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Climb to the top

Meticulously researched and deeply engrossing, Karunanidhi: A Life delves into the life of a controversial man with a fruitful career as a regional leader; Excerpts:

Climb to the top

When Anna passed away on 3 February 1969, the party was at the crossroads. The DMK had not completed even two years in government and there was no clear indication of who would succeed him. The public grief was manifested in nearly 15 million people pouring into the streets of Madras to pay their respects to Annadurai. As per constitutional requirement, an interim government was sworn in on the night of 3 February under the chief ministership of Nedunchezian; other members of the cabinet retained their respective portfolios. Both the government and the party came under public scrutiny and the other political parties on how they were going to handle the succession.

There was a consensus in the government and the party that they should first provide a farewell befitting Annadurai, as the leader who shaped the destiny of modern Tamil Nadu. In accordance with Annadurai's family tradition, the initial decision was to cremate him the next day at the Krishnampet crematorium in Mylapore, near the police head office. There were even news reports about his cremation. However,

Karunanidhi convinced both his senior cabinet colleagues and Annadurai's family about the need for creating a worthy final resting place. 'It is our duty to future generations to immortalize his memory,' observed Karunanidhi. As the PWD minister, he took it upon himself to find the appropriate space, which could later be converted into a memorial. Karunanidhi felt that the Marina was the ideal spot for Anna to be put to rest, as it was along its promenade that Anna immortalized some of the defining Tamil voices by erecting their statues. A small piece of land abutting the mouth of the River Cooum and the Bay of Bengal was identified and quickly converted into a public space—the Anna Memorial.

Annadurai's body was kept at the state building, 'Rajaji Hall', very close to Marina beach, for people to pay homage. The Central government was represented by Union home minister, Y.B. Chavan, and all political leaders of Tamil Nadu joined the final procession from Rajaji Hall to Anna Memorial. To respect Annadurai's adherence to the ideals of the Self-Respect Movement, there was no religious ceremony.

Annadurai's widow, Rani Annadurai, showered rose petals on the casket before its burial and Karunanidhi, spoke for a minute and appealed to the people to disperse after observing a minute's silence.

The fact that he took charge of Annadurai's final journey was interpreted by the party cadres as a signal that Karunanidhi would succeed Annadurai. However, Nedunchezian was confident that the party members and legislators would rally behind him, based on his seniority. He felt that he should have been the chief minister even in 1967, as Annadurai contested only for the Lok Sabha and not for the State Assembly. But what Nedunchezian missed was Karunanidhi's ability to celebrate achievements, which some of his opponents termed as 'commemorative symbolism'.

Karunanidhi was invited by All India Radio (AIR) to deliver a tribute to Annadurai. In his fifteen-minute-long poem, Karunanidhi eulogized Annadurai. At the very end of it, his plea to Anna was to lend him his heart—which was known to endure anything—with a promise to return it, when his time came to meet his departed mentor. This exquisite elegy virtually sealed Karunanidhi's position as the inheritor of Anna's legacy.

Karunanidhi, however, rejected this instrumental reading of his tributes. He had written elegies for various stalwarts of the Self-Respect Movement—Pattukottai Alagiri, NSK and Bharathidasan, and felt that those who harped upon his poetic homage to Anna had no idea of his past. 'It would be suicidal if we were not to acknowledge the contribution of our predecessors. Isn't it true that we learned compassion from Thiruvalluvar and universalism from Kanniyan Poogunran? To those who see only design and rhetoric behind attempts to accord due credit and the right place in history for the departed, it appears as commemorative symbolism,' he observed.

The Nedunchezian camp received a fillip when they heard that the party's parliamentary group leader Anbazhagan had reservations about Karunanidhi's leadership. Nedunchezian's brother, Era. Sezhiyan, serving his second term as a Lok Sabha member, was in the forefront for securing the support of not only the MLAs but also some of the district secretaries of the party. They were also emboldened when they heard of Murasoli Maran's meeting with M.G. Ramachandran, in which he expressed Karunanidhi's desire not to join the leadership race.

But, the momentum started gaining in favour of Karunanidhi when Periyar made it clear that the party needed a decisive leader and there was no one better than Karunanidhi in firmly dealing with this difficult situation. He rejected the idea of seniority, saying that running a political movement is different from other vocations, where seniority rules the roost. In real politics, people should opt for the right candidate and not the senior candidate. A delegation led by legislator Erode Chinnaswami met Karunanidhi and urged him to accept the leadership of both the party and the government. Ministers Mathiazhagan, Satyavani Muthu, Govindaswamy and Sadiq Pasha and parliamentarian K Manoharan joined Kovai Chezhiyan in the team that wanted Karunanidhi to be the successor.

Seniors like N.V. Natarajan and P.U. Shanmugam came up with a compromise formula, where Karunanidhi would be the chief minister and Nedunchezian the deputy chief minister and Leader of the House. But both Nedunchezian and his brother Era. Sezhiyan rejected all options and said that there was no question of accepting any post other than that of the chief minister. They felt that Karunanidhi was only winning the perception battle by securing the support of Periyar, MGR and C.P. Adithan, but the majority of the legislators would support the person who once led the DMK, even when Anna was alive. They asked for an election for the leadership of the legislative party of the DMK.

The meeting of the DMK legislators was held on 9 February under the presidentship of A. Govindaswamy. Nedunchezian's name was proposed by S.J. Ramasamy and seconded by V.T. Annamalai. Senior minister, Mathiazhagan proposed Karunanidhi's name, and it was seconded by his colleague Satyavani Muthu, the two seniors whom Karunanidhi the previous year had thought should resign from the government to work for the party. When it was clear that the numbers were stacked against him, Nedunchezian announced that he was not in favour of a contest and that he was withdrawing his candidature as he would prefer a unanimous choice for the post of chief minister. This formally cleared the way for Karunanidhi's elevation.

On the same afternoon, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi reached Tirupati to attend a family wedding of the senior Congress leader Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, and she was told about Karunanidhi's election at the party meet. She expressed her anxiety and wondered whether he would work closely with the Centre or remain antagonistic to the Union government. Nellikuppam Krishnamurthy alerted Karunanidhi about Indira Gandhi's unease. Within a month of his assumption of power, Karunanidhi invited Indira Gandhi to unveil the portrait of Annadurai at the State Legislative Assembly and at Rajaji Hall. 'I heard that the prime minister has reservations about my leadership and has a suspicion about an antagonistic relationship with the Centre. My principle is not to wage war with the Centre. Our ideological position is clear—we will extend a friendly hand for a relationship and not hesitate to raise our voice for our rights. There is nothing antagonistic in this approach,' he said. Karunanidhi also passed on the full translation of his speech to Indira Gandhi as he did not want to wage phantom wars that would hurt the state.

In a simple function at Raj Bhavan, on 10 February, Karunanidhi and his cabinet were sworn in. The cabinet was expanded within five days to include other seniors. The new cabinet was: Karunanidhi–chief minister; A. Govindasamy–Food and Agriculture, K.A. Mathiazhagan– Finance and Revenue, Satyavani Muthu- Public Health and Adi Dravidar Welfare, S. Madhavan–Law and Industry, S.J. Sadiq Pasha–Public Works Department, M. Muthuswami–Local Administration, P.U. Shanmugam–Labour Welfare, C.P. Adithan–Cooperatives and Transport, K.V. Subbiah–Housing and Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments, and O.P. Raman–Electricity. On assuming office at the Secretariat, Karunanidhi called on Periyar, Rajaji, Kamaraj, and Bhaktavatsalam, which was seen as displaying appropriate courtesy.

(Excerpted with permission from AS Panneerselvan's Karunanidhi: A Life; published by Penguin Random House)

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