Vastavam web: Karunanidhi was one of the last links to the Dravidian movement that ushered in the rise of backward classes in politics and the end of Congress rule in Tamil Nadu five decades ago on the plank of social justice. Karunanidhi played a key role in national politics when he aligned with Indira Gandhi in 1971 and reaped rich rewards in elections. But he staunchly opposed the Emergency of 1975-77 during which his government was dismissed on corruption charges.
Under Karunanidhi, the DMK occupied a prime position in the UPA governments at the Centre in 2004 and 2009 and earlier in the NDA government under Atal Bihari Vajpyee, an alignment that surprised many given the party’s Dravidian moorings. He was a wily politician who succeeded his mentor C.N. Annadurai or ‘Anna’ as Chief Minister in 1969 and kept a stranglehold on the party and government. He remained the President of the DMK for nearly 50 years, a rare feat in any democratic country.
Born in Tirukkuvalai in the erstwhile Thanjavur district on June 3, 1924, Karunanidhi was a multifaceted personality, journalist, playwright, script writer whose fiery dialogues as an iconoclast in films unleashed changes in Tamil Nadu’s social scene. He joined the Dravidian movement as a teenager under the tutelage of the late social reformer ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramasamy and Anna. ‘Kalaignar’, as Karunanidhi was called for his proficiency in arts and literature, fashioned theatre and cinema in a way that gave a fillip to the Dravidian movement and the rise of DMK as a major pole in Tamil Nadu. Karunanidhi had the party in his strong grip till the end despite presiding over two major splits and being out of power continuously between 1977 and 1989.
Born in a poor Isai Vellalar (a backward caste) family, he was named Dakshinamurthy by his god-fearing parents Muthuvel and Anjugam. He later changed that to Karunanidhi, a Tamil name shorn of any Brahminical or Sanskrit tinge. He also took part in the anti-Hindi agitations of 1937-40 and published a handwritten newspaper ‘Manavar Nesan’ (Friend of Students) and later formed the first student wing of the Dravidian movement, Tamil Nadu Manavar Mandram. He contested his first Assembly election in 1957 from Kulithalai successfully and since then has not lost any of the 13 elections he contested.
His fortunes gained further strength when the DMK won the 1967 elections and Annadurai made Karunanidhi the Minister of Public Works. After Anna’s death in 1969, Karunanidhi became the Chief Minister. He led the DMK to a landslide win in 1971. Bad times started soon after MGR floated the AIADMK that took power in 1977. He cultivated the Congress well — sharing liberally the Lok Sabha seats while retaining his hold on the Assembly — to effectively consign the DMK to the opposition benches.
However, in 1991, the DMK government was dismissed in the wake of heightened activities in Tamil Nadu of Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers whose vocal supporter he was. After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination by a LTTE suicide bomber in May 1991, the AIADMK under Jayalalithaa swept to power. After that it was a see-saw battle with people choosing DMK and AIADMK alternatively. In 2006, the DMK was voted back to power for its populist promises.In 2011 Karunanidhi promised more, but the DMK lost the battle. In 2016 too, it suffered the same fate.
He brought his sons — through his second wife Dayalu M.K. Alagiri and M.K.Stalin into the party. Alagiri became Union Minister while Stalin was declared the political heir. However Alagiri was dismissed from the party later for anti-party activities. With coalitions becoming the norm at the Centre, the DMK started siding with BJP and Congress to get cabinet berths. Though Karunanidhi was jailed several times during his long political innings, what shocked many was his midnight arrest by the Jayalalithaa regime in 2001 on corruption charges.
When the Sethusamudram Canal Project got mired in controversy, Karunanidhi shocked the nation by wondering aloud whether Lord Rama was an engineer to build bridge across the sea. Karunanidhi donated his home at Gopalapuram to a trust to convert it into a hospital for poor after his and his wife Dayalu’s lifetime.