Barring the now-marginalised Dayanidhi Maran — who preferred Western attire — 67-year-old shipping minister Talikottai Rajuthevar Baalu is the only DMK MP who flouts the unwritten Dravidian dress code of dhoti and white shirt, even while visiting Tamil Nadu. Baalu prefers his trademark Safari suit and RayBan glasses.
Dubbed “the demolition man” by Subramanium Swamy for pushing through the Sethu Samudram Canal Project (SSCP) even at the risk of damaging the Ram Sethu, Baalu was nearly denied the shipping and highways ministry he currently holds in the Union government. It was originally allotted to K. Chandrashekara Rao of the Telengana Rashtra Samiti, which had annoyed DMK supremo K Karunanidhi so much that he threatened to keep the DMK out of the Union ministry altogether. Only when Baalu got shipping, and Dayanidhi Maran, communications, did Karunanidhi relent.
Baalu used the shipping ministry to give DMK men key positions in port trusts across the country, even in far away places like Paradeep and Visakhapatnam.
When Jayalalithaa was still Tamil Nadu chief minister, in the early days of UPA rule, he loved to irritate her by rustling up functions relating to his ministry in Tamil Nadu - like laying of a foundation stone, inauguration of a pedestrian subway to which he would invite Karunanidhi as chief guest.
The DMK’s insistence on the shipping portfolio for Baalu seems to have been aimed specifically towards pushing Sethu Samudram project, regardless of the opposition —be it from Jayalalithaa, fishermen and environmentalists.
“If only he had shown the same doggedness in pursuing the various flyover projects around Chennai being carried out by his highways ministry, this would be a better city,” says state BJP general secretary Kumaravelu. “These have all been marked by delays, inefficiency and even incompetence."
Like many other second-line leaders of the DMK, Baalu was quick to realise that unless he wormed himself into the good books of a key member of Karunanidhi's family, he was unlikely to get anywhere. So he cultivated Rajathi Ammal, Karunanidhi’s second wife (Kanimozhi’s mother) in the early 1980s and was soon rewarded with a party position and later a Rajya Sabha seat.
Like Karunanidhi, Baalu too has two wives, whose names were cited in his wealth declaration form while filing his nomination for the 2004 elections. He owns a thriving fishing trawling business. In 1996, he entered the Lok Sabha from South Chennai and has since retained the seat by working hard for his constituency.
After Murasoli Maran’s death in November 2003, Baalu became the DMK’s most visible representative in Delhi. But briefly. The highly “Westernised” and media savvy Dayanidhi Maran soon outshone and replaced him. With Maran in the doghouse, Baalu hoped to reclaim that place but Karunanidhi appears to trust the more low-profile A. Raja, perhaps until daughter Kanimozhi (now a Rajya Sabha member) can be groomed for the role.