The police bandobast, checkposts, officials coming and going from his house in convoys – gave me the first sense of what being in power meant.

The aura of Kalaignar A journo who grew up near the Karunanidhi residence recalls
news Karunanidhi Wednesday, August 08, 2018 - 16:50
Written by  Vijay Grover

In the 42 years that I have known Dr M Karunanidhi, there are many things that are etched in my mind about the man whose politics drove Tamil Nadu for over 8 decades.

Since 1976, along with my schoolmates, I would watch Karunanidhi with intense curiosity. The fact that DAV School is only a stone’s throw from Kalaignar’s residence only added to his aura. The police bandobast, checkposts, officials coming and going from his house in convoys and the occasional gathering of political activists at his residence gave me the first sense of what being in power meant.

This was during the Emergency, when political activity was at its peak. The excitement it triggered attracted many of us to merely hang around his house in our free time to catch a glimpse of the politician from a distance.

We barely understood politics then, let alone Dravidian ideology. But we did know that the anti-Hindi movement was not an anti-north Indian sentiment. It helped us belong to Madras. We couldn’t make sense of many things then, but as the days went we learned more.

The influence he wielded in the political arena was visible from the fact that leaders from various states would visit him ever so often to seek his advice. Even when he wasn’t in power, his influence was palpable.

Much like our school timetable, we soon learnt Karunanidhi’s timetable, one that he followed for decades. He would leave from his Gopalapuram residence to the DMK headquarters on Anna Salai (erstwhile Mount Road), where he would write his daily column for Murasoli. Once he received all the updates from functionaries, he would proceed for lunch.

A post-lunch siesta was an important part of his routine, one that his cadre respected. No matter what storm they were weathering, they would not disturb him when he was napping. In the evening, he would return to his party office, which coincided with my school break. Many of us waited eagerly through the day just to catch sight of him.

At least until 1982, I would try to catch this glimpse of him. With every turn and development I witnessed, I learnt more about the many faces of the legendary leader. Colourful posters and offsets of the leader and the occasional movie poster of a script penned by him would adorn the walls of Gopalapuram.

Despite never having spoken to the man in those six years, the charisma of the man, his philosophy and ideology grew on me. The most impressive element about his personality that caught my fancy was his support to the Tamil and Eelam cause. His championing the cause drew a lot of us to make the effort to understand what the Eelam struggle was all about.

I still distinctly recall how the Richie Rich and Dennis the Menace stickers on our school notebooks were replaced by Velupillai Prabhakaran’s military fatigue stickers and posters that one could buy outside the Wellington Theatre on Mount Road. While he advocated the Eelam cause, he never let this breach his national agenda.

In 1982, I finished my schooling and moved to Delhi. I came back to Chennai exactly one week after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated.

Also read: Dravidian stalwart, revered leader, passionate writer: Rare pictures of Karunanidhi

The difference this time was that though Kalaignar was still at the centre of political activity, the shadow of the death of the former Prime Minister had subdued sentiments and discussions about the Tamil cause were now held in hushed tones and whispers. The assassination cost the DMK the ensuing election and saw the emergence of J Jayalalithaa.

The period that followed was the most challenging for Karunanidhi, as the supremacy that he enjoyed was suddenly on the wane. He weathered the five-year political onslaught on him and his family. The Gopalapuram house wore a deserted look, visitors were fewer, and the exit of Vaiko from the DMK weakened the will of the man who ruled Tamil hearts.

Not the one to give up easily, Karunanidhi used the period to focus on Murasoli. The launch of the Sun TV network came as a boon for Kalaignar. His knowledge of the power of mass media, films and television made him reach his cadre on a daily basis. Apart from his editorial in Murasoli, the cadre could rely on the prime time news on Sun TV at 8 pm where his daily byte became a major communication tool.

This energy gave him a boost, as the transition in 1996 saw the leader bounce back to power. The return to power brought him to political limelight. The instability at the Centre saw Kalaignar emerge as a key force.

One who never spoke anything but Tamil in public, the job of the likes of me was indeed challenging to get him to speak a few words. The endless wait at the Gopalapuram residence or at Anna Arivalayam for a sound byte for news became routine. During 1998-1999 when political instability was at its peak, every word of the Kalaignar would see the party leaders in action. His trusted aide and relative Murasoli Maran kept Tamil Nadu’s interests protected.

Karunanidhi’s advisors and some supporters, however, disagreed with him in the spree of cases that his government filed against former chief minister J Jayalalithaa. But the conflict dominated the political discourse in the state, with over 43 cases filed against Jayalalithaa by the DMK government. The move didn’t help Karunanidhi politically, as the 2001 election saw the return of Jayalalithaa on a sympathy wave, which many had failed to see coming.

What followed thereafter was a dark chapter in Tamil Nadu politics. I still vividly remember the moment the news of Kalaignar’s midnight arrest broke. Staying close to the house, it gave me an opportunity to see the developments of the night first-hand. While Kalaignar, TR Balu and others were picked up in the middle of the night, his son Stalin and many others managed to stay out till next day. The midnight arrests, in which many media persons covering the arrest drama were also picked up by the police, created an outrage across the nation. Arresting a man of the stature of Karunanidhi was an ill-advised move, but his resilience pepped the cadre to continue the political fight.

Karunanidhi, the man who saw political swings of unmatched proportions, will be remembered for building the DMK and helping it grow in strength. While political opponents may not have succeeded in pulling him down, it was the tussles in his family that continued to be a source of worry for him. The fear of what after him haunted him for the last several decades, as the conflicts between his sons Stalin and Azhagiri, and later between Marans and Stalin, or Stalin and Kanimozhi were the challenges he faced at home.

The effort to end the succession question by making Stalin his heir apparent resolved the conflict to some extent. One thing that many of us journalists remember vividly are his one-liners and his ability to duck tough questions. While he mocked my Tamil diction on a few occasions, his deftness in handling the media is well-acknowledged. His contribution to the Tamil language and Tamil literature can never be forgotten.

Gopalapuram will never be the same – hangers-on will not be able to catch a glimpse of the Grand Old Man with the yellow shawl hereafter.

Also read: Kalaignar bids goodbye