In Muthuvel Karunanidhi's passing, Tamil Nadu has lost the last of its Titans.
Yet, he leaves behind a party that son Stalin can lead with greater comfort, and a state which cannot ignore his real contributions to the socio-economic uplift -- be it urban housing, slum clearance, upgraded and nationalised end-to-end affordable road transport, concretised rural roads -- across the board, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
Edhaiyum thaangum idhayam vendum endraai,
Idhanai thaanga aedhu Anna emakku idhayam...
Quoting mentor, party founder and then chief minister, C N Annadurai, then deputy and Tamil Nadu minister, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, penned a long poem in Tamil, when the former succumbed to cancer in February 1969, two years after he had led the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam to electoral power in the state, then going by the British given name of ‘Madras’.
Quoting Annadurai (or ‘Anna’, elder brother) who wished all his ‘thambis’ (or ‘younger brothers’) a ‘brave heart’, Karunanidhi wrote in his poem: ‘We, however, do not have a brave heart to bear this', the loss of Annadurai. Chosen by Karunanidhi, the epitaph on Annadurai’s samadhi in Chennai’s famed Marina sands reads thus: Edhaiyum thaangum idhayam ingeye urangugiradhu (the brave heart is resting here).
Many feathers adorned the hat of Muthuvel Karunanidhi (1924-2018) through his long and illustrious film and political career. But nothing could match his never-say-die braveheart, which would not give up even as Death kept knocking at his door for months now, and politico-electoral battles tossed him up and down like a boat caught in a stormy sea.
Decades of later-day politics tended to cloud his cinematic achievements, but even leaving out his last two years, when he was Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president only in name, Karunanidhi was also the longest serving 'elected chief' of any recognised political outfit with substantial voter and cadre following, across the democratic world.
From 1969 on, when Annadurai died in office and party general secretary Karunanidhi stepped into his shoe(s).
If friend-turned-political adversary the charismatic actor M G Ramachandran (MGR), or a one-time loyalist Vaiko, had to lead a party, they had to found one of their own -- the more successful All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in the case of the former, and less-than-successful Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in the case of the latter.
But MuKa, or ‘Kalaignar’, and ‘Thalaivar’ or ‘leader’ to his cadres, as he grew in stature inside the party and in their estimation, he would take all political adversaries seriously, and fight it out in his own, inimitable way. Win, he may some, lose he may even more, but this man was not one to give up a fight.
When Annadurai addressed the party second-line leaders and cadres alike as ‘thambis’, he had imagined the DMK as an ‘HUF’, or ‘Hindu undivided family’ of sorts, though the term should have been an anomaly in context of the ‘anti-god, anti-Brahmin, rationalist’ school of Periyar E V Ramaswami Naicker, where they all schooled together before walking out on the mentor.
In real terms, the DMK 'family' thus became a weakness for Karunanidhi, when in office or otherwise. But in personal life and politics, his own family became a weakness not only for him as the party boss, but also for the party because he was the unassailable, unchallenged boss, always and all through, till Death finally overtook him.
If in more recent years, the DMK lost power even when the Karunanidhi government(s) of the time was seen as 'performance-driven', it owed to his inducting family members, one after the other, beyond politician-son M K Stalin who had joined the party in the early '70s and had stayed in the frontline, facing adversities of every kind.
It had all begun with Chief Minister Karunanidhi using rules in the book and outside, at times, to promote his first-born, Mu Ka Muthu, as a film-star, apprehending that supporter and popular party treasurer M G Ramachandran could throw up a challenge to his leadership any time soon.
The actor-son and the accompanying Karunanidhi attempt both bombed, and it only sped up MGR’s determination to split with Karunanidhi and float the All-India Anna DMK in 1972.
The rest, including MGR's star going on the ascendant, leading up to the 1977 assembly polls and staying on as chief minister till his death in 1987 -- with his place in politics, though not always in power, taken by his political heir Jayalalithaa Jayaram, are all part of Tamil Nadu’s contemporary history.
Included in that contemporary Dravidian/Tamil Nadu political history is also the fact, how then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s purported reasoning that any split in the stronger DMK ally would only help her re-united Congress party to stage a come-back, if only she could persuade mentor-turned-rival K Kamaraj to join in her efforts.
Politics and people have different ways to behave than planned and predicted. Just as Karunanidhi failed in the case of MGR completely, Indira Gandhi’s hopes that a split in the DMK would help a re-united Congress, too, bombed.
Now, in the post-Jaya, post-Karunanidhi era, there are lessons in this for other national parties, who may -- or, may not -- have schemes and ideas of their own, concluding (and hastily so) that in the absence of iconic leaders of the MGR, Jaya and Karunanidhi kind, they could make fresh forays in the coming months and years.
That way, the three were creatures of socio-political circumstances of their time, not necessarily filmi background which alone gets focussed outside the state, and or even among Tamil Nadu’s middle class elite, with no clue of the events and environment around them.
Entering politics in his early teens, as a platform speaker for Periyar’s Dravidar Kazhagam, the ideological forebear of the ‘Dravidian political movement’ that had however commenced earlier with the advent of the Justice Party and government in the 1920 elections to the Madras Presidency in what was then British India, Karunanidhi’s socio-political journey was as challenging as it was fascinating.
Just as Periyar would adapt many of Gandhiji’s ‘nationalist’ political methods and approaches to suit local ‘Dravidian’ socio-economic conditions, his younger followers, starting with Annadurai, would also take serious note of the way then Congress leaders in the Tamil-speaking areas of Madras Presidency taking to the theatre and more nascent talkie-cinema, to promote their ideology.
The ‘talkie’ in particular was the right thing at the right time for the Dravidian GenX of the time. Though before Annadurai and A V P Asaithambi, the likes of Elangovan had taken to the song-and-dance historical and mythological Tamil cinema, to address social issues that were becoming increasingly popular, it was the Karunanidhi-‘Sivaji’ Ganesan combination, starting with Parasakthi (1952) that made a big difference and had a bigger impact.
Before Parasakthi, Karunanidhi had written the story, script and dialogues for a few films, including later day bête noire MGR’s Rajakumari (1947), Abhimanyu (1948), Marudhanaattu Ilavarasi and Manthirikumari (both 1950).
But it was the Karunanidhi-Sivaji Ganesan combination, the latter delivering the former’s long and tongue-twisting dialogues, often without re-takes in an era without ‘post-production’ dubbing facilities and the tribe called dubbing artistes, which completely drew away Tamil cinema -- and also politics -- away from the past.
The two protagonists of the ‘new Tamil film’ movement, if it could be called so, never looked back after Parasakthi. However, in the case of Sivaji Ganesan (1928-2001), his later-day entry into direct politics only bombed, again and again.
It was Karunanidhi’s over-confidence and undue estimation of his reach and capabilities -- often oiled by those around him and the Tamil media of the time -- that may have caused his fading away from the celluloid world altogether.
In his later days as chief minister, Karunanidhi would mix politics and filmdom, often at the instance of ‘father-less’ grand nephews Dayanidhi and Kalanidhi Marans, sons of his politician-nephew, ‘Murasoli’ Maran, and also brought in his filmi downfall by not being able to adapt himself to changing viewer tastes of the 21st century.
That his script-writing skills went down pipe after he had honed them to attract the new-generation viewers of the ’80s with the hugely successful Paalaivana Rojakkal (1985) is what was saddening about the man.
Yet, despite most of the subsequent 14 films, including the last one, Ponnar Sankar (2011) bombing without trace, Karunanidhi, the script-writer with a social conscience, did recover much of the lost glory with the ongoing tele-serial Ramanujar on the life and times of the 12th century social-reformer and religious preacher, the preceptor of ‘Visishtadwaita’ philosophy.
In a way, the tele-serial was Karunanidhi’s way of acknowledging the need for the new-generation DMK to move away from his ardent and adamant ‘rationalist’ policies, including Periyar’s selective hatred for Hindu religion, gods and practices.
His choice of the subject, of a Vaishnavite acharya who boldly took to converting Harijans to Brahminism, might have been the ideological base for Karunanidhi choosing Sri Ramanujacharya as the subject for his tele-serial, but it did serve his political purposes at least partially.
The Brahmin community, which had huge reservations about Karunanidhi owing to what they considered his bias against the religion and caste, were beginning to take a re-look, though not wholly convinced until he exited the scene.
It was also the problem that Karunanidhi suffered from.
Ahead of the 1996 elections, which he won after the DMK's defeat five years earlier in the aftermath of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, Karunanidhi began wearing a yellow shawl.
It was reportedly based on astrological advice, but he would discount it. Yet, he would not remove it almost till the end, other than replacing it with a black shawl, but only for a day -- no explanations sought or really given.
While MGR, who also grew up in the same Dravidian rationalist political milieu, had no problem acknowledging his own religion and personal preferences about gods and temples (Sri Mookambikai Temple, Karnataka) and Jayalalithaa did not care to even hide her interest in astrology-dictated pujas and parikarams, Karunanidhi could only remain a closet believer till the end.
An inherent sense of insecurity has been the bane of most politicians. In the Tamil Nadu context, MGR and Jaya displayed it by shifting and changing their second line all the time, keeping them at a distance and on tenterhooks all the time. Karunanidhi may have gone one step further, especially after his experiences with MGR (1972) and Vaiko, 20 years later in 1993, to keep family insiders in positions of power.
Mu Ka Muthu was a non-starter, and would later blame it all on Karunanidhi, to the extent that Jaya as chief minister would hand him over a cheque for Rs 500,000 in fixed deposit, for his upkeep from her AIADMK party found. They did make up in later years, though the father and son did not meet as often as the rest of Karunanidhi’s children by his two living wives.
Of the rest, Stalin had been in DMK from his student days, and had been imprisoned and injured during the Emergency -- just as cousin Maran, senior party second-liners like ‘Arcot’ N Veerasamy, from whom he would take over as DMK treasurer decades later.
Elder son M K Azhagiri, who in later years would not face a question in Parliament as the all-important chemicals and fertilisers minister in the UPA-I Cabinet, and step sister, Kanimozhi, who went on to become a DMK member of the Rajya Sabha, and grand nephew Dayanidhi Maran, were as unacceptable to many party cadres as to the larger section of voters even more.
While Kanimozhi did become partly acceptable when she seemingly conceded Stalin’s seniority and also ready acceptance across the party hierarchy in their father’s place, Azhagiri continues to remain ‘sacked’ from the DMK, as dictated by Karunnidhi when he was known to be in full control of his faculties, years ago.
The rise and fall of Kanimozhi and Dayanidhi were of Karunanidhi’s own making, but in the process the rest of them all took the party too with them, in successive elections.
It’s not as if Karunanidhi himself had not faced corruption charges and more while in power. But he went to prison, and for relative short terms, early on in his political career, but for political offences.
The Sarkaria Commission appointed by Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime, after dismissing the duly-elected Karunanidhi government at the instance of MGR’s memorandum, listed out a series of corruption charges, as proven -- but neither was he tried, nor sent to prison, as Jaya would suffer in later years.
Possibly after Prakash Singh Badal in Punjab and Om Prakash Chautala in Haryana, Karunanidhi was/is the only chief minister in the state whose government was dismissed twice.
In his case, the first dismissal came in the midst of Emergency, and there were as many sympathisers on his side in the state as there were critics, who backed political rival MGR and his AIADMK.
The second dismissal came about in January 1991, owing to the ‘anti-national activities’ as then Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar would tell Parliament later.
The post-facto justification, if at all came months later in the form of the LTTE’s assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in the midst of election 1991, which also saw the DMK hit the nadir.
To Karunanidhi’s tested leadership, and Stalin’s untiring field work -- as during the long vanvas when MGR was in power -- did the DMK owe its re-birth, and not without sufficient support from Jayalalithaa, who was the chief minister at the time.
It was also a weakness that Karunanidhi would display for long, both in power and outside. To be accepted as the sole leader of world Tamils most of whom were Sri Lankans and with a greater affinity to the LTTE and Velupillai Prabhakaran, its supremo.
In balancing both, Karunanidhi would lose both -- the ‘leader of Tamils’ title, which became Prabhakaran’s in time, and passed on to Jayalalithaa, of all persons, after the latter’s demise.
It was an irony that Karunanidhi would live with till his death, even as the increasingly peripheral pan-Tamil groups, especially in Tamil Nadu, got even more marginalised but would end up branding MuKa as a ‘Thamizh dhrogi’ (‘betrayer of Tamil cause’) in the context of the DMK continuing in power under UPA-II at the height of Sri Lanka’s conclusive ‘Eelam War IV’ and also sticking on to his chief minister’s post.
In contrast, Jaya had the guts to shoo away the pan-Tamil groups when she wanted, and gallantly accepted the ‘Tamil leader’ position, without fighting or working for it beforehand.
It would be only after returning to power in 2011 that she would sound the Tamil bugle more frequently and more loudly than even in her first Independence Day speech as chief minister in 1991, that one referring to the ‘Katchchativu issue’ relating to Sri Lanka.
Twice bitten by the imposition of President’s rule, and branded as anti-national and/or corrupt, Karunanidhi was thrice shy. It suited his adversaries better.
It also meant that studying his long political history and personal predilection, they could position him and plan their next move -- and invariably, he would fall for it.
In his place, Jayalalithaa, having presented herself first as a woman-victim in the midst of male adversaries, took to fighting the Centre, all in the name of the Tamil and Tamil Nadu cause.
It was thus that on Sri Lanka and the fishers issue, Cauvery waters and whatever else, Jaya began indicating a Tamil angle to it, and would blame it all on the Karunanidhi regime of the time.
In a generation where social media sans serious research became the sole reference point for setting the political mood, Karunanidhi was often the loser, as against the international pan-Tamil community, which was more active against him than even they might have been in fighting for their own cause, especially in and on Sri Lanka.
In all this, Karunanidhi’s early contributions as a litterateur (though praised as more than what actually was, by his acolytes) and his penchant for political repartee and pun-intended use of spoken Tamil became the greater losers.
In his parting, Karunanidhi may have achieved one thing -- of restoring the DMK to its political and electoral relevance, unlike as was threatened in the years after the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, and after the ‘Coimbatore serial blasts’, when he was still chief minister.
Karunanidhi could also take credit for meeting most socio-economic goals of the Dravidian movement, long after the Justice Party parent had given way to the more vibrant Congress rival at the height of the freedom movement -- much of it during his first two terms in office (1969-76).
Yet, he would not -- rather, he could not -- accept the reality of the success. Instead, the failure to guide the DMK to rediscover itself to the changing times and needs also contributed to the imminent appearance of MGR as a political alternate first -- and Jaya, years later.
With MGR gone as a worthy political rival, Karunanidhi could find competitive solace in the emergence of Jaya. Her exit might have left a vacuum in his own political thoughts and processes, just as the rest of the state, starting with her AIADMK, have felt.
Like Jaya, Karunanidhi has left a void in the DMK -- he would not let son Stalin take over in good time, even while he himself was tied to a wheel-chair for 10 years.
Yet, he has left behind a party that Stalin can lead with greater comfort, and a state which cannot ignore his real contributions to the socio-economic uplift across the board -- urban housing, slum clearance, upgraded and nationalised end-to-end affordable road transport, concretised rural roads -- on which his successors, MGR and Jaya, would build upon, with he himself steeping in alternatively, to add more.
It was thus that Karunanidhi improved upon MGR’s nutritious meal scheme, whenever he returned to power, unlike others where ‘Dravidian competitiveness’ would kill each other’s initiative while in office.
This he extended to take over from Jaya’s pro-reform, FDI drive of the early ’90s, starting with the automobile sector, extending greater facilitation to the IT/ITE industry, which too created jobs and generated incomes, for the individual as also the government.
It was such revenues that were calculated to fund the various subsidy schemes that he had introduced, such as free cooking gas and television, with the 21st century rural and urban housewives in mind, and free laptops for children.
Many of them would be studied and adapted by other governments, though the national media only remembers ‘Amma idli’ and other freebies offered by Jaya and MGR.
Rather, more often than not they only had criticism for Karunanidhi, for re-introducing liquor to a new generation after the pre-Independence Rajaji government had imposed prohibition in the then Madras Presidency, which was followed up by the post-Independence Congress governments with equal vigour.
Unjust and unkind, as life always is!
Photographs: Courtesy, Kalaignar89 on Twitter.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.