Karunanidhi’s Relationship With Delhi: So Close, Yet So Far

Until 2003, Karunanidhi never felt the need to constantly visit Delhi, as his pointsman there was his nephew Maran.

4 min read
Hindi Female

If M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa had one thing in common, it was an aversion to making rounds of the Delhi durbar. While the cold weather during the winter was a definite no-no with Karunanidhi, Jayalalithaa disliked calling upon any minister barring the Prime Minister, on the few occasions that she travelled.

But given their political clout in Delhi through their MPs, it was imperative for both the Tamil Nadu leaders to ensure Chennai knew New Delhi's mind.


Karunanidhi’s Main Man

Enter Murasoli Maran, Karunanidhi's nephew — younger to him by a decade, and the man he trusted the most. Maran was the DMK chief's eyes and ears in Delhi from the mid-1960s, and everyone in Delhi understood that if anything had to be conveyed to Karunanidhi, it was enough to relay it to Maran. Karunanidhi ensured he empowered Maran politically, sending him to Parliament from 1967 onwards. When the opportunity came to share power at the Centre, Maran was Karunanidhi's pick, serving as Union Minister in the VP Singh, Deve Gowda, IK Gujral and AB Vajpayee governments.

A former bureaucrat recalls Maran’s comfort level with Karunanidhi referring to an interaction with the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the late 1960s.

Karunanidhi made a demand which had been decided earlier with Maran, and that wouldn’t be discussed with the PM.

The retired bureaucrat recalls, “Maran put his hand on Karunanidhi's thigh, hidden from Indira Gandhi's view behind the table, to restrain him from speaking. But the fun part was Karunanidhi still went ahead. Which is why when Maran breathed his last in 2003, it was a blow to Karunanidhi. His connect with New Delhi had snapped, as Maran had honed his skills, building contacts in the national capital.”

“He was my conscience,” Karunanidhi would say of Maran. In fact, Maran used his considerable networking skills in the national capital to ensure the Vajpayee regime did not succumb to pressure from Jayalalithaa to dismiss the Karunanidhi government.  Karunanidhi had not prepared a Plan B for Maran.

So after Maran’s demise, Karunanidhi had to split the job at the Delhi end between three different people.

They included Maran's son Dayanidhi Maran, who went to become Telecom Minister, his daughter Kanimozhi, and senior DMK leader TR Baalu.


Karunanidhi’s Sons

The inability of his two sons, MK Stalin and MK Alagiri to articulate effectively in English, was a hurdle in using either of them as Karunanidhi's spokesman in Delhi. Though Alagiri was sent later to become Union Chemicals and Fertilisers Minister, his poor communication skills was a handicap. But unlike with Maran, Karunanidhi was a bit more guarded with his three replacements.

Sometime in 2005, one of India's top industrialists called on Karunanidhi in Chennai, with the three Delhi representatives in attendance. After a while, the CM expressed a desire to speak to the industrialist in private. One of the three lingered on, offering to help with the English to Tamil translation for Karunanidhi's benefit.  “Don't worry, I can follow his English,” snapped Karunanidhi, making it quite clear that it was this far, and no further. Those who have interacted with Karunanidhi point out that he was a pragmatic leader who saw reason, if the facts were presented to him in a convincing manner.


What Kalaignar Learnt from MGR

Former Union Finance secretary, the late G Ramachandran in his memoir Walking with Giants recounts an episode from Karunanidhi's first term as CM.

Indira Gandhi had travelled to Kanyakumari, and commenting on her visit, the Tamil Nadu Minister for Religious Endowments had claimed in the Assembly that the PM had offered a diamond necklace to a temple deity there. Ramachandran mentions that when this news flashed on the teleprinters, an angry Mrs Gandhi sent for him and said the minister had lied.

She was clear that if the statement was not withdrawn, she would take up the matter with Karunanidhi.  Ramachandran wrote, “In the course of my conversation with the chief minister, he admitted that the Religious Endowments Minister was entirely wrong. He also added that while Indira Gandhi was in Kanyakumari, she had no time even to visit the temple.” Karunanidhi subsequently ensured that the statement was retracted.

Interestingly, Karunanidhi learnt a lesson on the importance of Delhi from MG Ramachandran.

His bête noire had teamed up with Indira Gandhi to get his government dismissed in 1976 on charges of corruption. Those were the days when Article 356 was abused as a matter of habit. MGR told Karunanidhi, “never fight with Delhi'”, emphasizing the importance of being in the good books of the Centre.  It was post 2004 that Karunanidhi was to develop this Delhi-connect more aggressively, by asking for plum portfolios for his MPs.


DMK’s Ties with Delhi During UPA Regime

During the UPA regime, the DMK became notorious as the party that was extremely demanding. Karunanidhi decided which portfolios he wanted for his party, and the Congress leadership had no option but to fall in line. These were invariably plum economic affairs ministries; leading brand consultant Suhel Seth dubbed the party (after the 2G scam broke) as the ‘Delhi Money for Karunanidhi’ party. Kanimozhi's arrest in the case, only reinforced the corruption charges, and the image persisted, despite her acquittal later.

Even otherwise, as a reference to his family tree ruling the roost, DMK was expanded derisively in Delhi political and media circles as ‘Dad, Moms’ and Kids’ party’.

That was yet another reason for Karunanidhi to keep Delhi at a distance.

Those who desired an alliance with him, came to Gopalapuram in Chennai; Karunanidhi did not travel to Delhi with a begging bowl.

The one exception was in 2011, when he air-dashed to Delhi to make one last ditch attempt to ensure A Raja and Kanimozhi were not arrested by the CBI in the 2G case.

Senior Congress leaders called on Karunanidhi at Tamil Nadu Bhavan, assuring him he need not worry. But two days later, Raja was arrested, and Kanimozhi interrogated. Karunanidhi who was often described as a Machiavellian politician, had been taught a lesson in power politics.

(The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at @Iamtssudhir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  UPA Government   Karunanidhi   MGR 

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