At 90, he is presiding over a disintegrating dynasty, and this election could be the last electoral battle of a man who scripted some sensational moments in Dravidian politics. Vaasanthi captures the agony of being M Karunanidhi
Vaasanthi | 14 Apr, 2014
The agony of being M Karunanidhi
“He is our one and only leader!” exclaims the young man, cheered by other cadres at Arivalayam, headquarters of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). “The thalaivar’s (leader’s) word is law. Our party rests on the tenets ‘duty, propriety and discipline’. Whoever dares defy it will be punished irrespective of who they are.”
Muthuvel Karunanidhi, 90, leader of the DMK, and former—five-time—Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, sitting in a wheelchair facing press reporters, is a pale shadow of that impassioned description. It must be an agonising exercise for him to say in clear unfaltering words what he must of his elder son: “We have expelled Alagiri from the DMK for his persistent slanderous attacks on party seniors and anti-party activities despite already having been suspended from the party.” His colleague and DMK General Secretary K Anbazhagan, who had issued a statement to that effect on 25 March, sits in silence, aware that it’s not the end of the story. It was no fable of the prodigal son, though it all began with a question as old as Adam: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ Alagiri, the challenger, has been unable to accept his younger brother MK Stalin as his father’s successor, and he will not rest till he brings down the roof.
Karunanidhi must do what’s best for the party without flinching. After his crushing electoral defeat in 2001, the DMK chief had said, “I have seen this and more. Gone are the days when I was emotionally swayed.” Perhaps his emotions have been long dead after the series of blows inflicted on them over the past few years, even before the 2011 Assembly election results brought home the fact that the DMK had reached its nadir. If any emotion gets supremacy now, it’s the patriarch’s need to resurrect the party before he finally bows out. For that, no sacrifice is big enough. He has come to believe that the son he has groomed for the party’s leadership, Stalin, much loved and respected by party-men and cadres, will be able to cope with the pressure of taking charge.
For a leader who used his cinema script-writing skills for his own ascent in Tamil politics, it is ironical that Karunanidhi has never written one on sibling rivalry. His script of Parasakthi (1952), the film which catapulted him to fame, glorified sibling affection and made audiences weep. More than half a century later, Alagiri stands before him screaming that he has been partial to Stalin. Consumed by jealousy, the elder son threatens to destroy everything his father has assiduously built by openly questioning the patriarch’s integrity. He is striving, he says, to save the party from ‘evil forces’ that have come to dominate— a reference to his own brother. He is flirting with opposition parties, which are asking for his support for the Lok Sabha polls in Tamil Nadu. Convinced that he is a political heavyweight in the state’s southern parts, especially in Madurai, he seems to consider himself invincible.
That is worrying. Will he be a spoiler? Karunanidhi knows that he is to be blamed for what is happening now. He has always said, “The party is my family”, but as he began ageing, he began to blunder— putting the family cart before the party horse.
Alagiri has been suspended before and has been known as a thorn and an embarrassment to Karunanidhi, who has tried his best to keep him under control by alternately indulging him with posts and admonishing him when he went his own way. But this time round, Alagiri has crossed all limits, uttering words that ‘no father could bear to hear’.
It all began on 5 January, when the DMK leadership disbanded the party’s Madurai unit, which was loyal to Alagiri, and also suspended five of his close associates after they filed complaints alleging that Stalin supporters were indulging in caste clashes. In the wee hours of 24 January, on his return from a trip abroad, Alagiri went straight to his father’s Gopalapuram residence, barged into the old man’s room, and asked why his men had been suspended. In an outburst against his father’s favouritism, Alagiri allegedly warned that Stalin’s days were numbered. After he left, Karunanidhi summoned Stalin and other senior leaders home to decide on how to contain the elder son’s rebellion. There was no option but to take strict action, it was felt.
The statement issued—‘Alagiri was suspended for speaking against the leaders of other parties who were interested in having an electoral understanding with the DMK’—was an allusion to Vijayakanth of the DMDK, believed to have a vote share of 8 per cent, with whom the DMK was hoping to forge an electoral alliance. Since Vijayakanth’s base was Madurai, Alagiri’s bastion, the elder son saw a threat in it.
Back in that temple town, even as his supporters were preparing a gala birthday celebration for him, Alagiri told the media that his suspension was undemocratic and extreme, and that he would reveal his plan in the next three months. Meanwhile in Chennai, Karunanidhi told the media of Alagiri’s dire words against Stalin. To ensure a smooth succession, he knew the value of gaining sympathy for Stalin among cadres.
The real cause of the friction between the brothers, sources in the DMK say, was Alagiri’s complaint of corrupt practices in the management of party assets worth hundreds of crores, controlled by a committee headed by Stalin. It was reminiscent of the late MG Ramachandran’s (MGR’s) revolt back in the early 1970s, when he questioned the lack of transparency in DMK funds, was expelled, and started the AIADMK as a rival party. Alagiri, of course, has neither the charisma nor the following that MGR had, but his charges of corruption and threats of blackmail, if allowed, could have hurt the DMK. By drawing attention to Alagiri’s jealousy of his younger brother, Karunanidhi was trying to have a single- point explanation of the feud prevail.
After all, Alagiri has famously had a long-standing grouse against his father, who always seemed to favour Stalin, the more urbane and mature of the two brothers. Karunanidhi had also groomed Stalin as a leader in his own mould, even though he once remarked that “the DMK is not a Shankara Mutt” that he would pass on his mantle to a chosen successor. But a successor, Stalin clearly is.
When Stalin first entered politics, he lacked the oratorical skills of his father, but gradually trained himself in public speaking. His first public office was as the elected Mayor of Chennai (1996-2001), where he acquired a reputation as an able administrator. Alagiri, who joined politics later, has repeatedly expressed discomfort with Stalin’s growing clout within the DMK, saying, “I cannot accept anyone other than my father as the leader of the party.”
On his part, the father saw prudence in keeping the brothers apart. He packed Alagiri off to Madurai, asking him to take care of the town’s edition of the party mouthpiece Murasoli. In time, Alagiri turned this area into his fiefdom and became a power centre in his own right, with a ring of acolytes who had criminal records as his henchmen. They became a formidable force that Tamils in the state’s southern districts came to fear. Karunanidhi knew of all this, but let Alagiri play buffer against his political rivals in the region.
For example, when V Gopalasamy (better known as Vaiko), an emerging DMK leader and a fiery speaker, was expelled for ‘anti-party activities’ in 1993 (he was seen as a threat to Stalin) and he formed his own party, the MDMK, Alagiri helped keep the DMK flock together in the southern districts where Vaiko held sway. And when the DMK came to power in Tamil Nadu in 1996, Alagiri virtually became the southern region’s uncrowned prince.
In 2000, he created such a problem for the party’s image that Anbazhagan instructed party cadres to disassociate themselves from him. In 2001, after a fracas over candidate selection for the state’s Assembly polls in which Alagiri sought to defy the DMK high command and draft his own henchmen, he was suspended from the party. But the prodigal son was soon back again.
In 2003, after Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK had assumed power as CM, Alagiri was arrested for his alleged involvement in the murder of T Krittinan, a former DMK minister and Stalin supporter. He got out on bail, but began to sulk as his public image was getting sullied even as Stalin’s shone ever brighter among cadres. The latter’s stature as a leader grew once Karunanidhi was back as CM in 2006, and there was even talk of his assuming charge as Deputy CM.
For Alagiri, the last straw came in the form of an opinion poll published by the Tamil daily Dinakaran, owned by Dayanidhi and Kalanidhi, sons of Karunanidhi’s nephew Murasoli Maran, that said 70 per cent of voters wanted Stalin to succeed Karunanidhi as DMK chief; only 2 per cent wanted Alagiri. On 9 May 2007, supporters of Alagiri burnt down the Madurai office of Dinakaran, leaving two employees and a security guard dead. In its news bulletins, the Maran-owned Sun TV accused Alagiri of being responsible for the violence and called for his arrest.
Realising the impact of such a telecast on the state’s electorate, Karunanidhi went into damage-control mode. Senior party leaders convened to condemn the ‘anti-party activities’ of Dayanidhi Maran, who was India’s telecom minister at the Centre at the time, and expelled him from the party. Karunanidhi also announced that a probe of the Madurai attack would be handed over to the CBI, as his own son’s role was in question.
After that, the father let Alagiri run the party in the southern region the way he wanted, whether it was picking administrative and police officers or party functionaries. In the bypolls of 2008, Alagiri was able to secure three major victories in the region for the DMK, and he was given a Lok Sabha ticket in 2009 for Madurai, a seat that he won. After this, his father got him a Cabinet berth in the UPA Government, of which the DMK was a part. Sending him to the Centre as India’s minister of chemicals and fertilisers, Karunanidhi calculated, would keep the brothers out of each other’s hair.
Alagiri had to resign his post in 2012, after the DMK’s falling out with the UPA over the 2G spectrum scam, which had resulted in the jailing of the DMK’s former telecom minister A Raja as well as the patriarch’s own daughter Kanimozhi. The DMK snapped ties with the UPA, but Alagiri was opposed to this decision and was reluctant to quit. And after Jayalalithaa’s return as CM, he has been under pressure even in his home state. As if his family problems are not enough, the AIADMK government has been trying to implicate his son Durai Dayanidhi in a granite scandal. Many of his supporters have abandoned him to join Stalin’s side.
Alagiri is smarting under the blows and waiting to strike back. While his proximate target may be Stalin, observers sense it would be Karunanidhi he may want to get even with.
The patriarch appears bewildered to find himself watching a crime thriller that people say was scripted by none other than him. In many ways, this is worse than the sense of shame he suffered when his handpicked minister A Raja—whom he’d defended doggedly in ‘good faith’—was asked to step down on 14 November 2010 following the 2G spectrum scam (and later jailed), or the agony he endured when his daughter Kanimozhi was also locked up in Tihar Jail. He had rarely felt so utterly helpless.
Now, in the autumn of his life, Karunanidhi worries about the party’s image and his own loss of face in front of party cadres whom he addresses as ‘En uyirukkum uyiraana udanpirappukale (My brethren, who are dearer to me than life itself)’ in speeches and letters that appear in Murasoli.
But even his detractors, many of whom grudgingly admire his still-sharp brain and ready wit, admit that he remains the party’s undisputed leader. What he attracts criticism for is the feudal ways he has adopted—in spite of being the offspring of a rationalist movement himself. His frequent claims that the DMK is ‘a family’, that every member is ‘born of the same womb’ and is the ‘blood of its blood’, have long stood him in good stead with party members. Now he wants them to share responsibility for this family’s honour and prestige. To make sacrifices for it, if need be. They know of his sacrifices. Didn’t he as a mere lad of 13 slit his hand and write ‘Tamizh vaazhga’ (long live Tamil) with blood on a wall? And did he not lie on a railway track ready to die during an anti-Hindi agitation in protest against a non-Tamil name at Dalmiapuram station? They know how he refused to skip an important party meeting even while his first wife lay on her deathbed. By the time he returned, she had passed away. This kind of loyalty to the party was the highest goal for party workers to aspire for. Loyalty to the party, of course, is loyalty to the leader.
All the political machinations of the patriarch have been taken to be in the interests of the party. Even his 1970s attempt to launch the cinema career of MK Muthu, his son from his first marriage, was seen as an attempt to stop the MGR juggernaut. Muthu was a poor actor, and proved no match for MGR, who enjoyed demi-god status on and off the screen. What matters is that cadres know how hard he tried to contain the AIADMK formed by MGR. When Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency in 1975, wasn’t Karunanidhi the first man to openly protest against its imposition? But Gandhi dismissed his government under Article 356. He did not imagine that this dismissal would leave him in political limbo for 13 years. When elections were declared, it was MGR who came to power. Throughout those years of MGR’s supremacy, he spent his time devising strategies to destroy his rival who seemed indestructible until his death.
That grand rivalry is long dead and gone, but MGR’s protégé Jayalalithaa has audaciously taken over the AIADMK’s mantle, posing a threat to the future of his party and younger son’s political career. Back in power, she has been taunting Karunanidhi with statements to the effect that she needn’t destroy the DMK since his son is already on the job.
Karunanidhi is confident of his party’s prospects. The DMK, he knows, is firmly with him. Its cadres retain their faith in his leadership. They do not see him as an autocrat, preferring to hail him as a ‘custodian of social justice’ for his efforts to ensure 69 per cent reservation for Backward Classes. They are impressed that he goes by the norms of inner democracy on matters of party discipline. The thalaivar, they say in appreciation, did not spare his own son.
Their leader is back on the road, meeting voters and canvassing support. He has been in politics for nearly 70 years now, and 2014 marks his 57th year as the DMK’s star campaigner. The crowd is moved to see the old man clutch a microphone. It goes into raptures as this one- time Hindi-baiter recites—in a constituency that has a fair sprinkling of Urdu-speaking Muslim voters—an old ditty in Hindi, Hindu Muslim Sikh Isai, aapas mein bhai bhai, to drive home a secular message of brotherhood.
The cadres do not mind if he often appears confused at times: one day calling Modi of the BJP a friend, or declaring grandly that he’s willing to forgive and support the Congress after the polls if it expresses regret for the wrongs it did unto an ally, and the next chastising the UPA for its abstention on a United Nations resolution against Sri Lanka. There must be a design behind each of his statements.
He appears tired of posturing. But electoral politics has never been more troublesome for him. His own folly, he feels, has landed the party in a tangle, one that’s getting tugged into a tight knot by a sibling rivalry. A fresh script needs to be written, a dramatic finale that will bring down the curtains with the word ‘shubham’. All is well.
Time, however, is running out. His heart heavy with a sense of foreboding and remorse, he must act fast to fix things while he can.
A bilingual journalist and author, Vaasanthi has written extensively on Tamil political culture. She is the author of Cut Outs, Caste and Cine Stars: The World of Tamil Politics