Recently, there has been a spate of English biographies on Tamil Nadu’s political leaders—Annadurai, M.G. Ramachandran and Jayalalitha. One on Karunanidhi—undoubtedly the longest-serving veteran of Tamil politics, probably even Indian politics—was missing, and so here it is. Karunanidhi definitely deserves a tome. A 13-time MLA with not a single electoral defeat, five-time chief minister and piloting the DMK in spite of two splits—he has seen all and done all in Indian politics that is to be seen and done—including the succession of his son as party chief. He might have aligned with the Congress nationally, but he is also a main reason why the grand old party could never come back to power in Tamil Nadu after 1967. If one expected a balanced view of Karunanidhi’s politics, with all the pluses and minuses of a long and eventful political life, Sandhya Ravishankar falls short of that goal in this book.
The book merely chronicles the DMK patriarch’s political journey, heavily dependent as it is on his own autobiography in Tamil, and ends up presenting a hagiography of the leader. Barring a few extracts from the damning Sarkaria Commission report, which listed out the corrupt deeds of his government between 1971 and 1976, the author views Karunanidhi mostly through the eyes of his political disciples and admirers. The impartial reader has to take note that Karunanidhi is portrayed in such a favourable light in spite of losing the plot on the sharing of Cauvery waters and the dumbing down of school education. Furthermore, the book is silent on Karunanidhi’s most controversial decision ever—scrapping prohibition, for which the veteran was accused of introducing liquor to an entire generation of Tamils.
Karunanidhi lost the plot on sharing the Cauvery waters, and dumbed down school education. He also controversially scrapped prohibition. None of this is mentioned.
Talking about the DMK chief’s last stint as chief minister, between 2006 and 2011, Sandhya observes, “This time, he was a man in a hurry. Perhaps he knew in his gut that this would be his last term as chief minister. Perhaps he could foretell the future—his own health would deteriorate suddenly and drastically by 2016”. The truth is otherwise—even ahead of the May 2016 Assembly election, Karunanidhi would not let go his claim to the CM’s chair and refused to project his son M.K. Stalin as the CM candidate. Only nature could deprive him of another shot at the top job, he would state. Nature did intervene to render him inactive, but only after Jayalalithaa had sneaked past him and kept him in the Opposition again.
The book also suffers from repetitions of various events, like MGR’s claim for the health minister’s post, followed by the DMK’s split in 1972, Karunanidhi’s midnight arrest in 2001, the killing of TELO leader Srisabarathinam and so on. Even while chronicling its subject’s life, the book appears sketchy, probably because it was a rushed job to coincide with Karunanidhi’s 95th birthday. If it was, Karunanidhi certainly deserved a better birthday gift.