IT WAS MAY 2011. Muthuvel Karunanidhi and his DMK had just been dealt a crushing blow by his bête noire, J. Jayalalithaa. The alliance led by her AIADMK had swept the Tamil Nadu assembly polls, winning 203 of 234 seats. The DMK, which had been in power for the previous five years, was down to its lowest-ever tally—23 seats. Even Vijayakanth, the actor-turned-politician who had launched his DMDK just six years earlier, had won six more seats than the DMK, arguably the state’s most storied dravida party.
It was a mighty fall—Karunanidhi, the outgoing chief minister, was not even guaranteed the post of opposition leader in the assembly. A day after the results, though, he turned up for work as usual at Anna Arivalayam, the DMK headquarters in Chennai. It was early morning, and he went straight to his chamber. Senior DMK leaders K. Anbazhagan, Arcot N. Veerasamy and Durai Murugan, along with three others, hesitantly went to him, unsure about how to break the silence. Being someone who is never at a loss for words, Karunanidhi then called out to his office assistant: “Aaru kaapi konduva, aaratha coffee konduva [Bring six cups of coffee; steaming, not ones that have lost steam].”
Grasping the implied message, the leaders burst out laughing. With one pithy sentence, Karunanidhi had replaced the pall of gloom in his chamber with a renewed sense of purpose. “He was successful only because he never looked back,” said Peter Alphonse, former Congress MLA who was once very close to Karunanidhi. “He never cared for yesterday. He looked at only today and tomorrow.”
On August 7, however, time finally caught up with Karunanidhi, 94. He died at Kauvery Hospital in Chennai, where he had been undergoing treatment for age-related illnesses since July 28. For days, DMK cadres camped outside the hospital had been chanting nonstop: “Vaa, Vaa, thalaiva. Ezhundhu vaa, thalaiva [Come, come, leader. Wake up and come, leader].” The leader, however, chose not to hear their pleas this time. “We were confident that he will come back to life and fight the next elections. I will miss his entrancing oratory,” said Chelliah, an 80-year-old who had come from Madurai, hoping to catch a glimpse of Karunanidhi one last time.
Karunanidhi was born on June 3, 1924, at Thirukkuvalai, a small village near Nagapattinam. His parents, Muthuvelar and Anjugam, belonged to the Isai Vellalar community, a temple-dependent caste of artistes who traditionally played wind instruments. When he was in his teens, Karunanidhi decided not to follow in his father’s footsteps, and joined Periyar E.V. Ramasamy’s Self-Respect Movement, a rationalist and anti-brahminical movement that laid the foundation for dravida politics in Tamil Nadu. Through the late 1940s, Karunanidhi rose through the ranks as a student leader, even as he evolved as an artiste who had deep love for literature, music and the Tamil language.
Tamil played a huge role in his career. In Passions of the Tongue: Language Devotion in Tamil India, author Sumathi Ramaswamy writes about the day Karunanidhi got married: “His wedding took place on 15 September 1948—the same day that Ramasamy had called for a renewed protest against Hindi. Friends and relatives had gathered at Karunanidhi’s home. He himself was standing at the entrance, greeting his guests, when an anti-Hindi procession went by on its way to picket the local school. People were shouting anti-Hindi slogans: ‘Let Hindi die! May Tamil live!’ In the roar of these slogans, the music of his wedding party could hardly be heard. He, too, joined the procession, and went off to picket the nearby school. Fortunately, he was not arrested that day and returned home to marry his bride, who had been waiting patiently through all this.”
Karunanidhi made his first indelible mark in politics in 1953. As a member of the four-year-old DMK, he led a group of volunteers to the railway station at Kallakudi, an industrial town whose name had been changed to Dalmiapuram, after a trader from north India who set up a cement factory there. The angry protesters blackened the signboard bearing the new name, painted on the original Tamil name, and lay down on the railway tracks. The police showed no mercy—several volunteers died and many were injured. Karunanidhi was sentenced to six months in jail.
The Kallakudi agitation made him famous among party cadres, and brought him to the periphery of the inner circle of C.N. Annadurai, the party’s tallest leader. Though he was not among the ‘iymperum thalaivar’—the party’s five great founding leaders, V.R. Nedunchezhiyan, K.A. Mathiazhagan, K. Anbazhagan, N.V. Natarajan and E.V.K Sampath—he was artful and he soon became a trusted lieutenant of Annadurai.
His considerable talents as a writer also helped him. He had a long and successful career as a screenwriter, penning films that promoted and popularised the party’s ideology. Hits like Parasakthi and Panam (both in 1952) had themes that opposed religiosity, feudalism and untouchability. Parasakthi was so provocative—it showed a priest trying to rape a women in a temple, and it had dialogues that mocked deities—that demands were made to ban the film.
Karunanidhi also became known for his rousing speeches, which deployed elements and imageries from Tamil folklore, poetry and mythology. He wove together his artistry and ideology so effectively that,
by the late 1960s, DMK cadres began reverentially calling him kalaignar (the artist).
In 1967, when the DMK first came to power, chief minister Annadurai made him minister for public works. Annadurai died two year later, and Karunanidhi inherited his mantle.
There have been several peaks and troughs in his marathon career. Perhaps, his greatest strength as a politician was his ability to bounce back after setbacks. He spent 13 years out of power, from 1976 to 1989, eclipsed by the popularity of his friend-turned-rival M.G. Ramachandran, the actor who formed the AIADMK and became chief minister. MGR’s political heir, Jayalalithaa, also trumped Karunanidhi on many occasions. But, without Karunanidhi in the opposition, both MGR and Jayalalithaa would perhaps not have had the stature they attained.
“He had an ability to adapt himself to new developments—in politics and in life,” said Peter Alphonse. “Be it technology, or a new formula to resolve a crisis in governance, he was always willing to accept. He was always inclusive. He gave space to even those who criticised him, from both within the party and opposition parties.”
A testament to Karunanidhi’s shrewdness and accommodative abilities is how he managed to come to power in 2006, after the assembly elections threw up a fractured verdict. The DMK had just 96 seats, but he cobbled up enough support to be sworn in as chief minister for the fifth time, at age 82. And, the government lasted the term.
He headed a regional party whose vote share barely reached 30 per cent, yet Karunanidhi could steer national politics, building and burning bridges. The DMK is the only party in India that has been part of three different political formations which have ruled India in the past 22 years—the United Front of regional parties, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (under Vajpayee), and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance.
“It was his sheer political acumen that ensured a place for the DMK at the Centre for two decades,” said journalist R. Ramasubramanian. “It is nothing but political aggrandisement, to taste and enjoy power.”
Yet, Karunanidhi had also shown that he could stand his ground, even at the expense of power. During Emergency, he publicly locked horns with Indira Gandhi, who then dismissed the DMK government. Time, however, helped him exact his revenge—the Congress, which was once the dominant party in Tamil Nadu, was gradually reduced to a DMK tail.
The master tactician, however, had an abrasive side. After the DMK swept the assembly polls in 1989, a year and a half after MGR’s death, Karunanidhi had a showdown with Jayalalithaa, who was to become opposition leader, even though she actually wanted to quit politics. She had written a confidential letter of resignation to the speaker, which was leaked. In the assembly, Jayalalithaa asked how her letter was made public. Karunanidhi, who had allegedly played a role in the leak, began mocking Jayalalithaa. When she persisted, he said, “Go ask Sobhan Babu.” The reference was to the actor with whom she was once linked romantically.
A furious Jayalalithaa asked her MLAs to hit Karunanidhi and disrupt the proceedings. She ended up being manhandled by DMK legislators, her sari pulled and torn. She vowed never to return to the assembly, unless as chief minister. And, two years later, she did just that.
Karunanidhi’s shrewdness earned him as many adoring followers as bitter critics. The hostility to him was on full display barely an hour after his death was announced. As DMK cadres went into mourning, the chief secretary issued a press note, citing legal and policy issues, to declare that there was “no space” for his burial at the Marina beach in Chennai, where MGR and Jayalalithaa were laid to rest. It led to a public spat between cadres of the two main dravida parties, and the ruling party’s ally, the BJP.
DMK leaders went to court, and after a 15-hour legal battle, obtained a favourable order. “He was a man who always fought to win. Even after his death, he fought. And this time, too, he won,” said DMK leader Durai Murugan, as news of the verdict reached the crowded Rajaji Hall, where Karunanidhi lay in state. Beside him was M.K. Stalin, Karunanidhi’s son and political heir, who first greeted the news stoically, and then broke down.
In the end, Karunanidhi’s final journey was oddly symbolic: In life, he had fought hard to reach the top. In death, too, he left fighting. At the Marina, three of the tallest leaders of dravida politics now rest together—in peace, hopefully.