Kalaignar Karunanidhi dies in Chennai: The colossus of Dravidian politics
When the man in his trademark dark glasses would start a speech in his gravelly voice with the words “En uyirinum melaana anbu udan pirappukkale” (my brethren, who I consider greater than my life) in chaste Tamil, the large crowds that would assemble to hear him would go wild in rapture, cheering him on.
It was a line that Muthuvel Karunanidhi would use at the beginning of every speech – one his Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party workers would never tire of. He would electrify the party cadre with his acerbic wit and the vitriol he would shower on his opponents.
Karunanidhi died on Tuesday at the age of 94 after striding the political stage of Tamil Nadu like a colossus for nearly six decades, personally undefeated in any election he contested, whatever be the fortunes of the DMK. He was elected 13 times to the Tamil Nadu legislature and was chief minister five times.
Given his humble origins, not many would have given him a chance of becoming one key pole around which the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu would go on to flourish.
Watch: Karunanidhi: Scriptwriter to maverick politician, the many faces of Kalaignar
Devout Hindus pray to Dakishnamurthy a form of Shiva considered to be the Adi Guru (first teacher). Dakshin in Sanskrit means South and when Karunanidhi’s parents named him Dakshinamurthy, they would not have imagined the influence that he would eventually wield on politics and even the art and culture of South India.
His parents were from the Isai Vellalar caste of temple musicians who would play the nadaswaram (a double reed wind instrument) and mridangam (a percussion instrument) as well as double up as barbers on special occasions. Experiences of caste oppression in what he saw as a Brahmin-dominated system made a young Dakshinamurthy identify himself strongly with the oppressed classes. He became a member of the strong anti-Brahmin moment in the state at a very young age.
Inspired by the Justice Party’s ideals of social equality, rational thought and self-respect, Karunanidhi became an activist at the age of 14. An early clue to his prodigious talent, both for organising and writing, came in the form of an organisation he started for the youngsters of his neighbourhood in Nagapattinam district, as well as ahandwritten newspaper called Manavar Nesan that he brought out.
So inspired was he by the fiery speeches of Azhagirisamy of the Justice Party, that he eventually named one of his sons Azhagiri. In 1938, when the Indian National Congress led by C Rajagopalchari introduced Hindi as a compulsory subject in the then Madras Presidency, the Justice Party lead by E V Ramaswamy ‘Periyar’ and C.N. Annadurai protested, leading to an anti-Hindi agitation in which a young Karunanidhi participated. Pride in the Tamil language, culture, arts, history and its people’s past achievements drove much of Karunanidhi’s ideology.
In 1944, at the age of 20, he became a movie scriptwriter for Jupiter Pictures. The first movie that hit the screens for which he had written the script was Rajakumari, released in 1947. The leading man in that movie was none other than MG Ramachandran, who would become first a close friend and eventually a political arch foe whom he could never vanquish.
It was the 1952 movie Parasakthi starring another Tamil superstar, Shivaji Ganesan, that signalled the arrival of Karunanidhi as a cultural phenomenon. The powerful dialogues, the underlying theme of a campaign for a Dravidan nation against the backdrop of caste oppression, stirred the Tamil masses. Karunanidhi used the power of his pen to push the ideological line of the DMK – of justice, equality, rational thought, self-respect, Tamil pride and identity as well as anti-brahminism.
Even as his scriptwriting career soared to new heights (eventually he would go-on to write the scripts for 39 movies apart from poems, plays, novels and songs that led to the title of Kalaignar or The Artiste being conferred on him by fans)), his interest in and commitment to politics never flagged. When Annadurai left the Dravidar Kazhagam of Periyar to form the DMK, Karunanidhi threw in his lot with Anna.
In 1957, at the age of 33, Karunanidhi entered the Tamil Nadu assembly for the first time from the Kulithalai seat in Trichy. From then on, irrespective of the electoral fortunes of the party, Karunanidhi personally never lost an election. Within five years, he was deputy leader of the opposition and party treasurer. In 1967, when the DMK came to power, he was public works minister in Anna’s cabinet and after his political mentor died in 1969, he became the CM of the state for the first time, a feat he would go on to repeat four more times.
In 1972, MGR, who had done much to popularise the DMK’s ideology and its electoral symbol of the Rising Sun, left the party after differences with Karunanidhi and launched the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). In 1977, the AIADMK defeated DMK. From then on until the death of MGR a decade later, the DMK was confined to the political wilderness. Kalaignar tried propping up M K Muthu, his eldest son from his first wife Padmavathi, as an alternative to MGR, but that did not work.
In fact he was left heartbroken by the eventual defection of Muthu to the AIADMK over differences between the father and son. Although he initially opposed Indira Gandhi’s Emergency Rule and was a staunch critic of the misuse of Article 356 of the constitution (used by the Centre to dismiss state governments), Karunanidhi always had a love-hate relationship with Mrs. Gandhi and the Congress in general. He would align with the party or disassociate the DMK from the Congress based on his assessment of the need for an alliance.
None of it helped him come to power since the Congress decided to tie-up with the MGR-led AIADMK. It was only after succession pangs split the AIADMK in 1989 after MGR’s demise that Karunanidhi returned to power. It was during this tenure that he was credited with attracting automobile giants like Hyundai and Ford to set up a base in Tamil Nadu, helping establish a reputation as the auto capital of India for Chennai. He was also credited with helping set up TIDEL park which eventually became the information technology hub of the state, helping make Tamil Nadu the second largest IT exporter from India after neighbouring Karnataka. It was also under him in 1996 that Madras became Chennai.
AIADMK, which had recovered under MGR’s protégé and his leading lady in numerous movies, J Jayalalithaa, handed DMK a defeat in the 1991 elections after the Centre had dismissed the state government within two years of coming to power. Subsequently, power alternated between the two parties, till Jayalalithaa broke the jinx just six months before her death in December 2016 by retaining power. Even in the 2016 elections, Karunanidhi won his own Tiruvarur seat easily.
Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa had a testy – and one might even say inimical – political relationship, with each ensuring corruption cases were filed against the other when they were in power. The enmity went beyond the political; in one infamous example. a vindictive Jayalalithaa had Karunanidhi arrested in a midnight raid and manhandled by the police.
In the latter part of his career, Karunanidhi became ideologically more flexible and did not hesitate to tie up with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and even became a part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government. Even so, Karunanidhi kept the hackles of BJP supporters raised with his often irreverent comments. “Which engineering college did Ramar get a degree from,” he asked in a remark on the controversial Sethusamudram project, which was meant to create a shipping channel by dredging a walkway connecting India and Sri Lanka called Rama Setu.
While he shared a warm personal rapport with Vajpayee, he did not hesitate to switch sides to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in 2004.
Karunanidhi had an ability to switch alliances, whether it was with Congress-led UPA or BJP led-NDA, according to the DMK’s needs of the time. While a few corruption allegations dogged his career apart from charges of nepotism in promoting the interests of his nephews (the Marans of Sun TV fame), Karunanidhi until the end retained his connect with the Tamil masses. Until a few years ago, Karunanidhi would write regularly in the party mouthpiece ‘Murasoli’ and when his nephews, who ran Sun TV, fell out of his favour briefly, Karunanidhi launched ‘Kalaignar TV’ to maintain the connect.
His family life was as tumultuous as his politics was. After the death of his first wife Padmavati, Karuna married Dayalu Ammal, who is the mother of Azhagiri and Stalin. When taunted in the assembly about his relationship with Rajathi Ammal, whom he had met during a state-wide tour, he boldly declared “She is the mother of my daughter Kanimozhi.”
Although he has anointed his third son Stalin as his successor and expelled Azhagiri for indiscipline, the issue of succession in DMK is not fully settled. Azhagiri, who is seen as the strongman of the party’s southern base, operates out of Madurai.
It remains to be seen whether ‘Thangai Thalapathi’ (Golden Commander), as Stalin is fondly referred to by his followers, would be able to inherit the legacy of his father. July 26 marked the 50th year since Karunanidhi took the reins of the DMK.
With the death of Jayalalithaa in 2016 and now that of Karunanidhi, Tamil Nadu has come to the end of an era in its often tempestuous politics.
Filmstars Rajinikanth and Kamal Hassan are waiting in the wings to fill the vacuum, and it remains to be seen if Stalin has the ability to ensure that DMK stays relevant. The DMK’s Sun has set, will the son ensure its rise again?