Nepotism or survival? Why Karunanidhi chose family when it came to New Delhi

The first rebellion was in 1961 when EVK Sampath, one of DMK’s first Parliamentarians, and a nephew of Periyar, walked out of the DMK.
Nepotism or survival? Why Karunanidhi chose family when it came to New Delhi
Nepotism or survival? Why Karunanidhi chose family when it came to New Delhi
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"It is a vendetta against DMK and my family ranging from Kanyakumari to Himalayas… They have avenged us successfully. But they don’t want to stop with this; they want our entire family, place, our belongings and party office to be totally obliterated, so that only kusa grass may then grow there.”

These words were penned by former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK President M Karunanidhi in the party mouthpiece ‘Murasoli’ in May 2011, just days after his daughter and Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi was arrested in connection with 2G spectrum scam. And while Karunanidhi chose not to name anyone or any party, his message was clear – Kanimozhi’s arrest was a personal attack. But in doing so, the grand old patriarch inadvertently admitted to what perhaps was his biggest criticism – that ‘Kalaignar’ promoted his family, and their interests.  

The alleged corruption scams involving his daughter Kanimozhi, and his grandnephew and former Union Telecom Minister Dayanidhi Maran, gave more credence to this belief, while arming his rivals with ammunition.

But while the decision to send family members to New Delhi is, in hindsight, what led to the downward spiral, it was not born out of nepotism; it was an attempt to quell rebellion.

Rebellion in Delhi

“Anybody who was sent to Delhi betrayed him, and the party. They either shifted loyalties, or became a liability after moving to New Delhi,” observes RK Radhakrishnan, Associate Editor at Frontline. The first rebellion was in 1961 when EVK Sampath, one of DMK’s first Parliamentarians, and a nephew of Periyar, who started the Self-Respect Movement, walked out of the DMK, going on to form the Tamil National Party.

The distance between Delhi and Madras created an air of suspicion.

Describing EVK Sampath’s split from the DMK in 1961, the Economic Weekly writes, “These groups began to view with disfavour Sampath's growing prestige as the 'spokesman for the South'. He seemed to be cast in a different mould, not quite one of them – less given to melodrama and extravagant speech. During his sojourn in Delhi as Member of the Lok Sabha, Sampath realised two things: one, that Northerners were not as terrible as he had supposed; two, that a Dravida Nadu which included Andhra, Kerala and Mysore besides Madras was absurd, since the other Southern States wanted nothing of the sort. He also disliked the frequent hooliganism of his partymen. He wanted party procedure to be made more democratic.”

The second blow came when three-time MP Nanjil Manoharan quit the DMK in 1974, joining Karunanidhi’s friend-turned-foe MG Ramachandran’s AIADMK.

Three years later, it was Era Sezhiyan, who drifted away to become a prominent leader in the Janata Party. Sezhiyan’s decision to leave the DMK served a huge blow to the regional party. Considered a parliamentarian par excellence, Frontline’s obituary of Sezhiyan states that he was “respected by many as a great champion of Tamil causes in the face of an increasingly unitarised Centre in New Delhi for more than three decades.”

Representing the DMK from 1962 to 1977, Sezhiyan became the voice of the party in Parliament, and was one of the key leaders involved in proposing and giving shape to the idea of state autonomy, observes the magazine. But it was the Emergency that saw Sezhiyan move away from the DMK towards Jayaprakash Narayan, who went on to found the Janata Party.

Another veteran journalist in Tamil Nadu observes that multiple rebellions over the years had created an aura of suspicion for those who moved camp to New Delhi. And although DMK was not the only party to be hit by such defections, the solution came in the form of Murasoli Maran, Karunanidhi’s nephew.

Karunanidhi’s conscience keeper

Described by Karunanidhi as his conscience keeper, Murasoli Maran was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 1967. Packing his bags to New Delhi, Maran soon became the eyes and ears of the DMK President in the national capital. It was reportedly at his behest that the DMK took several alliance decisions, including opting to go with VP Singh in 1988, supporting the United Front government under Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda in 1996, and even joining hands with the BJP-led NDA in 2001. But Murasoli Maran was content being the backroom negotiator and DMK’s face in Delhi, even as Karunanidhi groomed his younger son MK Stalin to take over the reins in Chennai.

When Murasoli Maran died in November 2003, the void was both deep and sudden for Karunanidhi. It was out of respect for Murasoli Maran that the DMK Chief offered a ticket to his younger son, Dayanidhi, in the 2004 Lok Sabha Elections.

“It was in 2004 that it became family politics. It is unfair to Murasoli to call it family politics. He was a man of stature. He became an MP in 1967 before Karunanidhi was party president. He was cabinet minister in several governments, and went on to represent India at Doha in the World Trade Organisation, and was the Indian emissary to meet the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair,” says the veteran journalist.

Trust and disappointment

The biggest mistake Karunanidhi made, says the journalist, was allowing first-time MP Dayanidhi Maran to become a Union Minister.

“It should have been incremental growth, but instead it was accelerated, giving more power to Dayanidhi Maran,” he notes. But his downfall came in 2007. The publication of a survey in Tamil newspaper Dinakaran, owned by his brother Kalanithi Maran, stating that 70% of people favoured Stalin over his brother Alagiri as Karunanidhi’s political heir, created a rift in the family. Dayanidhi Maran was forced to step down, but the damage had been done – both in the family and in the party.

A few weeks later, the DMK nominated Kanimozhi as a Rajya Sabha MP. With the Maran brothers exacerbating the open feud between Stalin and Alagiri, Karunanidhi was forced to do a balancing act at the cost of his party. “By bringing Kanimozhi into politics, Karunanidhi had to give Alagiri a seat,” says the journalist.

TR Baalu, who was a cabinet minister in UPA-I, and in the NDA government, was someone Karunanidhi had deep trust in to act as a liaison between Chennai and Delhi, despite not being a member of the family. But the DMK patriarch was left disappointed, after Baalu kept assuring Karunanidhi that Kanimozhi would not get into trouble in the 2G scam. When Kanimozhi was eventually arrested, DMK insiders say a senior Congress leader made it clear that Baalu was kept in the loop, and was aware that Kanimozhi would be named in the case – a fact that he chose to keep hidden.

Like Dayanidhi Maran, Alagiri – a first-time MP – was made a cabinet minister in UPA-II after much haggling. But this decision backfired yet again. With an abysmal attendance percentage of 4% across five years, Alagiri quickly gained the reputation of being a serial absentee. Despite being warned of being disbarred as a member, Alagiri refused to pay any heed, attributing his lack of English and Hindi proficiency as his reason to skip Parliament.

Karunanidhi’s decision to send family members including Kanimozhi, Alagiri and Dayanidhi Maran to Delhi may have stemmed from his distrust due to past experiences. While Kanimozhi and Maran became efficient interlocutors, Alagiri turned out to be a failure.

The DMK under Karunanidhi’s stewardship has left a dual legacy in Delhi. One of a regional party that contributed vastly to national politics – batting for state autonomy, and federalism at the Centre but also one that allowed nepotism and corruption to flourish.

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