(This article was first published on 7 August 2018 and is being reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark CN Annadurai’s death anniversary.)
At almost every public meeting where Kalaignar M Karunanidhi spoke, you would hear him recall Anna.
Officially known as CN Annadurai, Anna was the founder-leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). He had famously drawn out with him thousands of supporters of the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK), including Karunanidhi and others.
In the two decades that followed, it was the relationship between Anna and Kalaignar which would go on to make the latter one of the tallest political leaders in the country.
Karunanidhi was initially groomed by Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, the iconic social reformer and leader of the Self-Respect Movement. Periyar had mentored Karunanidhi, who was just 18-years old then. Karunanidhi had even enlisted his services to edit the Kudiyarasu newspaper.
Soon, multiple opportunities in cinema would take him away from Kudiyarasu but Kalaignar would remain active within the DK. Nevertheless, when the DMK was founded on 17 September 1949, twenty-five year-old Kalaignar threw in his lot with Anna and walked out of DK.
How Anna Found Wisdom in Kalaignar
Though surrounded by senior founding members, Anna turned to Karunanidhi at crucial moments during the early days of the DMK. When the fledgling party’s Trichy unit was rife with in-fighting, Anna refused to accept any speaking invitations and deputed Karunanidhi to Trichy instead.
Kalaignar took up the challenge and began building the party up from the grassroots. The results were evident in less than a year when the Trichy unit united to become a lynchpin of the party.
The DMK decided not to contest the very first elections in 1951-52. It was only during the State Conference in May 1956, that the party voted in favour of entering electoral politics. Finally, in 1957, Anna and Karunanidhi - along with thirteen other DMK members - were elected to the State Assembly.
Buoyed by the modest triumph, Anna suggested that the party contest 30 seats out of the 100 council seats in the impending election to the Madras Municipal Corporation. But Anna relented after Kalaignar argued that the party must contest in ninety seats.
DMK won 45 seats and emerged as the single largest party and elected its first Mayor in 1959. Till date, Chennai remains a bastion of the DMK, with the party winning ten out of sixteen Assembly seats in 2016.
Anna’s Demise Left DMK at Crossroads
In the 1962, State Assembly elections, Kalaignar was the only DMK MLA to be re-elected, while Anna had lost from Kanchipuram. Nevertheless, DMK had won in forty nine other constituencies and continued as a powerful opposition party.
In 1967, the DMK swept to power dislodging the Congress and becoming the first regional party to form a majority government in the state. Subsequently, Anna became the Chief Minister and Kalaignar was sworn in as the Minister for Public Works Department.
When Anna passed away on 3 February 1969, the party was at crossroads. They had not completed even two years in government and there was no clear indication of who would succeed him.
It is fair to say that the party was at a total loss. The words of Anna “that one’s heart must endure anything (எதையும் தாங்கும் இதயம் வேண்டும”) resonated among all the DMK members then.
A Poem for His Mentor
In the following week, senior leaders including MG Ramachandran supported the leadership of Kalaignar and the party elected Kalaignar to lead the government. Over the last forty nine years, Kalaignar remained the leader of the party and the government, whenever the DMK was elected. During this period, Kalaignar was the bridge between the founder-leader and its present-day cadres.
At the time of Anna’s death, Kalaignar wrote a poem to pay tribute to his departed mentor. It is arguably the best eulogy written for a political leader. At the very end of the poem, he pleads with Anna to lend him his heart. He promised to return the heart when he comes to visit his departed mentor.
(The author is an Advocate and a spokesperson for the DMK. He can be reached at @manuraj1983. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed here are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)