‘Jayalalithaa had had her revenge. But Karunanidhi won the war’

An extract from Sandhya Ravishankar’s book on the DMK patriarch, and the acrimonious relationship the politician had with the AIADMK chief

In 1996, voters turned their back on her [Jayalalithaa]. Karunanidhi was again in the seat of power. He then initiated a series of corruption cases against Jayalalithaa. One such case was the colour TV scam, wherein colour TV sets were allegedly bought at prices higher than the market price, with the Jayalalithaa government allegedly making Rs 10.16 crore in the deal. On 7 December 1998, Jayalalithaa, Sasikala and seven others of the AIADMK were jailed for thirty days as hearings continued. During this period, her residence in Poes Garden, Chennai, was raided and the DMK’s propaganda channel, Sun TV, streamed live visuals of 30 kg of gold, including 400 bangles, over 100 wrist watches, 10,000 sarees and hundreds of pairs of footwear, amongst other dizzyingly expensive possessions.

It was also during the initial days of the Karunanidhi government that a Disproportionate Assets case was slapped on Jayalalithaa, Sasikala, Sasikala’s sister-in-law Ilavarasi and nephew V.N. Sudhakaran. This case would go on for close to two decades, ending in a ‘guilty’ verdict finally after Jayalalithaa’s death in 2016, putting Sasikala and the others behind bars for four years.

After the dust settled on the cases and the DMK government went about in earnest wooing industry to Tamil Nadu and focusing on development of the state, the people of Tamil Nadu, in 2001, once again did an about-turn. To Jayalalithaa’s aid came a shimmering alliance: the Tamil Maanila Congress, the Left parties, the Congress and the Pattali Makkal Katchi, along with a smattering of smaller parties, did the trick for the AIADMK. The DMK, in alliance with the BJP, found itself deserted by every party with any standing in the state.

So much so that Karunanidhi, who was confident of being reelected, was bitter when the results were announced. Frontline magazine recorded at the time: ‘Karunanidhi’s gamble that people would vote the DMK again to power on the strength of its government’s impressive performance proved wrong. Voters everywhere appreciated his government’s performance but this did not translate to votes. The hurt on this score showed when Karunanidhi sarcastically said, “I consider the verdict a gift from the people of Tamil Nadu for the successive achievements of our rule in the past five years.”’

Around 1.30 a.m., police moved in, broke open the bedroom door and dragged the ageing leader out, as Sun TV beamed these visuals live across the state. Visuals showed Karunanidhi falling, being shoved, picked up and pushed again by the police, evoking a wave of sympathy for the elderly man

It was again time for vendetta. By midnight on 29 June 2001, Sun TV’s camera crew was in place on Oliver Road in Mylapore, Karunanidhi’s second residence. Just after midnight, a posse of policemen descended to arrest the Opposition leader on a case relating to public money being allegedly siphoned off in the building of flyovers in Chennai. Around 1.30 a.m., police moved in, broke open the bedroom door and dragged the ageing leader out, as Sun TV beamed these visuals live across the state. Visuals showed Karunanidhi falling, being shoved, picked up and pushed again by the police, evoking a wave of sympathy for the elderly man.

Two Union ministers, T.R. Baalu and Murasoli Maran, too were arrested. The BJP-led NDA government at the Centre, of which the DMK was an ally, was forced to intervene. Following pressure from the Centre, Jayalalithaa had no choice but to backtrack in the face of calls of ‘Constitutional breakdown’ in the state. First, the Union ministers were let off, the charges against them dropped. Karunanidhi was then allowed out on bail on ‘humanitarian grounds’. Jayalalithaa had had her revenge. But Karunanidhi won the war.

Jayalalithaa went on to press her self-destruct button yet again as her tenure continued. In July 2003, she invoked the ESMA (Essential Services Maintenance Act) on one lakh striking government employees, terminating their employment. Realizing her monumental error, she reinstated them all in February 2004. In 2003, she also banned animal sacrifice, once again causing widespread indignation and protests across the state. A few months later, she repealed the Act. But the damage was done.

By 2006, the DMK had cobbled up a rainbow alliance ahead of the assembly polls. Despite the niggling resentment against Jayalalithaa for her earlier moves, the election was largely without a major issue or talking point. But the genius politician in Karunanidhi struck. Free colour televisions for all those below the poverty line, he promised. Tamil Nadu brought him back to power as Jayalalithaa watched. And learned.

The tenure from 2006 to 2011 was the undoing of Karunanidhi, as elaborated in the earlier chapters. Governance took a back seat. Jayalalithaa simply had to sit by and watch as Karunanidhi and his family and party men and women destroyed their own credibility and popularity in the state.

In 2011, an alliance with ‘Captain’ Vijaykanth, a bright new player in the political arena, was locked in by Jayalalithaa. She swept the state as people vented their anger against the excesses of the DMK in the past five years. Despite little to no governance between 2011 and 2016, cash for votes played a huge role in 2016. The memories of the DMK’s muscling and land grabbing still fresh in their minds, Tamil Nadu voters brought Jayalalithaa back to power, albeit with a slimmer majority

Here on, age would catch up with the veteran politician. In 2016, he was hospitalized a number of times. He lost his ability to speak as a tracheostomy tube was put in place. But his love for politics, power and the people still remains.

Duraimurugan recounts an incident from November 2017, when he watched his leader undergo speech therapy. The tracheostomy tube was removed, the hole in the throat closed with a finger and speech therapist Ranjith began. ‘“What is your name?” he asked Kalaignar. “En peyar Mu Karunanidhi,” he answered,’ says Duraimurugan, mimicking his leader’s raspy voice perfectly. (My name is M. Karunanidhi.)
‘“Ranjith: Who do you like?”
“Kalaignar: Arignar Anna.”
“Anna is a name that occupies his mind,” he concluded.’
Duraimurugan recounts another incident from the next day, when Karunanidhi began to question Ranjith:
‘“Kalaignar: How is my voice?”
“Ranjith: Your voice is good, Ayya.”
“Kalaignar: Do you think people can understand me if I speak at meetings?”’
With that, Duraimurugan simply shakes his head. ‘What can you say about someone like that?’ he smiles.

(Published from Sandhya Ravishankar's book Karunanidhi: A Life in Politics with permission from HarperCollins Publishers India)

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