DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi may have seen several ups and downs in his lifetime, but he remained a resolute fighter till the end of his active political life, one who left an indelible mark on the people of Tamil Nadu as well as its polity. Rewinding his incredible life would be like going over the history of the Dravidian movement from the days of CN Annadurai, the first chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Karunanidhi himself went on to hold that position five times in his chequered career.
For over six decades, Karunanidhi was a prominent figure on Tamil Nadu’s political landscape. His journey in public life started at the age of 14 as an activist and later took an upward turn when he joined the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1949. The following year, he was identified as a close aide of the party founder, Annadurai, and subsequently rose to positions of prominence.
Born as Dakshinamurthy on 3 June 1924 at Thirukkuvalai, a nondescript village in Nagapattinam, the son of Muthuvelu and Anju, Karunanidhi was exposed to music, literature and folk stories at an early age. Although his ancestors’ mother tongue was Telugu, the family was deeply involved in Tamil folk music. His father, Muthuvelu, was a native medicine practitioner and a musician who influenced his son’s aesthetic sensibilities and shaped his literary bent of mind. Karunanidhi failed in Class X, and went to Coimbatore to seek work. His exposure to folk literature and writing helped him land assignments in writing plays for theatre. Be it mythological or social themes, his scripts earned him popularity and laid a solid foundation for his future in cinema.
From writing plays, Karunanidhi began scripting for movies. His Parashakti, released in 1952, ran to packed cinema halls. This brought him immense popularity and paved the way for several blockbusters and landmark films in Tamil cinema. He continued writing scripts well into the new millennium even after he rose in the political firmament both at the state and the national level.
Plays, plots and politics
Karunanidhi first came into prominence in 1953 after he led an agitation to protest the renaming of Kallagudi town as Dalmiapuram — the town in Trichy which housed Dalmia Cements. He along with four others was arrested for laying down on the railway tracks and preventing the movement of trains. The agitators succeeded in restoring the town’s name to its original and Karunanidhi became a household hero of the Dravidian movement overnight.
Meanwhile, Annadurai who was rising to power, found in Karunanidhi an extremely intelligent and astute strategist. It was not long before the latter became a close aide of Annadurai and was elected as treasurer of the DMK.
During the 1957 Assembly elections, Karunanidhi was among the 13 members to be elected from the DMK. From then on, he never tasted personal defeat in any election, a rare feat in Tamil Nadu politics. He was elected to the state assembly a record 13 times and became chief minister for five terms. He led his party for over six decades, an enviable achievement by any count.
Another major milestone in his life was in 1967 when the people of Tamil Nadu voted the DMK with a majority. Annadurai became the chief minister and Karunanidhi was given the PWD portfolio. Two years later, when Annadurai passed away, the party’s reins fell in the hands of Karunanidhi; and he went on to become the state’s chief minister till 1976.
Another star in Dravidian politics
During his tenure as the CM, Karunanidhi differed on many issues with actor-turned politician MGR, then in the DMK. The differences came out in the public domain. MGR demanded a cabinet post in the Karunanidhi government but the latter made it conditional to his quitting the film industry. MGR saw this as a manifestation of Karunanidhi’s jealousy vis-a-vis his popularity. He quit the DMK to form a separate Dravidian party.
In the 1977 Assembly elections, MGR's new outfit, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), was also in the fray. It won with a thumping majority thanks to his popularity as a film star. It was now MGR’s turn to became chief minister. This was the first setback in Karunanidhi's political career. MGR remained chief minister for nearly a decade from 1977 to 1987. Karunanidhi served as leader of the Opposition throughout this time. After MGR’s demise in December 1987, the rift between MGR’s wife Janaki and actor-turned-politician Jayalalithaa weakened the AIADMK, and resulted in Karunanidhi’s return to power.
It was during Karunanidhi’s this tenure as chief minister that former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by the militant organisation Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the state. In the assembly elections that followed in 1991, the DMK suffered massive setback and the AIADMK, headed by Jayalalithaa, came to power with a majority. In 1996, Karunanidhi ousted Jayalalithaa as the chief minister but lost to her in 2001. He returned to power in 2006 and again lost to Jayalalithaa in 2011.
An iconoclast and a messiah
During his stint as chief minister for 19 years, Karunanidhi launched several pro-people schemes such as nationalisation of the transport system, electrification of villages, setting up the slum development board, a separate ministry for backward classes, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, and free education up to the pre-university level. He is also remembered for abolishing tax on dry land, free electricity for farmers, a first in the country, equal rights in property for women and financial assistance for widows to remarry among other reforms.
During his six-decade career in politics, Karunanidhi was also confronted with allegations of nepotism and corruption. He faced a severe backlash when he famously described LTTE leader Prabhakaran as his best friend. He also earned the wrath of the Hindutva brigade when he wondered - at the height of the Sethusamudram controversy in 2007 - if there was any proof that Lord Ram had built the bridge across the Palk Straits between India and Sri Lanka. But his biggest setback was when his daughter Kanimozhi and DMK leader and then telecom minister A Raja were arrested during the UPA-II government regime for their alleged role in the 2G scam. The two were acquitted by a Special CBI Court in December 2017.
Karunanidhi had a special role to play in coalition politics at the national level. The DMK was a major partner in the United Front government in the 1990s. He teamed up with the BJP and the Congress to forge governments at the Centre at different points in time. He enjoyed a rapport with politicians across the spectrum.
The stalwart is survived by his wives Dayalu Ammal and Rajathi Ammal; sons Muthu, Azhagiri, Stalin and Tamilarasu; daughters Selvi and Kanimozhi.