The Bhishma of the DMK

Karunanidhi’s leadership spanned three generations. For a man who spent more time with the party cadre than with his own family, he has become an oral tradition in DMK families 

“In 15 days, on 3 June, I will be stepping into my 60th year (sic; it should be 59 but Tamil Nadu counts age differently). From now on, as far as I am concerned, every step that I take is towards the grave. Nevertheless, I have resolved that as I move an inch every time, my work would be for this [Tamil] community to [move forward and] shine like a lamp lit on top of a hill,” wrote Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi in May 1983.

Despite this early warning, a sense of complacency had settled on his DMK siblings. They are not to be faulted as their leader, as was his wont, continued to be fiercely active even after being consigned to a wheelchair in his 80s. Like Bhishma, who could not die until he himself chose to, Kalaignar would not capitulate until the very end to nature. But then, he was unlike Bhishma, a mortal. His fame however, will remain immortal.

It was only in September 2016 when age-related illnesses overpowered him that they began to wake up. Yet, one is never sufficiently prepared for the departure of the family head, especially one as illustrious as Kalaignar. On 6 August, when the DMK’s five-decade old president breathed his last, the sense of grief and sorrow that descended on the DMK family was heartrending. He was not just any leader but the proud head of the 60 lakh plus DMK family and hence “patriarch” – a moniker that fit him the best.

The moniker did not come easily. It was the fruit of decades of devotion to the party which came at the expense of his family. MK Stalin recalled to an interviewer that their mother Dayalu was everything to them when they were children and that it was a feat if they could speak to their dad once a month. He said that as kids, they did not get even a tiny fraction of the time that the cadre got with their father, and when he spoke to the children, the conversations revolved around the frontline leaders and their sacrifices during the early years of the party to stand it up.

The fear of infection did not permit their leader to make a public appearance and receive the thousands as he used to, year after year. They needn’t have feared. It was Kalaignar who had infected them - as a father figure 

He was more than a family head and destined to sculpt the Tamils’ future. His connect with the cadre was legendary. His early critics, EV Ramasamy Periyar’s nephew, EVK Sampath and poet Kannadasan, would accuse him of cultivating a loyal following - to himself. They would leave the party in 1959, complaining that the party was in thrall of film personalities - translation: Karunanidhi and MGR.

Sampath felt that Karunanidhi was a latecomer to the party (which was incorrect) and that he, Sampath, had more ownership to the party and its leader CN Annadurai (Anna), who had a huge fondness for his leader’s nephew who had left his uncle to follow him. Although in his own way, Sampath was an eloquent speaker (he was called Sollin Selvar – roughly the silver tongued) and a theoretician who commanded a sizeable following and respect, when Anna had to choose between Sampath and Karunanidhi, he had stood by the latter.

Mr Eleven Lakhs
Karunanidhi’s rise in the party was steady and commensurate with his prodigious appetite for party work and versatile talent. In 1957, entering the Legislature with 14 others, including Anna, his legislative performance marked him out as an exemplary legislator, next only to Anna. In 1959, his organisational skills would see him push Anna to field a maximum number of candidates for the Madras Corporation and later as the single largest party, stake claim with the support of allies to the Corporation. Anna would publicly present him a ring, singling him out for the DMK’s first major victory. As treasurer from 1961, roughly the second-in-line in the party, Kalaignar would meet the ambitious targets set by Anna and even go beyond. Thus Anna would refer to him as “Mr Eleven Lakhs” in the 1967 election rally - given that the target was 10 lakh - while announcing the DMK’s candidate for Saidapet. Mr Eleven Lakhs was made Public Works Minister. His friend and ally since 1945, MGR had also been elected from Thomas Mount as a first timer.

Karunanidhi was only 44-years-old when he took over from the statesmanlike Anna in 1969 who had become a cult. He made up for the absence of years and experience with his sense of purpose, industry and discipline. Those who had questioned him overtaking VR Nedunchezhiyan were soon convinced that he was the right choice. He was certainly not yet Anna. However, he was regularly compared with Anna in a positive manner.

By early 1972, no less a personality than MGR started to perceive him as Anna. MGR wrote: “He was not in years older like Anna or me; yet, he [Kalaignar Karunanidhi] who possessed the merits akin to Anna’s,…In Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s form, Anna again came to me. He fondly embraced me. Tears welled up in our eyes… I had this huge consolation that finally my Anna had, in Kalaignar’s form, come to where I was, to bless me.” Chief Minister Karunanidhi had gone to see off MGR who was travelling to shoot for his Ulagam Suttrum Valiban (Globe-trotting Youth, 1973).

However, by October 1972, MGR would change his script to charge that Anna treated the Kazhagam as his family while Kalaignar treated his family as Kazhagam. In 1978, Nedunchezhian and a few other senior leaders would leave Kalaignar as they grew convinced that there was no political future with him.

Ayya and a patriarch
These setbacks and the loss of power only helped Kalaignar mature and season much like wine. In 1989, he took over for two years as the chief minister after a 13-year hiatus. His support for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause cost him his government. Earlier, he had created much heartburn when he termed the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) as the Indian Tamils Killing Force, and refused to attend an official reception for them in Madras. In 1993, when he was 69 and had long become the DMK’s patriarch, he would see another revolt. He took it in his stride and returned to power for a fourth term in 1996. Seventy-two now, he was energetic as ever but time and experience had bestowed on him a grace that comes with contentment and confidence. Everyone called him “ayya” (a very respectable term in Tamil reserved for the family head or someone, very respected, roughly translating to “sir” in English). Those who were a little close to him called him “appa” or dad. He had become a true father figure and patriarch except to his political opponents.

His followers were in awe of him. When he was charged of “family politics” by Jayalalithaa, the DMK men and women would still stand by him. He was their leader and was capable of no wrong. Such was their belief in him. When he wrote Aneedhi Veezhum Aram Vellum (Injustice will fail; justice will prevail), after the favourable 2G verdict, they rejoiced that their faith in him had been vindicated by a legal system which was inconsistent.

For two years, they did not have the opportunity to see him in person, if possible touch him, present him with gifts and feel goosebumps in his presence on his birthdays. The fear of infection did not permit their leader to make a public appearance and receive the thousands as he used to, year after year. They needn’t have feared. It was Kalaignar who had infected them - as a father figure. Time might slowly heal the loss of their family head, but will never reconcile them to his absence.

A man whose leadership spanned three generations and politics four, Karunanidhi became an oral tradition in DMK families. If he made history while he was alive, he made history even in his death. Starting as a spirited and feisty young leader, he had grown into one of modern India’s stalwart leaders. No politician in India had his profile. He was the last link to the genre of leaders who were colossuses. He certainly did not have the luck that his opponents MGR and his mentee Jayalalithaa possessed. MGR had to just show up and the crowd would go into raptures. Jayalalithaa soon rose to MGR’s stature and even outdid him politically with her courage to go it alone in the 2014 general election to Parliament. Karunanidhi had to work hard. He created a record with his speaking assignments, political, film and literary writing, party work, meeting of cadre and public events. No other leader could have done as much as he did in all the areas he chose to showcase and leave his imprint on. This is why, except for some who could never stomach Karunanidhi, everyone else felt that he deserved nothing less than a burial that his contribution merited at Anna square, next to his mentor.

(R Kannan is the deputy head of the HirShabelle State office of the UN Mission in Somalia. He is the biographer of CN Annadurai and MG Ramachandran. He can be contacted at

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