Muthuvel Karunanidhi - an excellent orator, a brilliant scriptwriter and a shrewd politician, is a shining example of communication skills driving a person to life-long power, glory and positions of power. In politics, craftiness is a quality that can make the difference between success and failure. And this skill and ability, 94-year-old Karunanidhi had in plenty.
Karunanidhi’s craftiness came to the fore in 1969 when he outfoxed V R Nedunchezhiyan, the number two to the then chief minister C Annadurai and became the Chief Minister of the state and captured the DMK that he ran till he breathed his last.
Ironically, Karunanidhi passed away even as the DMK was celebrating his half-century as head of the party, the longest tenure any Indian has had as a head of a recognised political party. Although he was not seen in public for the past over three years or so due to ailments, he maintained a tight grip over the party.
Over the years, Karunanidhi survived two major splits and held the party together at trying times when the DMK was out of power for 12-long years between 1977 and 1989. Now, this responsibility falls on his political heir MK Stalin.
Karunanidhi, seen as a wily old fox of Indian politics, grabbed an opportunity to influence national politics and sided with Indira Gandhi and supported her minority government that she was running after the Great Split in the Congress party of 1969.
In 1971, he decisively won in Tamil Nadu but subsequently fell foul with Indira Gandhi who dismissed his government in January 1976 on corruption charges. Karunanidhi had opposed the imposition of emergency and Gandhi was only looking for an excuse to dismiss his government. Gandhi saw in MG Ramachandran, whom Karunanidhi had ousted fearing a threat to his own position, a natural ally.
In the elections in 1977, Karunanidhi was trounced and MGR became the chief minister and confined the former to the opposition benches till 1987. As long as MGR lived, Karunanidhi had to play a waiting game and only after MGR’s death and the consequent splits and power struggle in MGR’s AIADMK could Karunanidhi enter the corridors of power again and became the chief minister in 1989. But in two years’ time, the Chandrashekhar government, supported by the Congress, dismissed Karunanidhi’s government again, this time ostensibly for Karunanidhi’s pro-LTTE actions.
In the elections that ensued in 1991, Karunanidhi was battered and Jayalalithaa became the chief minister for the first time.
Since then, Tamil Nadu has seen cyclical alternating governments headed by Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa, till Karunanidhi lost an election successively in 2016. Jayalalithaa broke the anti-incumbency factor and got re-elected as the chief minister, a feat no one had accomplished other than MGR in Tamil Nadu.
Karunanidhi losing touch with voters
Party leaders and cadres wanted to see “tata” (grandfather) as many refer to him fondly in the Chief Minister’s chair again. Karunanidhi too was wanting to become the Chief Minister again and was confident too that it was his turn in 2016, but Jayalalithaa outfoxed the “old fox” by a strategy that was so obviously visible but none could see. She ensured that the vote against her split in many directions and defeated DMK. The vote difference between the AIADMK and DMK was wafer thin and the election could have gone either way.
Was Kalaignar losing touch? The younger elements in the party wanted Karunanidhi to step aside for his elder son MK Stalin.
Karunanidhi’s death has placed the responsibility of leading the party formally on his son Stalin.
His long list of achievements and people-oriented welfare centric governance, cannot, however, hide his misplaced support to the LTTE. “It was one of his greatest follies,” opined a political analyst.
“But equally baffling was Karunanidhi’s silent inaction during the Genocide of innocent Tamils in North Sri Lanka in 2009 that cost him and his party popularity,” said Prof Ramu Manivannan of the Madras University in an assessment of Karunanidhi’s politics. This is one big setback from which Karunanidhi and DMK have not recovered fully,” he said, adding, “Karunanidhi was in alliance with the Congress at the Centre then.”
In 2016, Jayalalithaa may have succeeded in splitting the votes ranged against her in different directions to pave the way for her stupendous victory breaking the cyclical nature of electoral history in Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi’s defeat was also largely attributed to his failure to rope in Captain Vijayakanth to his fold, which would have given the DMK a momentum earlier on in the campaign.
Also, Karunanidhi could do little to blunt Jayalalithaa’s charge that the DMK was in the central government for a long time and did nothing for Tamil Nadu. The charge stuck. A sign of losing touch, perhaps, of Karunanidhi. Had he declared Stalin as the Chief Ministerial candidate, the outcome could have been different, felt another analyst.
Another negative aspect of Karunanidhi’s reign is the corruption taint—with the Sarkaria Commission dubbing his regime as indulging in scientific corruption, and more recently the 2G scam and sundry other scandals involving Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi, DMK’s dalit poster boy A Raja, former union Telecom Minister Dayanidhi Maran and the like. To be fair, A Raja and Kanimozhi have come out clean in the 2G case and unlike Jayalalithaa, Karunanidhi was never convicted even in a single case.
Able administrator, flexible and open to ideas
On the positive side, Karunanidhi was an able administrator, who was both accessible as well as flexible. An industrialist who dealt with DMK and AIADMK governments recalled “with Karunanidhi, you could put across your viewpoint, differ with him and argue. His answer may still be no, but you can speak your mind out. With Amma, you know what will happen.”
The five-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi personally never lost any election he contested, ever since he won for the first time in assembly elections in 1951. He has won all the 13 elections he contested in, the latest being the 2016 general elections from Tiruvarur.
The Karunanidhi versus Jayalalithaa political rivalry that dramatised Tamil Nadu politics has had its shameful lows too.
If Jayalalithaa was ‘manhandled’ inside assembly during the DMK regime and corruption cases were hurled against her, she took full revenge by getting Tamil Nadu police constables to pull out Karunanidhi from his house at midnight and threw him in central jail. The rivalry only got bitter as the time passed.
With Jayalalithaa gone, Karunanidhi’s dream of seeing his party in power could well be around the corner. For one, the DMK succession plan is clear—Karunanidhi had anointed Stalin as his political successor and declared it several times leaving none in doubt who would succeed him as party’s leader.
Karunanidhi’s inability to control his family forces and his inability to master the English language and his anti-Hindi stance perhaps robbed him of a greater role in national politics. He, however, played a key supporting role in national politics and slept with both the Congress and the BJP by becoming a member of the UPA and the NDA dispensations at the Centre.
But he maintained his toughness that came with his own political strength within the state—unyielding in the state and yet cornering lucrative ministerial positions at the Centre. He often used the threat to withdraw support to a telling effect, as results showed.
“But for all the Tamil identity politics he professed, and power he wielded at the Centre, Karunanidhi accomplished very little for the state as compared to Jayalalithaa, who spoke little but achieved more,” Prof Manivannan felt.
Karunanidhi’s contributions in the literary field – with scores of poems, novels, plays, articles and communication tools propagating ideologies made him a natural choice and recipient of the honorific title of Kalaignar or loosely translated – Scholar of Arts.
Easily, the tallest TN leader today
Easily, one of the tallest political leaders from Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi straddled the world of cinema, literature, poetry and politics for over seven decades and was in the thick of the political and social action from his childhood – when he was just 14 organising local youth into a reformist organisation. Karunanidhi was drawn towards the ideology of Periyar (EV Ramasamy) who founded Dravida Kazhagam. He shot into prominence when he organised anti-Hindi agitation in 1937-40.
Karunanidhi had recognised the true power of communications – he used to bring out a handwritten newspaper Manavar Nesan and later formed the first student wing of the Dravidian movement called Tamil Nadu Manavar Mandram. A publication he began as a monthly, Murasoli, is now a weekly journal and the official organ of the DMK.
Karunanidhi hitched his political fortunes with CN Annadurai when he broke away from DK to float DMK in 1949. In 1957 he entered the assembly and soon became the party treasurer and in 1962 became the deputy leader of the opposition. When DMK won the 1967 assembly polls, Annadurai made him a minister. When Annadurai passed away in 1969, Karunanidhi outsmarted all the others to emerge as the chief minister.
Karunanidhi brooked no nonsense from any of the party leaders and ensured that his son Stalin’s route was clear. Vaiko, a fiery speaker, was perceived as a threat to Stalin in the party and ousted. His preference for family and blood relatives for position in party and power, in the state and at Centre, was a point that Jayalalithaa exploited to the hilt in 2011, 2014 general elections and later in the 2016 assembly elections, said a professor of political science in a government college.
Bureaucrats who have seen him up close credit him with native intelligence, flexibility and an openness to ideas.
Karunanidhi is survived by his two wives –Dayalu, Rajathi- sons M.K.Muthu, Alagiri, Stalin, M.K.Tamilarasu and daughters S.Selvi and Kanimozhi and grandchildren.