Obituary: Karunanidhi, the doyen of Dravidian politics

His magical voice hypnotised the audience for hours, his wit and oratory skills lent wings to the DMK’s dream of capturing Fort St George, Tamil Nadu’s seat of power, and his political acumen held even his sworn enemies in awe.

Muthuvel Karunanidhi, the five-time Tamil Nadu chief minister who has had an unequalled stint as MLA in the Assembly, was truly a multifaceted personality who left his mark in every field that he worked in his 94-year-long life, be it student activism, scriptwriting, politics or in governance.

An indomitable fighter, Karunanidhi was a veteran of many political battles and had risen from ashes like a phoenix every time it was assumed that his career in politics had come to an end. Karunanidhi would take setbacks in his stride, would admit to mistakes publicly and even make course-correction if any programme or scheme lacked perfection.

The oldest political leader in India and the last of the Dravidian stalwarts, Karunanidhi had the rare distinction of having never lost an election – he contested 13 times – and worked with at least nine prime ministers – two of whom owed their position to him.

‘Kalaignar’ (artiste), as he was fondly called by his peers, colleagues across the political spectrum and the party cadre, Karunanidhi stepped into the large shoes of his mentor C N Annadurai after his untimely death in 1969 and was a true follower of Dravidian traditions as he questioned the existence of God, though he was accused of being a closet believer.

Having joined politics at a very young age of 14, Karunanidhi was rooted deep in the ideology propagated by Periyar and was the torch-bearer of anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu. A staunch believer of Dravidian ideology, Karunanidhi believed in the self-respect movement, was a proponent of women's rights and resisted attempts to what he called was the “Aryanisation” of Tamil Nadu.

Karunanidhi shot into political limelight when he led an agitation against the renaming of Kallakudi as Dalmiyapuram, near Ariyalur in 1953, by squatting on the railway tracks.

Under his leadership, the DMK grew in strength and Karunanidhi had a devout fan following, much like M G Ramachandran (MGR). His column, ‘Udanpirape’ (Brethren) in Murasoli, the magazine he launched when he was just 18, infused zeal and drive into the DMK cadre - a source of motivation they hankered for every morning, and which continued till about a year ago before he retired from active public life.

An active proponent of the reservation policy, Karunanidhi was a champion of social justice in Tamil Nadu. His path-breaking achievements, like the legislation for providing equal share for women in family property and 30% reservation for women in government jobs speak for themselves.

Karunanidhi’s "first graduate scholarship scheme" helped many from the poorer sections of society to step into engineering colleges and introduced separate quota for rural students in admissions into professional courses, a programme that ensured that students from interior Tamil Nadu got better opportunities in education.

However, in pursuit of power, he took to populism by promising 1 kg rice at Re 1 and free colour television sets to every household in the 2006 elections – an act that was blindly followed by his archrival J Jayalalithaa who promised mixer grinders in the 2011 elections.

A voracious reader, the DMK president’s speech would keep his audience spellbound for hours. A daunting administrator, it was under his DMK regime that Chennai got several flyovers and world-class infrastructure, so much so that the capital city remained the DMK’s fort until a decade ago.

A visionary leader, Karunanidhi was the first to implement the idea of a technology park – TIDEL Park – in Tamil Nadu in the late 1990s and had introduced many revolutionary schemes for the farming community and rural masses.

Controversies and weaknesses

Though Karunanidhi had several achievements to boast of, he was indicted by the Sarkaria Commission of corruption in the Veeranam drinking water scam and battled accusations of letting his family members amass wealth disproportionate to their known sources of income.

He had also courted controversies for openly supporting the LTTE and other outfits that wanted to secede from Sri Lanka – the Jain Commission that probed the 1991 Rajiv Gandhi assassination had indicted the Karunanidhi government of abetting the militant outfits of the island nation.

Some of the biggest failures of Karunanidhi that his opponents say is his “silence” in 1974 when Katchatheevu, an island off Rameswaram, was ceded to Sri Lanka by the then prime minister Indira Gandhi and not fighting enough to safeguard the interests of Tamil Nadu in water disputes with states like Karnataka (Cauvery) and Kerala (Mullaperiyar).

It was ironical that Karunanidhi, who was accused of supporting and abetting LTTE in the 1980s and 1990s, became the target of Tamil nationalists during the last leg of the 30-year-old bloody civil war in Sri Lanka. They said Karunanidhi did nothing to save “hapless Tamils” who fell to the bullets of the Lankan army despite his party sharing power at the Centre.

If the DMK was his strength, his family was his biggest weakness as the party once known for keeping up the values of Dravidianism was dotted with members from his immediate and extended family. He was also accused of compromising the interests of the state keeping in mind “selfish interests” of his family.

Often compared to the Nehru-Gandhi clan for his penchant to promote his family, Karunanidhi’s family members – Murasoli Maran, M K Stalin, M K Azhagiri, Kanimozhi and Dayanidhi Maran – have held ministerial and other crucial posts in the DMK, often at the cost of other leaders who had come up the ladder.

Karunanidhi was also accused of systemically sidelining or expelling leaders like Vaiko who were perceived as a threat to the emergence of his younger son Stalin as the future leader of the DMK. From the slogan of the "party being the family", Karunanidhi’s critics said he had successfully changed it to the "family being the party".

Centre-state relations

The never say die attitude kept Karunanidhi going strong in the rough and tumble of politics for over 75 years – his daily routine of working hard for 18 hours would have put to shame anyone who is half his age. The DMK leaders would eternally miss the early morning telephone call from Karunanidhi to give a dressing down, most often, after having read through the day’s newspapers.

Often known as the 'Chanakya' of Indian politics, Karunanidhi believed in federalism, was a staunch proponent of greater autonomy for states and became indispensable in the national political scene as he was instrumental in cobbling up alliances at the Centre – National Front (1989), United Front (1996), NDA (1999) and UPA (2004).

That he wanted more autonomy for states could be due to his tenure as chief minister being cut short by governments at the Centre that dismissed his administrations. It was Karunanidhi who fought with the then prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1974 to ensure that elected heads of state, too, get the honour of unfurling the national flag on Independence Day.

Films and MGR

Karunanidhi’s literary and political life have always been inseparable since his association with the film industry gave him the best friend and biggest political nemesis combined into one – the legendary MGR. If MGR’s electrifying presence on the silver screen made him the superstar of Tamil cinema, Karunanidhi’s powerful dialogues, reflecting the anti-Hindi sentiments, helped him capture the hearts of the masses.

Films like 'Mandira Kumari', 'Marudhanaatu Ilavarasi' and 'Malai Kallan' are some of the memorable films of MGR for the commanding dialogues that came straight out Karunanidhi’s unsparing pen. Karunanidhi’s 1951-film 'Parasakthi', which demolished the prevailing superstition among the people and portrayed Hindu customs in poor light, became an instant hit and propelled its protagonist Sivaji Ganesan into one of Tamil cinema’s finest actors.

His contributions to Tamil literature is unrivalled and every project of his administration – Valluvar Kottam in Chennai, Tiruvallur Statue in the Kanniyakumari sea and the world-class Anna Centenary Library – is still a landmark in Tamil Nadu.

Karunanidhi’s awe-inspiring speech and MGR's unlatching star power coupled with Annadurai’s charisma catapulted the DMK to power in 1967 – just 18 years after Annadurai parted ways with his mentor Periyar E V Ramasamy and launched the DMK.

The biggest mistake that Karunanidhi committed vis-à-vis his friend MGR was expelling the latter from the DMK, obviously unsettled over his growing popularity. MGR proved Karunanidhi’s worst-ever nemesis – the DMK chief had to wait for 13-long-years till MGR's death to reclaim the throne at Fort St George.

Rivalry with Jaya

Though he was known for accommodating allies and maintaining cordial ties even with political rivals, his relationship with late chief minister J Jayalalithaa was cold and rigid. Both seemed to have hatred for each other and never came eye-to-eye after they became political adversaries in the late 1980s and they went after each others pet projects after they came to power.

The final nail in the coffin was when Karunanidhi was dragged out of his bedroom in the middle of the night by the police and arrested in connection with a corruption case, that never saw the light of the day.

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Obituary: Karunanidhi, the doyen of Dravidian politics

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