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Capital gains

As the DMK finds itself in the middle of one of India’s biggest scams, a look at how M Karunanidhi exploited coalition politics for most of the past 15 years to wield power at the Centre and expand his family’s influence in Tamil Nadu.

delhi Updated: Nov 21, 2010 00:55 IST
Shekhar Iyer

Last Sunday was like any other for 85-year-old Muthuvel Karunanidhi, until the phone rang at his Chennai residence. At the other end was Pranab Mukherjee, the Congress finance minister, with a terse message for the head of the Dravida Munnetra Kazahagam (DMK), which is part of the coalition government at the Centre.

The Comptroller and Auditor General had damned A Raja, the party’s telecom minister, for bending rules while allocating 2G spectrum to telecom companies, Mukherjee said. The report was to be placed in Parliament in the next few days. Could Karunanidhi make it easier for the government by asking Raja to resign?

Stunned, the DMK leader dialled P Chidambaram. But the Congress home minister repeated Mukherjee’s request.

The two ministers had hinted about Raja’s exit before. Yet Karunanidhi was not ready to sacrifice him. After all, it was with the support of the DMK leader’s second wife, Rajathi Ammal, and their daughter, Kanimozhi, that the 47-year-old dalit lawyer had risen rapidly to the top of a largely geriatric party. (His first wife is Dayalu Ammal.)

So Raja, who was in Chennai, was still defiant before boarding a flight back to Delhi.

An angry Mukherjee immediately dialled Karunanidhi again. “He must go,” he is reported to have said, more than little sternly. “You must tell him.”

Choking in anger, Karunanidhi called Raja, only to find out he had left Chennai. When Raja arrived at the Delhi airport to catch his flight, Karunanidhi asked him to hand his resignation in to the prime minister.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave Raja a 20-minute audience, insiders say. “Why am I being singled out?” Raja is supposed to have asked. Singh patted him on the back.

In the past 15 years, for most of which the DMK has been part of the ruling coalition at the Centre, this is perhaps the first time that Karunanidhi has not managed to get his way. The Congress, after all, also needed his party’s support in Parliament.

This time, a lot is at stake. For one, Karunanidhi’s health is declining. More important, Tamil Nadu goes to the polls in May, so he cannot risk the Congress withdrawing its support in the state.

But most crucially, he needs a foothold at the Centre. For on the peripheries of national consciousness, he has single-mindedly exploited coalition politics to dramatically expand his family’s interests in his home state.

Alagiri, Karunanidhi’s eldest son from his first wife, and Stalin, the second son from the same union, dominate the party. Their sons, in turn, have huge interests in film production and distribution in Tamil Nadu.

But the multi-millionaire Marans, Dayanidhi and Kalanidhi, Karunanidhi’s grand nephews, are the ones who have shone in business, although they lack the political sagacity of their father, Murasoli Maran, the man responsible for taking the party to the national stage (see ‘Family Matters’ below).

The advantages of having a foothold in the Centre are perhaps why Karunanidhi did not withdraw from the ruling coalition last week, as many party members thought he might.

After all, they have less to lose from not being at the Centre. Many have watched as the party metamorphosed from a radical movement to one that has virtually become a family concern. It’s another matter, of course, that the second generation has splintered into different camps (see below).

Karunanidhi first stepped into the national political arena in December 1989, when his party joined the VP Singh government in order to push Indian troops to pull out of Sri Lanka, as demanded by the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam. (See above.)

Since then, he has weathered many crises. As recently as last year, after the 2009 election, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh refused to take back TR Baalu and Raja into his cabinet because they faced corruption charges. Karunanidhi retaliated by skipping the swearing-in ceremony. Eventually, a compromise was worked out: Baalu stayed out, while Raja returned as telecom minister. Family matters | A central force