Last laugh, Mr Karunanidhi? That might sound a bit silly, out of tune when the whole state is said to be in mourning, according to assorted media pundits. At the moment, the DMK patriarch is himself in hospital, apparently suffering from some drug-induced allergy. He might be discharged soon, it is claimed.
But outsiders, including senior political leaders, have not been able to call on him personally and have to be content with making enquiries with his son Stalin. Predictably all kinds of speculation are doing the rounds.
A confidant asserts that while the present affliction might not be fatal, he might never be able to be his former self. Well, for a nonagenarian leader that will not be much of a shocker, and so Karunanidhi will get by with whatever he can command.
Still, he will remain the tallest leader and will be looked upon with a lot of trepidation by his rivals, while his own followers will predictably seek to extract the maximum mileage from his stature.
Lady luck has been smiling off and on, yes; still, fortune favours the brave, or the crafty, after all. But for his Machiavellian brilliance, he would not have survived politically this long.
He was not number two when the DMK founder CN Annadurai passed away in February 1969, barely two years after the party’s triumph at the hustings. VR Nedunchezhiyan, Anbazhagan, Mathiazhagan, and one or two other leaders of stature were there. Nedunchezhiyan was easily the most senior among the lot. But then, however erudite and urbane, he was not cut out for the rough and tumble of politics, only making it to the front ranks because of his oratorical skills and scholarship. In contrast, Karunanidhi was a dynamic personality and a grassroots politician.
Once he had even dared to take on Annadurai in intra-party elections. Such was his temerity, born of his intense party work over the years. Of course, the contest never came up and the leader was willing to forgive and forget.
Even more important was Karunanidhi’s proximity to MGR, a superstar of those years. A script writer of repute, Karunanidhi had penned the dialogue for a couple of MGR hits too.
Thus the two had become close friends, and MGR bankrolled Karunanidhi’s efforts to become the Chief Minister on Annadurai’s death. Also part of this nexus was Tamil newspaper baron Adhithanar. Their collaboration proved decisive.
As Chief Minister, Karunanidhi went about de-Brahminising the administration with a vengeance, and cultivating many non-Brahmin castes. Large-scale corruption was yet to rear its ugly head.
Meanwhile, Indira Gandhi had broken away from the Congress and had to face elections. At the time, she was hugely popular across the country, but there was nothing by way of party machinery in Tamil Nadu. Here Kamaraj was the unchallenged leader, and only a few leaders opposed to him like C Subramaniam cast their lot with her.
In a masterly move, Karunanidhi offered to support her. He too would dissolve the Assembly and go for elections. But the Indicate, as the Indira faction was then known, should content itself with fighting for the Lok Sabha. They would be allotted nine seats, a big deal indeed, but nothing in the assembly.
It was a disastrous arrangement for the state unit. But for Mrs Gandhi, still unsure how she was going to fare, even five seats were welcome. As it turned out, the alliance swept the polls, Congress winning all the nine seats it contested. Of course, in the Assembly too it was a fabulous triumph for the DMK – it bagged as many as 184 seats in the 234-member house, a record of sorts. The Congress (O) was deflated, though Kamaraj had drawn good crowds during the campaign.
The DMK chief apparently believed he had become invincible now and his reign of staggering corruption and thuggery started in right earnest. But hubris seldom fails to exact its toll, though it takes strange forms.
In this instance, a doting father’s attempts to promote his son’s career ended in his alienating a close political associate. MK’s eldest son Muthu was launched in the film world with a lot of fanfare, and he sought to ape MGR in every respect. In the event, he failed to click, but the abortive move made the star bitter.
The relationship nosedived, and MGR was expelled from the DMK in October 1972 – things would never be the same for anyone in the state thereafter.
Karunanidhi kept suffering debacle after debacle – he could never get the better of MGR right till the latter’s death. Even his attempts to portray him as a Keralite, an outsider and hence not to be trusted, came a cropper.
But through it all, Karunanidhi’s never-say-die spirit didn't flag one bit. He kept the party in the reckoning, striking alliances, choosing policy planks that could appeal to many sections, slamming the ruling AIADMK on its omissions and commissions, humouring those associates who had not deserted the ship and making the cadres feel they had a stake too by conducting regular inner party elections.
And when MGR passed away, Karunanidhi was there, ready to fill the vacuum. But again, fate was not kind to him when he overreached himself and sought to the crush the new challenge in the person of Jayalalithaa.
Karunanidhi was lucky, though, in his battles with MGR’s protégé, for Jaya’s own arrogance and her band of marauders had people cringe like never before, making them wonder whether the old man was not a lesser evil.
But he would come to power only to squander away the goodwill, and thus it became an endless game of musical chairs.
With Jayalalithaa too out of the scene now, it remains to be seen whether he can decimate the AIADMK for good, entrench the DMK in the portals of power and smoothen the way for his increasingly restless son Stalin.
Against that backdrop, Karunanidhi’s physical fitness should be matter of concern to his followers. But it may be noted here that unlike MGR and Jayalalithaa, the DMK veteran takes medical advice seriously and he has progressively cut down on all his unhealthy habits. If, for a nonagenarian, he is in good fettle, that is because of the self-imposed discipline on a whole host of fronts.
That is his biggest strength – he learns.