- Fifty years a legislator, five times CM. One of the tallest Tamil leaders.
- The most outspoken legatee of the Periyar movement
- Coming from the Isai-Vellalar community, has furthered OBC causes
- Has authored over 100 books, including commentaries on classical Tamil texts
- Has a clever understanding of alliance politics
***The Flop Side
- Has never encouraged inner-party democracy in the DMK. Has always run it as a one-man show.
- The fight for the DMK legacy has become purely a family issue
- Compromised his principles when he aligned with the BJP in 1999
- The DMK is today a poor imitation of the Congress. Dynasty rules right down to the district secretary level.
***Elected eleven times to the Tamil Nadu assembly, never having lost a single election, chief minister five times, 83-year-old Muthuvel Karunanidhi celebrates his fiftieth year as legislator this week (May 11). For someone born in the minority Isai-Vellalar community (the same as music legend M.S. Subbulakshmi)—accounting for less than 0.1 per cent of the state's population—Karunanidhi's achievement is a remarkable story of democracy in India combined with the Periyarist legacy of social justice. A legacy that envisioned an equal place under the sun for every backward caste. A legacy of which Karunanidhi today is perhaps the most outspoken legatee, as borne out by his recent statement against the Supreme Court bench's pronouncements on reservation for OBCs: "The fate and future of a 100 crore people being decided by two or three people is harmful to democracy."
In sharp contrast, inner-party democracy within the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) is a sham. On the eve of the golden jubilee of Karunanidhi's first assembly speech, the battles within his family spilled on to the streets. On May 9, the Tamil daily Dinakaran, owned by the CM's grand-nephew Kalanidhi Maran, aired the findings of an opinion poll on who will be Karunanidhi's political heir. Seventy per cent respondents named the chief minister's son and local administration minister M.K. Stalin. Madurai-based M.K. Azhagiri, the DMK patriarch's elder son, polled 2 per cent. In reaction, Azhagiri's men set fire to the Madurai office of Dinakaran/Sun TV leading to the death of three employees. Karunanidhi's arch rival, AIADMK chief J. Jayalalitha, would be watching these developments with glee.
The battle for the DMK legacy has become purely a family issue. Karunanidhi has four sons and two daughters born over decades to three wives (two of them alive). Two sons and one daughter, poet M. Kanimozhi, are today in the fray to claim his political legacy. Kanimozhi's nascent political ambition is abetted by the intrigues between the Stalin and Maran factions.
After Murasoli Maran's death, his son Dayanidhi has emerged as the national face of DMK. Backed by his brother Kalanidhi, Dayanidhi resents Stalin being projected as the sole political heir. Stalin is now nurturing an in-house ally in his half-sister Kanimozhi to balance the influence of the Maran camp in Delhi. However, Karunanidhi himself does not seem too enthused about settling the key question: who next? On Wednesday, after the Madurai incidents, he came out with a stern statement: "All talk of an heir apparent must stop."
While the DMK has gone into a generous display of sycophancy in launching statewide celebrations to commemorate the golden jubilee of Karunanidhi's 'achievement', AIADMK chief J. Jayalalitha has offered a 'rationalist' account of Karunanidhi's exact years as legislator. She has argued that the DMK chief has in fact been a member of the house for only 38 years. He did not participate in the proceedings of the house from 2001 to 2006 when she was CM; he merely signed the assembly register. Besides, after resigning his MLA post in 1983 urging the Centre to "stop the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka", he did not contest the 1984 elections. Instead he was elected to the Legislative Council, and faced the ballot again only in 1989.
Karunanidhi’s son Azhagiri, daughter Kanimozhi and grand-nephew Dayanidhi
But these nitty-gritties aside, what singular change marks these 50 years? Karunanidhi's changing choice of constituencies reflects the party's changing priorities. After two victories from the agricultural belt of Kulithalai and Thanjavur, he has shifted allegiance to constituencies in Chennai. Today, but for sops and waivers to rural voters, the government's policies are oriented to urbanites with an emphasis on the IT sector.
Karunanidhi, however, has been more than a legislator. Endearingly called 'Kalaignar' or 'artist' by his followers, he has scripted more than 70 movies and scores of plays, and has authored over a hundred books, including commentaries on classical Tamil texts. His poetry—mostly wordplay with a heavy dose of political messages—appears unfailingly in the party mouthpiece Murasoli. Kalaignar's verbal jugglery and cumbersome wit have often passed for answers to serious questions. For instance, when an MDMK MLA expressed concern over lack of food forcing tigers to encroach into human habitation, Karunanidhi punned on the Tamil Tigers, and got away with little explanation for the state's abysmal tiger population—88.
What Karunanidhi does not give away in words, he does in actions. His political success has not come without manipulation. When Karunanidhi made his debut in the assembly in 1957 along with 15 other DMK MLAs, he was after all a junior, slotted to speak fourth after C.N. Annadurai, V.R. Nedunchezhiyan and K. Anbazhagan. However, after Annadurai's premature death in 1969, though Nedunchezhiyan was Anna's choice, Karunanidhi became CM after being 'democratically' elected by the party. He ensured this by wooing MGR—then with the DMK—to his side. Subsequently, MGR, emerging as a threat to Karunanidhi, formed his Anna-DMK; soon, a disillusioned Nedunchezhiyan joined forces with him. Recently, fiery orators like Vaiko who emerged as leaders in their own right in the DMK were also sidelined as Karunanidhi nurtured Stalin.
Despite being an organised cadre-based party, the DMK today has ended up as a poor imitation of the Congress, mimicking its dynastic tendencies down to the district secretary level. The DMK's raison d'etre during its birth in 1949 was opposition to the 'nationalist' Congress and espousal of Dravida Nadu; today, ironically, the DMK chief enjoys greater confidence with Congress president Sonia Gandhi than even Congress leaders from the state. What was more cause for worry for hard-core DMK followers was the party's dalliance with the BJP in 1999 and its persistent alliance with Hindutva for some years. Karunanidhi made the switch just before the 2003 election, thus ensuring the DMK was in power either in the state, the Centre or both since 1996. Leading a minority government in the prolonged winter of his career, Karunanidhi has displayed a clever understanding of alliance politics.
Tamil Nadu has seen several political stalwarts who have lived to their nineties—C. Rajagopalachari, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy Naicker, C. Subramaniam and R. Venkataraman. Karunanidhi may yet surprise his rather impatient heirs by lasting more than a full term.