End of an Era
During his influential lifetime spanning several decades, M Karunanidhi, espousing the ideals of Periyar and Annadurai, oversaw a monumental transformation in Tamil Nadu – from a poverty-stricken state to an ideal progressive society.
The demise of DMK Chief M Karunanidhi on August 7 at the age of 94, has drawn the curtains on a long and illustrious political career of one of the most celebrated politicians of the South and indeed India. Making his foray into active politics at the age of 14, M Karunanidhi (1924-2018) had an extremely successful political career in which he never lost an election, making it to the Legislative Assembly 14 times. During the five times he ruled Tamil Nadu as the chief minister, he is credited to have brought in a number of landmark legislation that aimed to provide relief to the poor and marginalised. His rule was marked by the introduction of welfare schemes for women, farmers and fishermen, reflecting how his priorities always lay with the masses. From subsidised food grains to concrete homes, Karunanidhi was a pioneer in envisaging schemes for the poor and downtrodden, which also later became a template for other states to base their own schemes on.
Karunanidhi, who was popularly called Kalaignar (the artiste), was also endowed with great administrative qualities and a keen attention to detail. He would discuss the schemes dissecting all their details with colleagues and officers before arriving at a final call; assessing financial and logistical viability being his chief concerns. The secret of his success lay in being a team player who believed in creating consensus around his decisions. Far from being authoritarian, Kalaignar used consultations and personal charm to win over dissenting voices, if any, in his government. He was a far-sighted visionary, who was quick to understand political undercurrents and opportunities much ahead of his rivals.
Kalaignar was born to a poor family of the Isai Vellalar caste, considered to be Shudras. A voracious reader and gifted writer, he began his career as a scriptwriter for Tamil films and soon got hooked to the popular Dravidian movement of his time. He not only understood the caste dynamics early in his life but also made it a recurring theme of his film scripts and political speeches. He propagated socialist ideas through his films and ignited a popular movement in line with the Dravidian ideology that stood for doing away with the predominance of Brahminism in society. Besides strengthening the anti-Brahmin Dravidian movement, Kalaignar was also at the forefront of protests against the imposition of Hindi as the chief official language. Asserting the pride of Tamil nationalism, he denounced the hegemony of North India and advocated for the recognition of the cultural and linguistic diversity of the country, a theme that echoed with all other non-Hindi states. Kalaignar's political career was groomed by Periyar EV Ramasamy and CN Annadurai, the two political ideologues who shaped the political contours of Tamil Nadu as much as the rest of South India. Since he became president of DMK in 1969, Kalaignar continued to head the party till his death, showing no sign of fatigue or lack of enthusiasm.
Though his chief political ideology centred around his opposition to the prevalent Brahminism and hegemony of North India, he was not an outsider to national politics. His unequivocal stand for greater autonomy, for his state in particular and other states in general, never bordered on rebellion. In a sense, by raising these issues, he brought South Indian politics to the mainstream. His nephew Murasoli Maran was a Parliamentarian for 36 years and a Union Minister three times. DMK had two ministers in the NDA government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. His eldest son from the second marriage, MK Alagiri, was a Cabinet Minister of Chemicals and Fertilizers while Murasoli Maran's son Dayanidhi Maran, who won Lok Sabha elections twice from Chennai (Central) constituency was the Telecom Minister in the last UPA government. Another important DMK leader, TR Balu, has been a central minister holding the portfolios of Petroleum and Natural Gas, Non-conventional Energy Sources, Environment and Forests and Shipping and Road Transport and Highways. DMK's Andimuthu Raja too has been a central minister multiple times. Though Karunanidhi never contested a Lok Sabha election or became a central minister himself, he lost no opportunity in ensuring that his party representatives were a part of the central government. DMK was a part of governments led by VP Singh, Deve Gowda, IK Gujral, Atal Bihar Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. Through DMK's participation in successive central governments, Karunanidhi landed a fair share of central projects, ensuring high-quality road links to all major cities and a significant improvement in FDI in IT and manufacturing sectors. Though ensconced in prioritising state politics, Karunanidhi's influence in the power corridors of Delhi never faded.
Karunanidhi's first wife Padmavathi passed away in 1944, leaving behind a son MK Muthu. He married Dayalu Ammal in 1948 with whom he had three sons MK Alagiri, MK Stalin and MK Tamilarasu and a daughter MK Selvi. During an election campaign in the 1960s, he fell in love with Rajathi Ammal and long before their relationship was made public, Rajathi Ammal gave birth to a baby girl, Kanimozhi. When someone asked for the name of the father, she revealed the name of Karunanidhi. This created a political storm in the conservative Tamil Nadu politics. He later married Rajathi Ammal as per a tradition started by DMK known as the 'Swayam Maryada Kalyamam' meaning 'Marriage of Self-Respect'. According to the tradition, the marriage is solemnised by seeking the blessings of elders in the party, doing away with the role of a priest or court formalities. Karunanidhi was often criticised by opposition leaders for the pressure on him from his two wives. He is said to be spending the morning with one wife and the evening with the other. He referred to Dayalu Ammal as Manaivi (wife) and Rajathi Ammal as Thunaivi (companion).
But, the most enduring image of Karunanidhi relates to his arrest by the J Jayalalitha government on June 30, 2001. Amid cacophonic drama, the DMK chief was woken up by the state police at 1.45 am at his residence, roughed up and arrested for irregularities in the construction of nine flyovers in Chennai. With MK Stalin as the City mayor, DMK was in control of Chennai Municipal Corporation. Union Minister and nephew of Karunanidhi, Murasoli Maran, was also injured in the scuffle. MK Stalin, who was the prime accused in the case was absconding for some time before finally surrendering. As per the clippings of Karunanidhi's arrest telecast by SUN TV in its special news bulletin, Karunanidhi was physically lifted by the police while he was screaming that the police would kill him. He was dragged down the stairs of his house. As he protested against the arrest, one of the policemen pushed him down.
In his power tussle with J Jayalalitha, Karunanidhi and his partymen were accused of using expletives and sexist comments against Jayalalitha. In March 1989, after a violent clash between AIADMK and DMK members in the Legislative Assembly, a DMK minister was accused of physically assaulting Jayalalitha. In the assault, the loose end of Jayalalitha's sari was pulled out and perhaps that marked the beginning of Jayalalitha's authoritative attitude and a life-long enmity with the Karunanidhi family.
Today, with both Amma and Kalaignar resting peacefully in their graves, Tamil Nadu may have left behind an era of livid enmity – but, it has also left behind a time of political robustness. In a sense, the conflicting guardians had ensured that the southern state stood tall against the virulent diktats of the north. As they now rest at the Marina Beach, one only hopes that the strength of their personalities helps us see through these dark times of Hindi hegemony.