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From literature and cinema to politics, M Karunanidhi swayed Tamil Nadu for a long, long time.
At the age of 94, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) President breathed his last on 7 August, plunging the state into mourning.
With Karunanidhi’s death so soon after Jayalalithaa’s, Tamil Nadu politics has lost the two personalities who set the stage for the state’s biggest political rivalry – and in a span of only two years.
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When Karunanidhi Was Christened “Kalaignar”
Born on 3 June 1924 as ‘Dakshinamoorthy’ in Thirukuvalai, Nagapattinam district, Karunanidhi went on to marry thrice, and had six children.
As a young teen, Karunanidhi was heavily influenced by the speeches of Alagiriswami, who was considered the pillar of the Justice Party – an organisation which was formed to represent the non-Brahmins in the state, later going on to form the bedrock of the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK).
Popularly known as “Kalaignar”, a title that was given to him by MR Radha, which literally translates to “artist”, Karunanidhi earned the masses’ love for his work in the fields of literature and poetry, having penned scripts for several Tamil films. His life-long tryst with Dravidian politics reflected in his screenwriting and playwriting, which often propagated Dravidian ideologies like self-respect marriages and the abolition of untouchability.
Karunanidhi first wrote for a film – Rajakumari – in 1947, while his last script titled ‘Illaingan’ came in 2010.
His sharp screenplay in Parasakthi (1952), a trendsetter Tamil movie, would illustrate how films were used by the DMK to propagate its ideals and ensconce itself deep in public consciousness. The film heavily criticised Brahminisim and upper-caste Hindu customs, and was even banned briefly, before it released to acquire cult status.
Riding on the film’s success, Karunanidhi penned several similar films, which, coupled with his wit and charisma, propelled him as a politician, subsequently enabling him to serve five full terms as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu.
The Rise of Karunanidhi, the Politician
Having entered politics at the age of 14, the DMK supremo remained an immensely influential figure in the political narrative of Tamil Nadu in a career that spanned over six decades.
He became a part of the Dravidian movement led by reformist leader Periyar EVR when he was still a teen. The Dravidian movement propagated by Periyar was “anti-Brahaministic” in nature and sought to create a society where the backward-classes have equal rights.
When the Dravida Kazhagam split in 1949 to become the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) under the leadership of CN Annadurai, Karunanidhi, an ardent follower of the Dravidian ideologue, followed in his footsteps.
Winning his first election from the Kulithalai assembly of Thiruchirapalli district in 1957, Karunanidhi worked his way up the ranks to become the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu 12 years later. He was then 45 years old.
But long before this, he made his first mark in the socio-political landscape of Tamil Nadu in 1953, when he led the famous “Kallakudi agitation” and lay over the railway tracks to protest the renaming of the Dalmiapuram station. The primary reason behind the protest was the objection raised by the DMK workers over the town being renamed “to honour a north Indian industrialist.”
Following this agitation, Karunanidhi went on to gain political prominence in Tamil Nadu in the next two decades, acting as a leading voice in the Dravidian movement. His efforts helped him emerge as a leading regional player in Tamil Nadu, securing him two successive terms in the chief minister’s office between 1969 and 1976.
Amma’s Greatest Political Rival
The rivalry between M Karunanidhi and MGR is well-known and is what led to the formation of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).
After Annadurai's death, Karunanidhi had nominated his son as next in line for the DMK, brushing aside MGR. Once a great friend and the perfect star vessel for his words, MGR turned political rival.
In the year 1972, MGR was expelled from DMK and the every same year, AIADMK was formed. Karunanidhi suffered debacle after debacle after this split.
However, this couldn’t break Karunanidhi’s never-say-die spirit. He kept the party alive, slamming the ruling AIADMK on its governance. And with MGR passing away in 1987, Karunanidhi was there to fill the vacuum.
Despite being shunted into political ignominy by MGR for over a decade, Karunanidhi wrote a touching obituary for MGR at the time of his death, exalting his work and friendship.
But Jayalalithaa had inherited the rivalry.
For the majority of the people in the Hindi-speaking belt, Karunanidhi remained Jayalalithaa’s greatest political rival. Pitted against Amma by the anti-Hindi Dravidian movement, Karunanidhi fought off many storms, and to his credit, holds the record of winning a seat every time he contested in the state elections.
In recent years, however, he was reduced to fighting corruption charges against him and his family members. The CBI in 2011 arrested Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi, who is also a Rajya Sabha MP, and former telecom minister Andimuthu Raja, a member of the DMK, in connection with the 2G scam.
At the time of arrest, A Raja was very close to the Karunanidhi family, having been nominated by the supremo to be a Union Minister under the UPA regime in 2004. In December 2017, the Supreme Court acquitted Kanimozhi and A Raja in the 2G scam case, a verdict which was hailed as a “moral victory” by the DMK at a time when it was at its lowest political ebb.
A seasoned politician, Karunanidhi successfully manoeuvred through rough waters at the time of MGR’s exit in 1972. A mass hero, MGR swayed the majority of the DMK’s vote bank in favour of his newly-formed AIADMK in the 1977 state elections, which saw him earn the CM’s office for the first time. The DMK stayed out of power till MGR’s death, and Karunanidhi finally gained control of the CMO once again in 1989.
He even handled the expulsion of Vaiko in 1993, when the latter took along with him many of his party-men, including district secretaries. Vaiko, who was styled as Karunanidhi’s protegé, quit the party amid rumours that the party reins would be handed over to the latter’s son, Stalin, over him.
In trying times, Karunanidhi led a series of agitations to keep the political pot boiling, targeting the ruling AIADMK. He constantly kept his ear to the ground, engaging party workers through his Kalaignar Kaditham (Kalaignar’s letter to cadres) in the party mouthpiece Murasoli. Through his Nenjukku Neethi, a memoir of sorts, he kept in touch with party functionaries.
He also handled intra-family power struggles involving his sons MK Stalin and MK Alagiri, and in what he claimed to be a decision in the party’s interest, he expelled his older son Alagiri in 2014 to keep the DMK under his firm grip.
The tussle between the two sons had reached its peak in 2007, when supporters of Alagiri attacked the Madurai office of Dinakaran – a Sun network-owned publication –that was accused of favouring Stalin. Things went swiftly downhill from this point, culminating in Alagiri’s dismissal from the party, authorised by Karunanidhi.
After a life of successfully battling political headwinds, this has been Karunanidhi’s enduring legacy – a strong anti-Hindi, anti-Centre machinery in Tamil Nadu.