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Home > 2022 > Karunanidhi’s Rise and Rise — And Fall | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Mainstream, VOL 60 No 38 September 10, 2022

Karunanidhi’s Rise and Rise — And Fall | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Friday 9 September 2022, by M R Narayan Swamy



Karunanidhi: A Life

by A.S. Panneerselvan


ISBN: 9780670082940

Pages: 450

Price: Rs 699

Who was the real Muthuvel Karunanidhi?

A statesman and a visionary? A corrupt politician? A strong advocate of federalism? A Tamil chauvinist? Secular to the core? Anti-Hindu? A leader who aided Tamil Nadu’s progress? LTTE’s godfather? Social reformer?

It would be extremely difficult for anyone to do a political autopsy of one of India’s most experienced politicians, one who rose from poverty to be the chief minister of Tamil Nadu five times, and who graduated from once advocating separation to playing a key role in deciding the country’s prime minister as many as six times. Having taken up the challenge, veteran journalist and author A.S. Panneerselvan does justice to the multi-faceted Karunanidhi. He is sympathetic to the man and Dravidian politics but he does not overlook all that derailed him in his sunset years.

The boom in literacy across social groups in Tamil Nadu since the DMK first took power in 1967 has helped to create a newsroom diversity that is certainly absent in the rest of the country. Naturally, reporting on Tamil Nadu by mainstream media – as against reporting in Tamil — tends to be at times skewed to the point of often belittling whatever the Dravidian movement has achieved. Panneerselvan focuses heavily on this. This is one of the strongest points in the gripping 450-page book.

While passion for Tamil language remains in its heart, the DMK’s substantive contribution to the emergence of Tamil Nadu as one of India’s best performing and most industrialized states is generally overlooked. By 1977, in just a decade of DMK rule, Tamil Nadu stood next only to Gujarat and Maharashtra in industrial growth. Karunanidhi created land banks that proved very useful when India’s economy opened in 1991. He also created more industrial clusters than anywhere else in the country.
Today, Tamil Nadu ranks as the 35th largest economy in the world on PPP basis; it is one of India’s major growth engines at an average over 9 percent in the last nine years; it is one of the top three FDI destinations in India; it has the most number of factories (about 40,400); it has 20 industrial parks with 12 more in the making; it is the most urbanized state; Tamil Nadu ranks among the top 10 automobile manufacturing hubs in the world.

Panneerselvan’s grouse is that this facet of the Dravidian movement and parties, as a promoter of development, is often buried under the charges made against them of corruption, nepotism and linguistic chauvinism.

The DMK’s rise to power led to laws that empowered tenants and agricultural labourers. This consolidated political power among the lower castes. Karunanidhi was central to these socio-economic changes. He was the first chief minister to set up a police commission – and accepted all its recommendations in his second stint in office.
When DMK star and chief minister C.N. Annadurai died in 1969, the violently atheist ‘Periyar’ played a key role in ensuring that Karunanidhi takes charge of the party and Tamil Nadu. Support from Periyar notwithstanding, Karunanidhi drew a deft line between atheism and bigotry. He was never tired of quoting Annadurai: “I will neither break the statue of Pillayar (Lord Ganesh) nor break a coconut for him.” One of Karunanidhi’s sisters was not only a firm believer but very superstitious. He made it clear that his atheism would not come in the way of maintaining temples and other places of worship.

Once the DMK came out of Periyar’s more hardline Dravida Kazhagam, there was no looking back. It shunned the first general election in 1952 but decided to flex its muscles from then on. It dumped its earlier love for a separate Dravida Nadu. Such was the U-turn to embrace India that after China’s invasion Annadurai and Karunanidhi organized an India Defence Fund and mobilized Rs 35,000 – the highest contribution by any political party. Under Karunanidhi, Tamil Nadu was the first state in India to congratulate Bangladesh on its victory in 1971.

Besides renaming Madras as Tamil Nadu and banishing Hindi from government work, one of the first gifts of the first DMK regime was the Self-Respect Marriages bill, which legalized Hindu marriages conducted without a Brahmin priest and decriminalized marriages that did not have the sanction of religious authority. The reforms never halted. Karunanidhi considered his enactment of the equal inheritance right in 1989 as a major achievement. It was the DMK which for the first time in India began giving free electricity to farmers.

The author rebuts the widely hurled charge that Karunanidhi was a LTTE friend, arguing that the DMK stalwart never agreed with its politics of annihilation and separatism besides its claim as the sole representative of the Tamils. Indeed, a peeved LTTE tried to prop up DMK leader V. Gopalsamy against Karunanidhi’s son M.K. Stalin. Karunanidhi felt badly let down both by the LTTE and Gopalsamy after the latter made an illegal trip to Jaffna when the IPKF was fighting the Tigers. This episode, along with Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination by the LTTE and his refusal to welcome troops returning from Sri Lanka, pulverized the DMK in 1991. While the Indian and Sri Lankan establishments accuse Karunanidhi of supporting the LTTE, the Tamil nationalists charge him with betraying the group. Both accusations, Panneverselvan rightly says, cannot be true.

The years of social progress had not done away with untouchability and oppression of Dalits. Karunanidhi’s responded with Samathuvauram – or villages of harmony. Every such village would house about 100 families, of which 40 would be Dalits. The immediate neighbour had to be from another caste. Residents would conduct weddings and other rituals only in the community hall. There shall be only one burial and one cremation ground for the entire village. It is doubtful if any other Indian state would have even dared to think this way.

When India opened its economy, Karunanidhi refused to equate liberalization with modernity. The market was not an unadulterated force to deliver good for everyone. But Tamil Nadu attracted more FDI than many other states after that because of the legwork done till then. The state tremendously benefitted from its infrastructure, trained workers, massive electrification and increased road connectivity. These were rarely credited to Karunanidhi.

One of the first major things that dented Karunanidhi’s image as an administrator was the failure to locate and rescue Kannada superstar Rajkumar when bandit Veerappan abducted him for 108 days from a farmhouse in Tamil Nadu. The failure to quit the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government after the 2002 Gujarat carnage cast a shadow on the DMK; Karunanidhi countered by saying he had to choose between the BJP’s bigotry and Chief Minister Jayalalitha’s reckless attacks on all critics. The 2006-11 period also saw many DMK leaders busy carving out their fiefdoms. Violence during local body elections further undermined Karunanidhi. From one who never lost an election and played a critical role in national governments, Karunanidhi faced ignominy during his last few years in office.

His failure to even condemn his son Alagiri after his supporters attacked the Dinakaran office and killed three employees obliterated much of the goodwill he had accumulated. Alagiri’s selection as a cabinet minister created revulsion in Tamil Nadu – and proved a disaster. The Radia tapes painted both the DMK and Karunanidhi in a bad light. Corruption charges hurled at DMK nominees in the Manmohan Singh cabinet took a heavy toll. Naturally, the DMK was mauled in the 2011 elections – and remained out of power for a decade. Karunanidhi, who had contributed so much for Tamil Nadu’s progress, remained licking his wounds in the opposition benches and in poor health when he died, at age 94, on August 7, 2018.

It was a sad end to an accomplished career.

There was a time when a Congress mob beat Karunanidhi almost to death in Pondicherry but he later shook hands with the same party. He was named by his parents after a local deity but became a staunch atheist. His first exposure to music made him endure caste humiliation. He was a school dropout but became a Tamil scholar.

Karunanidhi endured poverty for a long time after foraying into political activism. Even as editor and publisher, there was a time when he would carry the Murasoli magazine he had started on his head from the printer and for distribution because he could not afford a vehicle. Before money came his way, his first salary was Rs 500 from Modern Theatres. Until then, he had just one set of clothes.

Karunanidhi’s mastery over Tamil and skills as an orator greatly helped him organize the DK and the later DMK. Writing, which came naturally to him, as well as the world of dramas and cinema were used to propagate Dravidian ideas. This is how he created a legend called MGR, who one day badly upstaged him. Among all Indian politicians, Karunanidhi remained a prolific writer, thanks to work ethic and strict discipline. It was the success of his play Thookumedai (Gallows) which earned him the sobriquet ‘Kalaignar’ (artist). It became his first name.

When C. Rajagopalachari sought to impose Hindi, the DMK spearheaded an agitation that shook India. It also helped the DMK to junk the hardcore atheism of the DK, curb Communist influence and expand rapidly all over the state. The 1967 election was a watershed moment. Never again would the Congress win in Tamil Nadu. As for Karunanidhi, he would rule Tamil Nadu five times, with two times his government sacked by the Congress in New Delhi.

Far from being a regional chauvinist, Karunanidhi never lost track of the dangers of excessive centralization of powers in the hands of the Centre – this remains the DMK’s concern even today. He turned bitterly against the Congress and Indira Gandhi after the Emergency rule. When the DMK remained out of power for a full decade from 1977, Karunanidhi kept the party alive through a tumultuous period.

His last creative effort was to script a television series of Ramanuja, the 11th century religious philosopher who transcended religion and caste and treated all communities equally. It was Karunanidhi’s final stand against Hindutva. For all his atheism, he died on an Ekasadi day – which devout Hindus say will take anyone to the blessed heaven.

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