He scripted the most enduring show of Dravidian politics
“I have written the opening history of this movement—and Karunanidhi will write the latter part of it,” CN Annadurai, the founder of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and its first Chief Minister when the party came to power in Tamil Nadu in 1967, had said at a public meeting. Recalling those words, K Anbazhagan, a senior member of the DMK, told a gathering in Villupuram soon after the demise of Annadurai in 1969: “It was Anna’s wish that Kalaignar (Karunanidhi) should take over after him. On seeing Kalaignar’s hard work, his writings, his service, his sacrifice, his sharp wit and his power of argument, Anna had no doubt that Kalaignar would succeed him.” The crowd, consisting of party workers, cheered in endorsement of what Annadurai had said of Kalaignar (‘artist’ in Tamil). One of the jokes about discipline in the DMK had it that if party president Muthuvel Karunanidhi were to tell a party colleague to stand on his head in a corner, the latter would not ask why, but which corner! Such was Karunanidhi’s influence in the party even before he became Chief Minister after Annadurai’s death.
On August 7th, Karunanidhi passed away at a hospital in Chennai. He was 94. For more than 50 years, he had been the undisputed supremo of the DMK and one of Tamil Nadu’s most influential ever leaders. Born on June 3rd, 1924, in Thirukkuvalai village, Tanjavur district, to Muthuvelar and Anjugam of the Isai Vellaalar community that prides itself in having nurtured the arts of music and dance ‘of ordinary peasant stock’ in the state, Karunanidhi had a troubled childhood and was exposed to the inequalities and brutalities of a caste-based hierarchy. He distanced himself from Brahmins, identifying himself with the masses.
Circumstances did not permit him to study beyond Class five, but he acquired proficiency in Tamil and became a successful scriptwriter. He gravitated towards politics when he came under the spell of EV Ramasamy Naicker (EVR), founder of the Self- Respect Movement and the Dravida Kazhagam (DK), revered as Periyar (‘the elder’), and organised the students wing of the DK. He soon began to look after Periyar’s magazine, Kudi Arasu.
WHEN ANNADURAI BROKE away from Periyar, Karunanidhi followed. Anna founded the DMK and Karunanidhi rallied under his banner and played a vital role in its growth as an alternative to the Congress in Tamil Nadu. Like Annadurai, Karunanidhi mastered the art of oratory and became a successful journalist. As treasurer of the party, he was instrumental in collecting Rs 11 lakh for a General Election by staging special plays and charging an entrance fee for meetings.
The 1950s were the DMK’s heady days of protest against Brahmin hegemony in the state. The silver screen became a weapon in the hands of Anna, who deftly used two youngsters, Karunanidhi and MG Ramachandran, to further the Dravidian cause. While MGR was the Puratchi Thalaivar (revolutionary leader) and swashbuckling hero on screen, Karunanidhi, with his rabble- rousing scripts, was the real force behind the show. Listen to the dialogues that Karunanidhi penned for Sivaji Ganesan in the film Parasakthi, for example: its fierce Brahmin-bashing cuts through every syllable and pause expressed by the veteran actor. The film was a runaway success and Karunanidhi became instantly famous. He was now Kalaignar (‘the artist’) to multitudes of fans.
A born fighter, he showed signs of leadership early in his political career. He was at the forefront of all agitations organised by the DMK and courted imprisonment several times. He created a big stir to have the name of Dalmiapuram (named after a North Indian) changed to the original Tamil name Kallakkudi by laying himself on a railway track with the words ‘Udal mannukku uyir tamizhukku’ (the body for the land and life for Tamil); he would rather give up his life than suffer Tamil Nadu’s humiliation. The scene was immortalised by Mani Ratnam in his film Iruvar, based on Karunanidhi and his political rivalry with MG Ramachandran.
Karunanidhi was arrested and imprisoned for six months, the first for a DMK leader. The man who had joined the campaign against Hindi at the age of 13 cut his hand and wrote ‘Tamizh vaazhga’ (‘long live Tamil’) on the walls in blood.
Karunanidhi was the patriarch of the DMK family and when he claimed from every platform that the DMK was a family, it was not without significance
As a trusted lieutenant of Annadurai, he was given a berth in the state’s first DMK cabinet and he creditably held the portfolios of public works and transport. He was the author of the plan for the nationalisation of bus transport in Tamil Nadu.
THERE WAS ONE man who was a worry to Karunanidhi, the man who had insisted he succeed Annadurai as Chief Minister. MGR’s popularity was growing at an astonishing speed. After the 1971 elections, MGR had become a member of the legislative assembly, besides being party treasurer. He seemed disgruntled, prone to asking too many questions. While it was easy to effectively undercut others, this man’s appeal and base were too strong.
There were complaints of rampant corruption at high places. MGR demanded that he be given control over party finances, and in his capacity as treasurer, asked for explanations of discrepancies in DMK accounts. His demand went unheeded. He went ahead and publicly criticised the growth of corruption in party ranks and challenged ministers and legislators to disclose the assets of their families and other relatives.
The DMK executive, loyal to Karunanidhi, expelled MGR from the party for indiscipline. One week after his expulsion, on October 18th, 1972, MGR announced the formation of a new political party—the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam—with his own supporters and rasigar manrams (fan clubs). Karunanidhi remarked that the party started by MGR was ‘merely an illusion’, arguing that the DMK was a fortress that could not be shaken by anybody. For all his shrewdness, he did not realise his hasty act was about to change the political landscape of Tamil Nadu for decades to come—to his regret.
When Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency, it became easier for MGR to push his demand for the dismissal of the state’s DMK government. Karunanidhi would not have imagined at the time that after the dismissal, he would be left in political limbo for 13 years, as long as MGR—who seemed invincible—was alive.
MGR’s protégé J Jayalalithaa audaciously took over the ADMK mantle after his death, posing a threat to Karunanidhi’s plans for the DMK and also the political future of his son MK Stalin. A former actress, and a Brahmin as well, and that too from the neighbouring state of Karnataka, Jayalalithaa remained a formidable leader till her death in 2016. But Karunanidhi did not take her seriously at first, and so little did he imagine back then that one big blunder during a budget session in the Assembly on March 25th, 1989, would earn him the wrath of a woman scorned. Pandemonium had broken out over a point-of-order demanded by Jayalalithaa as leader of the opposition, and she was physically assaulted by DMK members. Karunanidhi did not realise how powerful the lady would emerge one day and how her hatred of him would influence every action of hers from then on.
While MGR was the swashbuckling hero on screen, Karunanidhi, with his rabble-rousing scripts, was the real force behind the show
Various corruption cases filed against her did not finish her career, as political analysts had expected. She arose like the proverbial phoenix after every fall. She bit the dust in the 1996 polls, was arrested and sent to jail for nearly a month. Belying all predictions and calculations, Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK came to power again in 2001 on the strength of a huge majority. A great fear, worse than the defeat itself, seized the DMK: the memory of Jayalalithaa having been sent to jail took the form of a dreadful apparition. Their leader was past 75 years of age. If the AIADMK slapped defamation cases upon him, these would take a slow course in the courts. What was the worst that could happen? It did happen, however, as the spectacle of Karunanidhi being dragged off without even an arrest warrant showed.
The impassioned cries of ‘Aiyyo’ were disturbingly haunting. The media, which was always soft on Karunanidhi, was aghast. His followers were grief stricken. The insult to their leader was hard to bear. In Kallidaikurichi and Madurai, three persons attempted to offer their lives in sacrifice. In MGR’s time, when Karunanidhi had been arrested, some 20 people had immolated themselves in protest.
There was no visible chasm between the DMK leader and his partymen and cadres, as existed between Jayalalithaa and her minions, who looked upon her as a kind of goddess. It was regarded as one of the great strengths of the DMK that democratic procedure was followed even in party elections. Yet, that the party had only one leader, Karunanidhi, could not be denied.
HE WAS HAILED as the state’s undisputed leader cutting across caste, creed and religion, as the ‘custodian of social justice’ (samooga needhi-kaatha-kaavalar) for his efforts to ensure 69 per cent reservation for backward classes.
After the DMK’s humiliating defeat at the Assembly elections in 2001, the then octogenarian proved he could still muster support and lead the party to victory in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. He also proved that his mental agility was intact, belying the apprehensions of his partymen and close relatives that he may have been left devastated by the death of his nephew, Murasoli Maran, who was closer and dearer to him than his own sons. The General Election proclaimed to disheartened opposition parties what leadership like his could do to turn the tables on them. His Democratic Alliance bagged an unprecedented victory, snatching away all 40 Lok Sabha seats.
Karunanidhi’s long innings at the helm of his party and his past relationship with Periyar and Anna won him much respect and political credibility. His leadership represented continuity with the past, which Jayalalithaa could not claim. His supreme confidence meant that his party would accept every decision of his, even an electoral alliance with the BJP, whose ideological stance clashes with that of the DMK.
In the autumn of his life, Karunanidhi worried about the image of the party he took such pains to build. It had been damaged; and he knew of murmurs within the party that he was to blame for it
Most party members were against an alliance with the BJP as something ideologically unthinkable, but could not prevent it because Karunanidhi, influenced by Murasoli Maran, decided that political expedience had to take precedence. Jayalalithaa, his political foe, was also making pragmatic moves for power. Ideology became secondary in this exercise of realpolitik and it was determined that there need be no sense of shame in changing with the times. Karunanidhi was a reliable ally and would adhere to the rules of a pact he had made with a national-level party even if it was at the risk of losing popularity at home—as, for instance, during the last stages of the civil war in Sri Lanka that ended in the LTTE’s defeat, when the DMK was an ally of the Congress at the Centre. Pro-Eelam Tamil activists in the state never forgave him for that.
KARUNANIDHI WAS THE patriarch of the large DMK family. When Karunanidhi claimed from every platform that the DMK was a family, that everybody in the party was ‘udanpirappugal’ (born of the same womb), and that they were the ‘raththaththin raththam’ (blood of its blood), it was not without significance. Members of a family and siblings shared a responsibility for maintaining the family’s honour and prestige.
Before Karunanidhi was admitted to ICU in Chennai, every letter he wrote to his beloved udanpirappugal in the columns of the party organ Murasoli expressed a torrent of feelings; though the style was archaic, there was no mistaking his sentiments.
He was an early riser, read all the papers before breakfast, and did his yoga and walks till he became wheelchair-bound. When criticism arose outside the party that he was grooming his son Stalin as his successor, every second-rank party leader rose to his defence, declaring that there was nothing wrong in it. The message: those who want to be in the DMK had to accept Stalin as successor; those who could not, would find themselves out in the cold. After V Gopalasamy (Vaiko), an emerging DMK leader and a fiery speaker, who was seen as a threat to Stalin, was expelled for anti-party activities, he formed his own party, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, but has never been able to make a large enough impact on Tamil politics.
Even MK Alagiri, the elder son of Karunanidhi, was expelled from the party when he tried to challenge Stalin’s succession and sibling rivalry came out in the open. His loyal followers took it as reassurance; they felt Karunanidhi went by the norms of inner democracy when it came to party discipline. He did not even spare his own son, Alagiri.
He had always said, “the party is my family”, but as age advanced, the mind became weak, making him blunder—putting the family before the party cart. Suddenly, it was the talk of the man in the street. His family members were everywhere—in the film world, the Central Cabinet, in Parliament.
In the autumn of his life, he worried about the image of the party he took such pains to build. It had been damaged; and he knew of murmurs within the party that he was to blame for it. That was worse than the sense of shame he had to endure when the then Union Telecom Minister A Raja, his handpicked man whom he had defended stoutly in ‘good faith’, was asked to step down in November 14th, 2010, following national-level revelations of the 2G spectrum scam, and later arrested and jailed; or the agony he had to suffer when his daughter Kanimozhi was also arrested and put in Tihar jail. He was left utterly helpless.
His hesitation to anoint his son Stalin, whom he had carefully groomed for years to lead the party, was puzzling to partymen. It would not have been a reluctance to declare his formal retirement and give up his post as much as his fear of an eruption of sibling rivalry all over again. Not only the body, but the mind too had grown weak.
After his crushing electoral defeat in 2001, he had said, “I have seen this and more. Gone are the days when I was emotionally swayed.” But he was emotional. Though an atheist, Tamil hymns moved him to tears with the sheer beauty of their poetry. He was an artist at heart and his creativity never left him.
He did not think it a contradiction of his beliefs to write a TV play on the 11th century Vaishnavite theologian Ramanujan, whom he admired as a secularist. He loved to read and write; the media loved him because he usually read a lot of what was published, and he was accessible to journalists.
The nonagenarian Karunanidhi, five-time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu (a position he held for nearly two decades in all), was back on the road to meet Tamil voters along the campaign trail of the last Assembly elections. By then, he had been in politics for more than seven decades. The year 2016 marked the start of his 59th year as the DMK’s star campaigner. The crowd was moved to see the old man clutching at the microphone.
At 94, he was still waiting to write a fresh script. A dramatic finale that would bring down the curtain with ‘Shubham’ (all is well) for all to read.
When the final call came, he was perhaps still working on it.