabled by the CBI.
But today there’s no support for Kanimozhi and Raja inside the DMK – except for Karunanidhi. And even that support is half-hearted because Stalin, Azhagiri and the Marans have now joined forces, at least to achieve one goal: to politically decimate Kanimozhi.
Kanimozhi is now increasingly alone – both in her political and personal life — and she will grow lonelier still in the days to come.
Mother and child
On Saturday, the day after Kanimozhi spent her first night in Tihar, she sits in court, scratching her hands, covered with red marks from mosquito bites. West Delhi, where Tihar is located, is a fertile breeding ground for mosquitoes. She no longer wears her bracelets, necklace, or earrings; ornaments aren’t allowed in the jail. Her eyes are swollen, and she is chewing gum. To her left sits her mother, Rajathiamma, who flew in the night before from Chennai, after hearing of her only daughter’s arrest.
Her mother is the only support that Kanimozhi can rely on blindly. In difficult times in life, more so in politics, everyone stays away from a sinking ship. It is dangerous to even hover close by, lest the whirlpool of failure suck you in.
Rajathiamma, in her sixties, wears a light green sari, one bracelet in each hand, a necklace, and enormous earrings that cover almost half her ear. But only the diamond studded ornaments sparkle on her face, which is on the verge of tears. In her lap, she folds Kanimozhi’s palm in her fist—a mother comforting her child. Beads of tears occasionally trail down her cheeks, and she wipes them with a white handkerchief, in slow motion.
A small-time theatre heroine of Karunanidhi’s in the 1960s, Rajathiamma never held a legitimate place in Karunanidhi’s political life, or in his larger family. Karunanidhi may have divided his day and night between Rajathiamma and Dayalu Ammal, and considered Kanimozhi his favourite daughter, but they always represented the chinna veedu, the illegitimate second home.
Unhappy that Dayalu had two of her sons in the party, an envious and insecure Rajathiamma convinced Karunanidhi in 2007 to make room for Kanimozhi in the DMK, thereby ensuring that her daughter became a Rajya Sabha member. From 2007 until Raja’s exit from the Cabinet, Rajathiamma became a big power centre in Chennai. One senior IAS officer, during the course of my reporting of Karunanidhi, told me how he was ‘summoned’ by Rajathiamma to her home to ask him to give a particular contract to a businessman from the Nadar community.
Scenes from a divided courtroom
On Saturday, in the courtroom, behind Kanimozhi are six men, large and thickset, standing guard over mother and daughter. They are Nadar men from Thoothukudi, southern Tamil Nadu. Rajathiamma trusts only her community now.
Sitting next to me is a Mr. Saravanan, a fortyish looking man, wearing an inch-wide gold bracelet. “It’s 100 grams,” he tells me, shaking the ornament. “See, we can’t trust anyone, and there’s no one to help. Every leader just comes here so their names appear in Tamil papers for Karunanidhi to see it. No one in the DMK is actually helping us. So I came from Thoothukidi,” he says.
A. Raja, who sat next to Kanimozhi for several days of the trial, looks far weaker ever since she was sent to jail. Earlier he would lighten the mood by sharing jokes and giggling in suppressed voice. Not any more.
Shahid Balwa, India’s youngest billionaire in the Forbes list, and the key person accused in the case, has been regularly losing his cool in the court with his friends and lawyers. Balwa is the chain that links most of the accused. It means that he has very little hope of escaping conviction, a fact that he perhaps knows better than anyone else.
Last week, Balwa shouted at even Raja in the court. As Raja’s lawyer was quietly briefing his client, Balwa interrupted, raising his voice, “You don’t know anything. What were you doing in the night? You should have read the case files and come to the court.”
MP Kanimozhi arrives at Patiala High Court. Vijay Verma/PTI
“No, I read,” replied Raja, to which Balwa responded: “I know how you read; you run your hands over the pages. You don’t read word-by-word.”
When Raja insisted – “No, no. I’ve also read yaar” – Balwa turned to Raja’s lawyer and said: “Listen, my friend. He [Raja] doesn’t know. This money was paid through voucher number ….”
From corporate chieftains, bureaucrats to politicians, the push and pull of the trial of the 2G Scam is leading to a scramble. Frustration and mutual distrust is growing by the day. Each lawyer is trying to save their individual client. As a result, there is no single convincing narrative that can account for everyone’s innocence. In the effort to save one’s own ass, the ship will inevitably sink.
The events of the past four years offer an important lesson about Indian politics to Kanimozhi. But more importantly, Kanimozhi herself may become a cautionary tale for her fellow politicians. When other politicians who are arrogant, scheming, and equally or more corrupt, escape public scrutiny — because they’ve mastered the loopholes of the system — Kanimozhi’s fate will serve to vindicate their ways. The real danger is that her peers will conclude that Kanimozhi is being punished not for being corrupt, but merely for being young, ambitious and foolish. And they will draw the wrong moral from her story, i.e. to always take their money in black.
Vinod K Jose is Deputy Editor of The Caravan and an award-winning journalist. Earlier he was a news producer in US public radio stations in New York.