Kalaignar was always treated with love, respect by New Delhi’s power elite
It was a year in which Tamil Nadu was battling one of its flood crises. Then-chief minister M Karunanidhi asked all Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) MPs to seek help from the government of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
The next day, in the ongoing monsoon session of Parliament, a few DMK members stood up and tried to explain — mostly in Tamil — the plight of the state.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then an Opposition leader, rose to his feet. He requested the DMK MPs to sit down and said, “In Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi is in power. He has a lot of Karuna (compassion) but he is short of Nidhi (money). Please give the state government more money.”
Indira Gandhi obliged.
Karunanidhi’s political life may have centred around Tamil Nadu, but that never came in the way of his developing a rapport with national leaders across parties. Former President Pranab Mukherjee was a close friend of his for more than 45 years, and he enjoyed a great friendship with Vajpayee as well as Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
The DMK patriarch trusted Sonia Gandhi. Not many people know that he was instrumental in naming the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). “The original name has ‘secular alliance’ in it. Karunanidhi, an atheist throughout his life, told Sonia Gandhi that in Tamil, the word secular means non-religious and people may not like it. It was he who suggested to make it progressive alliance,” said Congress leader Jairam Ramesh.
Sonia treated Karunanidhi with respect. Be it selecting a candidate for the presidential election or on any other issue, he would be consulted first.
Mukherjee’s oldest political friend was undoubtedly Karunanidhi. Mukherjee was still a member of Bangla Congress — a local outfit in Bengal — and a newcomer in the Rajya Sabha when the two met. He was invited to speak at a conference organised by Karunanidhi.
When the DMK threatened to quit the UPA in 2012, Dayanidhi Maran even announced the time when DMK ministers would meet then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to put in their papers. Mukherjee’s junior minister in the finance ministry, SS Palanimanickam, came to bid him adieu. The senior minister came around the big table in his office to hug Palanimanickam.
“Don’t worry, you are not going anywhere,” Mukherjee told him.
Mukherjee then went to Gandhi’s office and sought her permission to handle the crisis. An hour later, Karunanidhi said the problem had been resolved. The DMK, however, didn’t last much longer in the Congress-led coalition, pulling out the following year by when Mukherjee had become President.