In the passing of Muthuvel Karunanidhi at 94 in Chennai, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has lost not just one of its most distinguished and astonishing leaders who piloted its destiny for nearly 50 years in the post-Annadurai decades, but also by far its most prominent poster boy of the Periyar-galvanised ‘Dravidian Movement’.
One of the ‘founder members’ of the DMK since a young band of Tamil enthusiasts rebelled against Periyar and broke away from the parent Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) at a rain-drenched rally in Robinson Park in North Chennai in September 1949 where the birth of DMK was declared, Karunanidhi refused to be an also-ran.
Though for the last two years, he was confined to his Gopalapuram residence since he fell ill in October 2016, managing to faintly recognise people with his wide trademark smile that always lit up his genial forehead, in death too, even as in his turbulent personal and political life spanning over eight decades, Karunanidhi went down fighting to his last breath.
Born in the small village of Thirukkuvalai near Tiruvarur, on June 3, 1924, Karunanidhi never felt sorry for having been a dropout from the then Board High School in Tiruvarur. He plunged into public life at the tender age of 14, floating a student’s wing of the Dravidian Movement, styled, “Tamil Nadu Tamil Maanavar Mandram”, and simultaneously bringing out a handwritten pamphlet that was to later become ‘Murasoli’. He was later Sub-Editor of the Tamil weekly ‘Kudi Arasu’, started by Periyar in 1925.
A pamphleteer like Tom Paine was born for the Dravidian Movement and from his boyhood days, he began inviting then senior leaders for public meetings at his native place, including Anna and Perasiriyar K Anbazhagan who was to be his long-term friend, philosopher and guide. As days, months and years rolled by, Karunanidhi was to evolve as a multi-faceted personality, a playwright, script writer, captivating orator in Tamil, writer, Editor, Publisher, Legislator, five-time Chief Minister and above all an ace administrator known for his thoughtful, quick and pragmatic decisions.
It is difficult to reinvent a Karunanidhi, which his younger son M K Stalin, present working president of the DMK, is discovering to his discomfort. A great family man, Karunanidhi, a rationalist by temperament, has six children- four sons and two daughters- through three marriages- to Padmavathi, Dayalu Ammal and Rajathi Ammal in that order-.
While M K Muthu, a one-time brief rival to MGR in Tamil cinema, was born of his first wedlock to Padmavathi, former Union Minister, M K Azhagiri, M K Stalin, M K Tamizharasu and daughter Selvi were born of his second marriage to Dayalu. The last but not least, his favourite daughter Ms. Kanimozhi, is Rajathi Ammal’s daughter. And the family’s inner circle was never complete without the DMK leader’s nephew and former Union Commerce Minister ‘Murasoli’ Maran, termed in DMK circles as Karunanidhi’s “brains trust”.
But in the early part of his life in politics and public life, the family was only the last priority for Karunanidhi, for all that mattered were his political leaders, close friends in the world of theatre, arts and cinema including the legendary M G Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan, and of course the DMK.
An enterprising motivator and grassroots man, he was to soon be a popular fund-raiser for the DMK. So much so, Annadurai on the eve of the 1967 Assembly elections, the historic poll which catapulted DMK to power in Tamil Nadu replacing the Congress, was to introduce Karunanidhi’s candidature from Saidapet constituency as “Mr. 11 lakhs”, as ‘Kalaignar’, as he was popularly called, collected that much for DMK’s poll campaign.
The earlier, first electoral turning point for the DMK came in 1959 when it captured the then Madras Municipal Corporation. Anna openly acknowledged Karunanidhi’s role in that victory and presented him a special ring, a photo-op that the latter would often flaunt to show that he had risen from the ranks. Madras, then Chennai, apart from erstwhile composite Thanjavur district, had thus become a solid DMK bastion until the AIADMK began eroding its metro base in the post-2000 years.
Appointed Treasurer of the DMK in 1961, Karunanidhi was to later be the Deputy Leader of the Opposition during 1962-67. He never lost an Assembly election since he won his first from Kulithalai in 1957 and was elected for the 13th time to the House in 2016 from Tiruvarur.
In 1983, he quit the Assembly membership over the Sri Lankan Tamils issue and was then member of the State Legislative Council during 1984-86. An amazing feat to be a Legislator for over 50 years though after having won the Harbour seat in 1991, he resigned owning ‘moral responsibility’ for the DMK’s comprehensive defeat, in the wake of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s tragic assassination on Tamil Nadu soil during the May 1991 poll campaign.
It took Karunanidhi six months to recover from that shattering tragedy, and also a profound game-changing period for the DMK to completely sever its ties from the Sri Lankan Tamil militant group, LTTE, which was responsible for young Rajiv Gandhi’s gory death at Sriperumbudur, the birth place of the great Vaishnavite teacher, Sri Ramanuja.
Incidentally, Karunanidhi’s screen-play for the mega tele serial on ‘Sri Ramanuja’ during his last years, was incomplete. Karunanidhi though, even after his virulent Periyarism had lost its sharp edges, remained a non-believer till his very end. His interest in Ramanuja was, as he said, as a ‘great social reformer’. It remained open-ended, like his voluminous unfinished autobiography in Tamil, ‘Nenjukku Needhi (Solace for the Heart)’.
He took on the DMK’s mantle after Anna’s painful demise in February 1969, both at the party and government level- thanks to MGR who helped Karunanidhi pip the elderly and scholarly V R Nedunchezhiyan at the post-. Since 1969 it was a tantalizing, rough roller-coaster ride for Karunanidhi as President of the DMK. That was a new post created above the general secretary and Karunanidhi remained unbeaten there.
Karunanidhi took drubbings for a brief authoritarian phase in the early 1970s’. An anti-Malayalee campaign, at places violent, stemming from anathema to MGR’s rising popularity miserably backfired. But by 1989, when he came back as Chief Minister after 13 long years, he was already a ‘transformed man’.
Karunanidhi’s five chief ministerial tenures — 1969-71, 1971-January 1976 until his government was dismissed under Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, 1989-1991 (when DMK government was dismissed for a second time over the LTTE issue), 1996-2001 and 2006-2011 when he presided over a virtual coalition in the state with the Congress and PMK supporting DMK from outside, were a mix of the mundane, ecstatic and of agonising tumult. Even when he started as a PWD Minister in Anna’s Cabinet in 1967, the young writer-orator was already a magnetic pull to several in the party.
Karunanidhi’s commitment to state autonomy and state rights were singularly unwavering all through, much as the DMK under his tenure contributed substantially to the industrialisation of Tamil Nadu, by adding to the legacy of the earlier Congress initiatives.
The abolition of hand rickshaws, creation of the Slum Clearance Board, enlarging the basket of benefits for the depressed and backward classes, conceding the category of ‘most backward classes’ in reservation in education and government jobs to Vanniyars and several other communities with a 20 per cent reservation for them, legislating equal property rights for Women, setting up of the State Planning Commission, liberalising the free rice scheme, the role played in setting up the Cauvery Waters Disputes Tribunal in 1990 and establishing the ‘TIDEL’ park that flagged Tamil Nadu’s foray into IT, all go to the DMK’s plus side.
His penchant for tact and diplomacy came through in securing the safe release of Kannada thespian Rajkumar from the clutches of forest brigand Veerappan who abducted the actor in July 2000.
But socio-economic development being a double-edged weapon, there were negative spin-offs too. Broad-basing welfare economics looked to be sliding into competitive populism, as the AIADMK under MGR and later Ms. J Jayalalithaa made vaster strides in adding to the bag of subsidies and goodies. Good economics should make for good politics, but in the Tamil Nadu case the process was over-arched by towering personal charisma.
That brings us to the ‘Kalaignar’ (artiste) in Karunanidhi the political leader, who till the end defended all the state subsidies as being pro-poor. He also made no distinction between plan and non-plan expenditure. Had he not lost his speaking faculty in recent years, he would have opposed the GST as grossly anti-Federal in nature, just like Ms. Jayalalithaa vociferously did.
As author of hundreds of publications, including fiction, historical novels, stage plays, screen plays, speeches and any number of party resolutions- some of the crucial ones were soft on MGR but harder on the irrepressible Vaiko-, from the days he received Rajaji’s blessings, Karunanidhi was not to look back. He fought bravely even as a wounded soldier. He knew modern history and “my height” that he did not compete for Prime Ministership with G K Moopanar during the UF leadership crisis in the mid-1990s’.
Karunanidhi, a surprising Gandhian in the early 1970s’, even stood shoulder-to-shoulder with BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee until the terrible post-Godhra violence in Gujarat in 2002 came as a shocking tester to DMK’s secularism. He then firmly backed the Congress led by Sonia Gandhi and Dr Manmohan Singh to the extent the DMK could go. He ably crafted his political path, but the end-game was not his.