Lined up on one side of the chessboard is Karunanidhi's immediate family—sons M.K. Stalin, M.K. Azhagiri and now daughter Kanimozhi. Pitted against them are the grandnephews of the CM—Kalanidhi and Dayanidhi Maran. All along, the two arms of the first family were spoken of in the same breath. They were seen as complementing each other. But subterranean tensions between the CM's progeny and the Marans had been building up ever since the death of former Union minister Murasoli Maran, Karunanidhi's nephew, in November 2003. A turf war for control of the party was slowly taking shape and it was not long before there was talk of the younger Marans betraying the trust reposed in them by their grand-uncle, even undermining his supreme authority.
But it took an opinion poll published on May 9 in the Kalanidhi Maran-owned newspaper, Dinakaran, to bring the feud between the two families out into the open. The survey, conducted by AC Nielsen, addressed the touchy issue of who will be Karunanidhi's political heir. Seventy per cent respondents voted for the CM's son and local administration minister M.K. Stalin. Madurai-based M.K. Azhagiri and Kanimozhi, the DMK patriarch's elder son and daughter, polled two per cent each. Dayanidhi himself was not listed as a potential heir. Instead, there was an unspecified category called "others" which polled 20 per cent.
Dayanidhi Maran after he resigned as communications and IT minister
What upset the first family was that Kanimozhi and Azhagiri were dragged into the poll only to be slighted. "By doing this," a senior DMK leader points out, "the Marans hoped they would renew the rift that Stalin and Azhagiri had patched up in 2004. The calculation was also that Kanimozhi, who has been seeking to unite all the factions within the family, would then be forced to side with one brother." The Marans knew of Azhagiri's explosive nature and seem to have anticipated the aftermath. But they did not quite expect Dinakaran's offices in Madurai—Azhagiri's fiefdom—to be attacked and set on fire. Neither did they anticipate that Dayanidhi would be asked to resign from the Union cabinet.
Dinakaran's opinion poll was a clever, even mischievous, exercise—mixing innocuous questions, such as who is the best Tamil comic actor, with politically loaded queries. Three days earlier, another part of the survey had rated Dayanidhi the best (64 per cent) among Union ministers from Tamil Nadu, placing him ahead of P. Chidambaram and T.R. Baalu. That PMK's Anbumani Ramadoss polled a mere 1 per cent for his performance as health minister irked PMK founder-president S. Ramadoss. Karunanidhi pacified Ramadoss and reportedly chided Kalanidhi, asking him to stop publishing the rest of the poll. But when Dinakaran did publish the 'findings' on Stalin, Azhagiri and Kanimozhi, it nearly derailed the DMK chief's celebration of his 50th year as legislator.
What hurt the DMK patriarch the most was that the sons of his most trusted nephew were plotting against him. When the DMK chose to dabble in national alliance politics, it was Murasoli Maran Karunanidhi turned to. After Murasoli's death, Karunanidhi chose to shower his favours on his younger son, Dayanidhi, a first-time MP. Karunanidhi ensured that Dayanidhi was sworn in as a Union minister, and landed a ministry of his choice—communications and IT—that suited his brother Kalanidhi's TV business. Compare this with Stalin who became a minister in the Tamil Nadu cabinet only during his fourth term as MLA.
When the senior Maran was around, there was never any question of mistrust. Karunanidhi always referred to Murasoli as his 'conscience-keeper', a conscience that was unruffled by the alliance with the BJP since it was masterminded by the latter. The Marans and the Karunanidhi family began drifting apart after Murasoli's death, but formal acknowledgement of this came only in November 2004 when Karunanidhi announced his family's decision to divest his wife Dayaluammal's 20 per cent stake in the Sun Network and Sumangali Publications. It was the late Murasoli who had insisted that Karunanidhi's family be made stakeholders in the Sun group 15 years ago. While many believed the DMK chief's decision to divest was to express his disillusionment with the lack of coverage for his son Stalin on Sun TV's news bulletins, it is actually the Maran camp that sought and secured the "amicable settlement" before they launched the company's IPO in April 2006.
Before expanding his businesses, Kalanidhi was keen to have the Karunanidhi family out of his way. Of the Rs 30 crore Dayaluammal received, she divided the total proceeds among 21 members of the family, and gave Karunanidhi Rs 10 crore. Today, post the IPO, the Sun TV group's market cap is over Rs 15,000 crore. It is learnt that Azhagiri resented this "forced, cheap settlement", but played along to please his father.
Meanwhile backed by generous publicity on Sun TV, Dayanidhi began to hog the limelight. He even positioned himself as only next to Karunanidhi. "Unlike other DMK leaders, he was articulate in English and Hindi, wore suits and was fair-skinned. Delhi liked him as did Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the media and the IT industry," says a senior party leader. What apparently irked senior partymen and ministers was Dayanidhi's arrogance. "He is the only DMK leader who would insist on using only a Mercedes Benz and no ordinary car," says a DMK Union minister. Another party source reveals how, when Dayanidhi used to come calling on Karunanidhi in Chennai, he would expect senior leaders like 84-year-old K. Anbazhagan and Arcot Veerasamy to leave the room. Says a family member: "There's nothing related to the family or the party that is not discussed in the presence of senior leaders. And here was a hotheaded upstart, with no cadre support whatsoever, who behaved rudely." What is grudgingly acknowledged, however, is "Karunanidhi's role in creating the Sun TV and Maran monsters".
The DMK patriarch may appear to have quickly wielded the whip and chastised Dayanidhi. However, with the imminent entry of his daughter Kanimozhi into the political mainstream, and his two sons Stalin and Azhagiri already well- entrenched, Karunanidhi is only confirming that it is the First Family that matters the most. Despite the lip-service paid to inner-party democracy, there has been little doubt that 55-year-old Stalin is Karunanidhi's political heir.
In fact, once Karunanidhi wrested supreme control over party affairs in the post-Annadurai period, he has consistently favoured various progeny in his banyan tree-like family. His love for his family makes Karunanidhi even forgive and forget murders—be it the alleged role of Azhagiri in the murder of former DMK MP T. Kiruttinan, or the recent death of the three employees of Dinakaran in the Madurai violence. While DMK seniors and Karunanidhi's immediate family can't hide their glee over having humbled the Marans, Azhagiri has received not a word of reprimand.
It has been different sons at different times. When MGR and Karunanidhi were part of the undivided DMK, the latter used to promote M.K. Muthu, the son born of his first wife Padmavati. He was launched in a 1971 film scripted by his father. But Muthu failed as an actor, fell out with Karunanidhi and even crossed over to the AIADMK. Today, Muthu is a junkie. The Tamil magazine Kumudam last year featured him begging in Usilampatti near Madurai. After Padmavati's death, Karunanidhi married Dayaluammal who bore him Azhagiri, Stalin, daughter Selvi (married to Murasoli Maran's brother Selvam, editor of party mouthpiece Murasoli), and another son M.K. Tamilarasan who opted out of politics. Parallel to this, Rajathiammal entered Karunanidhi's life as a 'partner', whom the DMK chief once famously referred to on the floor of the assembly as "my daughter Kanimozhi's mother".
In the late '80s, Karunanidhi geographically divided control of the party between his two politically active sons. Troublemaker Azhagiri was dispatched to Madurai in southern Tamil Nadu, where he carved out a fiefdom. Azhagiri has always been keen to be kingmaker rather than king. At one of his birthday celebrations, he had boasted: "I always wanted to promote party workers by making them MLAs, MPs and even ministers." Over two decades, he managed to marginalise almost all other DMK satraps in the southern districts.
With the Marans forced into a temporary political exile, it may now appear that both the party and the family are happy with the turn of events. However, in a post-Karunanidhi situation, battles are likely to break out between the siblings. The Marans then will conjure every media-driven device to drive wedges between Stalin, Azhagiri and Kanimozhi. Benefiting most in the long run would be political rivals like Jayalalitha, and the dark horse, actor-politician Vijaykanth.
Dravidian ideologue Periyar Ramasamy Naicker, and CMs Annadurai, MGR and Kamaraj, did not face Karunanidhi's problems, for they had no children. His arch-rival J. Jayalalitha, a spinster, has no such issues either. In fact, Periyar had suggested that those in public life should have no children since children make a person selfish. Over the past few decades, and especially in the last fortnight, Muthuvel Karunanidhi and his brood have proved that simple political dictum in a rather messy manner.