A spe­cial re­la­tion­ship: Si­taram Yechury

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“SI­TARAM, I think you are be­hind all this galatta (col­lo­quial Tamil for mis­chievous ruckus). You speak to me in Tamil, to Chan­drababu Naidu in Tel­ugu, to Jy­oti Basu in Ben­gali and to Mu­layam Singh Ya­dav and Lalu Prasad Ya­dav in Hindi. No one else is able to fol­low what you have talked to the other per­son in a dif­fer­ent lan­guage and the col­lec­tive con­fu­sion mounts. Now, it is up to you to re­solve this and set things on course.” In an as­so­ci­a­tion last­ing sev­eral decades, I have had very many in­ter­ac­tions with Kalaig­nar Karunanidhi, but the mem­o­ries of this ex­change, laced with a kind of avun­cu­lar sense of hu­mour, keep com­ing back to me. It was in April 1997, dur­ing the pe­riod of the United Front gov­ern­ment at the Cen­tre, in the days im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing the se­lec­tion of In­der Ku­mar Gu­jral as Prime Min­is­ter to re­place H.D. Deve Gowda. The choice of Prime Min­is­ter had been made, but there were dif­fer­ences in the fi­nal­i­sa­tion of Cab­i­net Min­is­ters.

Early dis­cus­sions on the re­place­ment to Deve Gowda was ad­vanced by our party gen­eral sec­re­tary Hark­is­han Singh Sur­jeet but he had to leave for Rus­sia be­fore it could be con­cluded and I was de­puted to rep­re­sent the Com­mu­nist Party of In­dia (Marx­ist)— CPI(M)—IN the de­lib­er­a­tions. It was in the midst of this that Kalaig­nar came up with this joc­u­lar com­ment.

I had known Kalaig­nar for long, ini­tially from a dis­tance and later more closely. His stature as a politi­cian and his skills as a writer, poet and in­ter­preter of Dra­vid­ian thought were well known to me. One had also seen the sub­tle hu­mour that pep­pered many of his film scripts, but this was the first ever first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence of that hu­mour. From this ex­pe­ri­ence, I also re­alised that ban­ter was one of the de­vices that Kalaig­nar em­ployed to play down the stress be­tween dif­fi­cult ne­go­ti­a­tions.

I be­lieve that play­ful ex­change re­sulted in both of us de­vel­op­ing a spe­cial re­la­tion­ship in later years. He was very fond of me as a ju­nior politi­cian and I sought to study and learn from this vet­eran gi­ant of South In­dian pol­i­tics. In­deed, we found each other on dif­fer­ent sides of the po­lit­i­cal di­vide on many an oc­ca­sion af­ter 1998.

Dur­ing the United Front pe­riod be­tween 1996 and 1998, Karunanidhi and the Dravida Mun­netra Kazhagam (DMK) were com­mit­ted op­po­nents of the di­vi­sive Hin­dutva ide­ol­ogy of the Rashtriya Swayam­se­wak Sangh (Rss)-led Sangh Pari­var, and our al­liance was founded on the firm com­mit­ment to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party ( BJP) out of power. How­ever, one year af­ter the fall of the United Front gov­ern­ment, the DMK moved on to the Na­tional Demo­cratic Al­liance (NDA) led by Atal Bi­hari Va­j­payee. Still, our per­sonal con­nect re­mained. I used to visit him ev­ery time I was in Chennai and we used to dis­cuss al­most every­thing un­der the sun. Even the di­lu­tion of his anti-hin­dutva, anti-com­mu­nal pol­i­tics came up dur­ing these in­ter­ac­tions. He came up with a unique rea­son­ing when ques­tioned on this. Com­par­ing the long sway over power that the Left Front had in West Ben­gal at that time, Karunanidhi was of the view that the DMK was not in a po­si­tion to dis­play an ide­o­log­i­cal stead­fast­ness sim­i­lar to the Left ow­ing to the very ab­sence of such a mas­sive hold on the peo­ple’s ver­dict. “Ours is a kind of sea­sonal pol­i­tics and we have to strug­gle hard to pro­tect our po­lit­i­cal and or­gan­i­sa­tional in­ter­ests,” he said.

How­ever, by 2004, he re­alised the need to get back to his orig­i­nal ide­o­log­i­cal po­si­tions. Spurred by the con­stant in­ter­ac­tions with Com­rade Sur­jeet, he turned around and once again be­came a fierce ad­ver­sary of the di­vi­sive and fascist Hin­dutva pol­i­tics. Once again, Sur­jeet con­vinced the then Congress pres­i­dent Sonia Gandhi to call Kalaig­nar and I was present when these

SI­TARAM YECHURY with Karunanidhi at the World Clas­si­cal Tamil Con­fer­ence in Coim­bat­ore, in June 2010.SEPTEM­BER 1, 1998: CPI (M) Gen­eral Sec­re­tary Hark­is­han Singh Sur­jeet with Karunanidhi at his res­i­dence in Chennai.

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