M Karunanidhi: A majestic political career dotted by mistakes

One of the leader’s major failings was that he never learnt from his mistakes.
M Karunanidhi: A majestic political career dotted by mistakes
M Karunanidhi: A majestic political career dotted by mistakes
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The death of five-time Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and the tallest Dravidian leader, M Karunanidhi, at the age of 94, marks the end of an era. For, his was a public life that spanned nearly seven decades, during which he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Rajaji, Kamaraj, Periyar EV Ramasamy, and the founder of DMK and its first Chief Minister CN Annadurai; as also, with his friend-turned-foe MG Ramachandran, and the rival’s successor J Jayalalithaa.

Karunanidhi’s was a turbulent political career that saw him in virtual political exile for 13 years and his government dismissed twice, first in 1976 and then in 1991.

It used to be said that you can love him or hate him but you cannot ignore him. It also used to be said that if he had been born in UP, he would have become Prime Minister, given his political acumen and shrewdness. He earned as many friends as he made enemies.

A self-proclaimed atheist, Karunanidhi was mentored by Periyar EV Ramasamy; and yet he was not in the forefront of the Dravidian movement as he was overshadowed by Annadurai, Navalar Nedunchezhiyan, Anbazhagan and other veterans. Anbazhagan, who has survived him, remained No. 2 to Karunanidhi all his life, and has long since reconciled himself to the fact that the baton will be passed on to Karunanidhi’s son, MK Stalin.

When Annadurai broke away from the Dravida Kazhagam (DK) to form the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1947, Karunanidhi followed him. The DMK won 15 seats in the first election it contested in 1957, increased its tally to 50 in 1962, and finally unseated the Congress in 1967.

From the time he entered the electoral battle in 1957 till 2016, Karunanidhi never lost a single election, a record of sorts, though the party he led as second-in-command and later as leader lost as often as it won.

It was this resilience, this never-say-die spirit, which kept him going long after his contemporaries like Annadurai and MGR passed into history.

Not learning from mistakes

One of Karunanidhi’s major failings was that he never learnt from his mistakes. For instance, it was Karunanidhi who brought movie-star-turned-politician MGR from the Congress to the DMK, which saw fellow star Sivaji Ganesan go back to the Congress.

Unlike Annadurai, who was sure of himself and so was not threatened by MGR’s growing popularity and rather exploited it to his advantage, Karunanidhi felt threatened. Ironically, after Annadurai’s death, Karunanidhi became Chief Minister mainly thanks to support from MGR.

Yet, when the 1972 Madurai DMK conference showed MGR’s emergence as a leader in his own right, Karunanidhi promoted his son MK Muthu in films. He formed fan clubs to sweep the rug from under MGR’s feet.

It boomeranged on Karunanidhi. Muthu faded into oblivion while MGR grew in strength after he was forced out of the DMK.

The irony was, MGR had no political ambition and was forced to fight back after his expulsion from the DMK. When MGR formed the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK which was later renamed to All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)), only a handful of leaders like KA Krishnaswamy followed him. Karunanidhi made a fierce onslaught on the AIADMK and that only increased MGR’s popularity, and eventually led him to power in 1977. It was this that made MGR dub Karunanidhi “an evil force”, an epithet that stuck for a while in the minds of people.

Despite the dismissal of his government in 1976 by Indira Gandhi, Karunanidhi made peace with her after the Janata government collapsed and she was on the comeback trail in 1980. The DMK-Congress alliance swept the Lok Sabha elections, trouncing the AIADMK. It was here that Karunanidhi made his second mistake – getting the MGR government dismissed by Indira. People soundly rebuffed him by bringing MGR back to power.

MGR sent Karunanidhi into a long political exile, from 1977 until MGR’s death in December 1987. Yet, Karunanidhi kept a firm grip on his party.

Karunanidhi’s third mistake was expelling Vaiko from the DMK after he became a threat to his rising son Stalin.

The final mistake was when Jayalalithaa lost in 1989 and thought of quitting public life and even prepared a letter of resignation from the Assembly and another letter announcing her retirement from politics. Sasikala’s husband Natarajan kept these two letters to blackmail Jayalalithaa. Karunanidhi brought these letters into the public domain to humiliate Jaya. She stormed into the Assembly like a wounded tigress and bore the brunt of the violence that broke out that day, March 25, 1989. And Karunanidhi further alienated women.

It was between 1989 and 1991 that Karunanidhi rolled out the red carpet to the LTTE to use Tamil Nadu as a rear base for its battle for Eelam, even after Prabhakaran took up arms against the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). Karunanidhi, accusing the Indian soldiers of rape and massacre of Tamils in Sri Lanka, refused to receive the returning soldiers. As a result, when Chandrasekhar as Prime Minister – with just 55 MPs – dismissed the Karunanidhi government on the ground that he had passed on state secrets to the LTTE, no one shed a tear for him. Giving a post-facto justification for the dismissal, the LTTE killed Rajiv Gandhi on Tamil Nadu soil on May 21, 1991.

When the final battle was fought in northern Sri Lanka from February to June 2009, the DMK was part of the UPA Government and yet Karunanidhi could not force the Centre to intervene. All that he did was a farcical breakfast-to-lunch fast for a ceasefire.

After the then Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee told him sternly that LTTE had become a threat to India’s security, Karunanidhi clammed up.

Historic and opportunistic role

Karunanidhi took the DMK to the national scene and his role was historic as well as opportunistic. It saw the emergence of an era of coalition of regional and national parties at the Centre, or the dawn of what he always dreamed of – federalism at the Centre and autonomy at the state level.

The DMK was part of the Janata Party government, the National Front government led by VP Singh in 1991, and even the United Front government in 1996, though all proved to be short-lived. Later, the DMK shared power with the BJP as a member of the NDA Government from 1999 to 2004, and Karunanidhi justified it on the ground that Vajpayee was “the right man in the wrong party.”

Yet he did not hesitate to pull the DMK out of the NDA in 2004 shortly after the passing of Murasoli Maran, and align with the Congress-led UPA to enjoy power at the Centre from 2004 to 2014.

Karunanidhi’s promotion of family rule started with the nomination of Murasoli Maran as minister in the VP Singh government, and later in the UF regime and the Vajpayee government. The story was no different when he got 15 plum portfolios in UPA I and II. It was corruption cases against Raja and Kanimozhi in the 2G scam and against Dayanidhi Maran in the telephone exchange scam which brought disrepute to the regime.

His last tenure as Chief Minister from 2006 to 2011 saw nepotism and corruption at their peak, with his family members controlling all spheres of life in Tamil Nadu. This turned into marked revulsion for him by the people which enabled Jayalalitha to win two consecutive times, in 2011 and 2016.

Ironically, Karunanidhi did not instantly promote Stalin. Stalin’s rise in the party and in the government was gradual, spread over nearly 40 years. Stalin was made No 2 officially as working president only after Karunanidhi’s illness forced him into retirement. Even in the 2016 Assembly elections, Stalin projected Karunanidhi as Chief Minister, a factor which made him lose narrowly to Jayalalithaa.

After Rajaji and Kamaraj, it was Karunanidhi who had close rapport with several top national leaders from various parties. That way, he made the DMK spread its wings, but he stayed rooted in Tamil Nadu.

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