Muthuvel Karunanidhi, “Kalaignar” as millions affectionately called him, dominated the politics of Tamil Nadu for five long decades — from 1968, when he became chief minister, till 2016, when he took ill, which disabled him from active public life. No other political leader had such a long and imposing relevance in a party and in the state.
From the age of 14, when he became active in public life, till December 2016, for 78 long years he worked ceaselessly for the cause he believed in, for the party he led for 50 years and for the governments he led five times as chief minister. Never in the history of democracy anywhere had a leader remained strong and relevant for half a century as Karunanidhi did. In the seven-plus decades, the man did the work that most would not in twice the number of years. Karunanidhi was indeed a human dynamo.
Brilliant takeover of DMK after Annadurai
A strategist in the Chanakya mould, he was an unparalleled organiser and matchless manager of the masses. A born politician who aimed to win, Karunanidhi — the media called him MK — vaulted over his seniors when the man who built the DMK, C N Annadurai — ‘Anna’ as he was lovingly known — died. MK was then just 44.
Hours after the demise of the towering Anna, MK virtually filled the void in the minds of the powerful DMK cadre with an audio tape of his brilliant poetic tribute to the departed leader he had worked on in advance, even as Anna was terminally ill. The audio tape mesmerised the cadre and put them in MK’s lap, leaving senior leaders like V R Nedunchezhiyan, K A Mathiazhagan and N V Natarajan nowhere in the reckoning. That single brilliant strategic move made MK their natural choice.
With M G Ramachandran — MGR to millions — who alone could have thwarted the succession plan, putting his weight behind him, MK succeeded Anna as chief minister in 1968. Within a couple of years he became the tallest leader of the party, sidelining and dwarfing all others. Then came the best opportunities and the worst challenges, and the way MK navigated the DMK through both in the 1970s and early 1980s is a lesson for political strategists though it may be abhorrent to puritans in politics.
Unchallenged in 1971 to defeat in 1977
With the monolithic Congress splitting in 1969, MK tactically allied with the faction led by Indira Gandhi, held the Assembly and parliamentary polls together in 1971 by offering 10 Lok Sabha seats to the Indira Congress but no Assembly seat to it, thus wiping out the Syndicate Congress and winning a huge majority in the Assembly. While the alliance once and for all compromised and diluted the DMK’s ideological position, it also made MK the unchallenged leader of not only the party, but of Tamil Nadu as well. However, when he began downsizing the other tall leader, MGR, within the party, the latter revolted. MK strategically co-opted the very senior leaders he had sidelined with MGR’s help, expelled MGR in 1973 and regained control over the party.
MGR formed the AIADMK and won the Dindugul parliamentary bypoll with a massive majority, which challenged the DMK’s hold over the state, but not Karunanidhi’s hold over the DMK. By then the DMK had become totally dependent on him like a honeybee falling into a honeypot. Then came the toughest test of his career, the Emergency, when Indira Gandhi did to him what he did to MGR in 1973. She sacked him as chief minister, imposed President’s rule and instituted anti-corruption inquiry against him. In the 1977 Lok Sabha and Assembly polls in Tamil Nadu, MGR allied with Indira Congress and won a majority in the Assembly and the alliance swept the Parliament seats, while the DMK, which allied with the Janata Party, came a cropper.
1980: Lok Sabha poll win, Tamil Nadu poll defeat
But MK soon got his opportunity to turn the tables on MGR. When the Janata Party split and the Morarji Desai government was facing a no-confidence motion, MGR committed the worst folly of his life by voting for the Janata party. The government lost the no-trust vote. Charan Singh became Prime Minister, but the Congress pulled the rug from under his feet within months, like it did later with Chandrasekhar, H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral, and forced Lok Sabha polls on the nation in early 1980. Here again, seizing on MGR’s slip of turning against Indira and supporting the Janata Party, MK brilliantly timed his tactical shift and switched sides to Indira Gandhi.
It suited a waiting Indira Gandhi who gladly welcomed him back, ignoring his earlier hostility. All her earlier charges of bribery against him, too, were brushed under the carpet. Both joined hands and trounced MGR in the Lok Sabha polls. But when the AIADMK government was dismissed and Assembly polls held within three months of the Lok Sabha polls won by them, MGR trounced both and captured power again, which no one, especially MK, had expected. Had MK’s strategic alliance succeeded in the Assembly polls like in the Lok Sabha polls, MK would have wiped out the AIADMK and emerged as the unchallenged leader of Tamil Nadu again.
With that win, MGR pushed MK, as the latter himself used to say, into agnyatavasa (political exile) for eight more years, till MGR’s death. The way MK fought to protect the DMK against the MGR phenomenon in this period was an example of leadership in the times of adversity. Thereafter it was a tussle between the DMK led by MK and AIADMK led by Jayalalithaa where power kept shifting between the two, through 1991 to 2011 in each Assembly election, though Jayalalithaa arrested the trend and narrowly retained power in 2016. The DMK’s failure that year was also because of MK’s failing health, since he could not campaign effectively.
Assessing MK is not easy. But anyone who dominated a state for 50 years needs to be analysed. After being in and out of hospital for almost 18 months from December 2016, MK was interred on August 8, with the media unanimously describing it as ‘Eternal rest for the man who never took rest.’ That best captures his life more than any other tribute. His hard work qualitatively vaulted over the quantitative limitation on time, which enabled him to accomplish in a day what a thousand others might not, even in a month. He was relentless thinker, ceaseless reader and unceasing writer. A multidimensional mind, MKs’ shadows extended long beyond his main domain of politics into literary, poetic, cinematic, artistic and musical fields — of course exporting his political ideas to those apolitical territories.
In power or out of it, he was unprecedented in his responses to situations, which kept him far ahead of his competitors within the party and outside. His day would start a couple of hours before sunrise with politics and end again in politics several long hours after sunset. He would have completed reading the morning papers by the time his colleagues would not have even brushed their teeth. The telephone of any colleague faulted by any newspaper would wake him into listening to MK’s voice seeking an explanation for the slip up. Owners of media reporting wrongly about him or his government or his party, too, would get calls pointing out the injustice done to him.
His human relations — within and outside the party — would entice and entreat, captivate and compel the target into compliance. His personal touch made mutual adversaries within the party unwaveringly loyal to him.
His wit and sarcasm won the admiration of the most difficult customer, the media, and equally floored his competitors within and adversaries without alike. If his unparalleled oration captivated millions in his party and lured its supporters, his skill and alertness unnerved those who would think of stepping out of the line.
A dictator who democratised dictatorship within the party, he was extremely loved and intensely loathed.
Contrasts, contradictions and negatives
He was a contrast too. But his brilliant repartees and quick wisdom would overshadow and justify all contradictions and contrasts in him. Rising from an oppressed ecosystem of the Tanjore district, he had a continuing dislike for traditions and Brahmins, while, in contrast, he loved heritage and culture, unlike the communists who hate both. Decidedly not a nationalist, but not a separatist too, MK yet kept alive a lurking sense of emotional separatism by his clever wordplay and deed. In the process, he became a suspect in the eyes of both. A serious negative, even dangerous, contribution of MK to Tamil Nadu politics was his improvement of secular politics from being just sensitive to the minorities to becoming insensitive to the majority — which has whetted the appetite of a section of the minority with anti-Hindu rhetoric.
Unwavering to his friends, he was unforgiving to them if estranged — the famous illustration being his unremitting enmity to MGR which the latter reciprocated equally, making Tamil Nadu politics polarised around two parties, and between two leaders who would not even look at each other.
The MGR vs MK personality clash defined Tamil Nadu politics in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the anti-DMK — read anti-MK — constituency became a political reality that worked in favour of MGR. And later, burdened as MK was with LTTE’s shadow and the murder of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, it worked in favour of Jayalalithaa, who inherited the popularity of MGR and the enmity of MK together. In over four decades of DMK vs AIADMK rivalry, the fault lines of MGR-Jaya vs MK also became the dividing line between the regional drift and the national current in which the AIADMK subsumed the nationalist stream, leading to the marginalisation of the only relevant national party, the Congress. Result, the AIADMK became the nationalist regional party, and DMK remained the regionalist regional party.
Post MK, MGR-Jaya era
Half a century of Tamil Nadu politics shaped by intense personal rivalry between the tallest leaders on either side of the divide is now poised for an uncertain future. Intense mutual hate has been the grammar of the DMK led by MK and the AIADMK led by MGR, succeeded by Jaya, which shaped the political culture and behaviour of the cadre on both sides.
The AIADMK without its tallest leaders and the DMK without MK suddenly face the need for a cultural shift to manage their future. How the cultural shift would occur, and how the two parties will manage to navigate through it, only time can tell. Tamil Nadu’s politics, frozen between the two parties, may melt down and open the closed territories for new players who are on the horizon — including the national players, the Congress and the BJP.
The 2019 Lok Sabha polls will be the first major test for both parties bereft of the imposing leaders who had led them with an iron fist. Interesting time ahead for Tamil Nadu.
The author is well-known commentator on political and economic affairs