Karunanidhi would like to be the bridegroom in every marriage, poet Kannadasan had once jibed.

Ninety-four years of Muthuvel Karunanidhi the leader who knew how tall he was or wasnt
news Opinion Friday, June 02, 2017 - 18:54

He is known for his entrancing oratory, but Muthuvel Karunanidhi perhaps wouldn’t be able utter a single word when his followers paint the town red and black, the colours of the DMK’s flag, to mark his 94th birthday on June 3, 2017.

This year also happens to be the diamond jubilee year of his entry into the state legislature, which has given the party a reason to scale up on the celebrations. Several national leaders, including perhaps Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, will be trooping in on Saturday to greet him, but the DMK patriarch’s health disables him from even having a conversation with them. He is said to be suffering from some form of dementia, and has not been seen in public since he was hospitalised in October last year, but what would hurt Karunanidhi the most on this day is his speech-impairment. 

“He might not be able to conquer death, but his capacity to fight back is incredible. Just as he has overcome many political adversities with consummate aplomb, he could be tiding over the current health crisis too. Speech therapy is proving successful. Before long he would be meeting people,” a senior member of his family had gushed a month ago.

But then there are limits to what therapy can do to old age. For the first time in several decades, he might not speak to the media on his birthday, and will possibly remain in the background while his son Stalin takes centerstage.

A full political life, and great image management

Karunanidhi has lived a full life, as the cliché goes. His political baptism happened when he was barely 14 years old. He says he took the plunge during the anti-Hindi agitation led by Periyar EV Ramasamy. Three decades later, he donned the mantle of leadership of the DMK, and there has been no stopping since. Through all the ups and downs, he continues to be adored by millions, with even his critics unstinting in their praise for some of his redeeming qualities.

Karunanidhi with Anna


Karunanidhi, with Periyar and DK's Veeramani.

Since 1957, when he first entered the legislature, he has not lost a single election himself. He chose to keep away from the polls only once, but has otherwise managed to get elected every time, whatever the fortunes of the party led by him.

His political success, however, was not without some dramatic image management. Those who can follow Tamil should listen to this song:

The refrain of this song, repeatedly played at DMK meets, is his participation in the Kallakudi agitation in 1953, when he lay down on a rail track, avowedly to stop train movements (his detractors cheekily point out that he chose tracks which trains would not be plying at the time), but he was quickly arrested and went on to become a leader of some note. The Kallakudi agitation achieved precious little. But the lyrics of this popular song would like you to believe that the demonstration was a watershed movement in the history of Tamil society.

In a way, the song is a metaphor for the Dravidian movement itself - preening no end, but with nothing much to show for it all.  

When asked what has been the success of the DMK, ardent Karunanidhi supporters would bristle and insinuate that the person raising the question is a Brahmin or a stooge of the upper castes, but fumble for an answer. Barring wholesale debrahminization of the administration and greater recruitment of the OBCs at all levels, it is difficult to point to any single achievement of Karunanidhi down the decades.

Even in the case of such empowerment, dubious considerations were certainly behind the inclusion of many castes into the OBC list, in order to make them eligible for reservation in jobs and educational institutions. Corruption hit new highs, and so did the repression of dissent and wholesale thuggery.

The good leader who knew his height

Nemesis was not too long coming. Both MGR and Jayalalithaa pulverized him time and again, yet he clawed his way back -  he was able to retain his sway over considerable segments and has always been a man in the reckoning. Read this piece for a more detailed look on his chequered career, through which he managed to remain in the reckoning.

How could he manage such a feat? Whatever the machinations behind his capture of the party leadership, he quickly won the affection and respect of his cadres through the patronage networks he established. The regional satraps enjoyed a broad measure of ‘sovereignty’ in their respective territories, and they were appropriately grateful. The resulting connect, going down to the last worker, remained intact to this day, notwithstanding his fluctuating fortunes in the electoral arena.

Karunanidhi, Kamaraj, MGR and others waiting outside the hospital where Anna was admitted before he died. 

Some praise his administrative acumen, yet others dispute it, saying he has never been as decisive as Jayalalithaa.  In his defense, it might be argued that he had always striven to strike a balance between conflicting pulls, instead of bulldozing his way through. Whatever the case may be, he would always treat officials with respect, something that could not be said of the lady. And by large the media enjoyed a relatively easy access to him.

And for all his narcissism, he didn’t hold much of a grudge against anyone. When those who fell out returned, they would be duly accommodated, without having to feel too humiliated.

The lady, on the other hand, wasn’t so accommodative of returned detractors. When an AIADMK leader, who was Jayalalithaa’s lieutenant during a crucial period, beat the retreat after an innings away, she made him circulate a picture of his wife and him falling at her feet, embarrassing him no end. Such things don’t happen in Karunanidhi’s court. He made and unmade alliances as demanded by the exigencies, but there was always an air of dignity, no nasty falling out or hectoring. 

In 1997, there was a move to make his then ally Karuppiah Moopanar the Prime Minister of India, but Karunanidhi remained non-committal. When somebody prodded him on whether he himself had such ambitions, he retorted, “I know my height.”  It was not only a jocular reference to his own physical stature (for he isn’t very tall) but also a biting reminder to Moopanar that he was aiming for something far beyond his reach. The eventual burial of Moopanar’s candidature notwithstanding, Karunanidhi’s quip echoed through the nation. His attitude might have been in bad taste, yet people were excitedly talking about his quick wit. His attacks on the opposition became refined over a period of time, and many readily acknowledge him as an elder statesman.

Karunanidhi, Deve Gowda and Moopanar.

He also retained an abiding interest in Tamil classics, thus adding to the aura behind him. Right after his 1991 debacle, he revealed to this correspondent that he was writing a commentary on Tholkappiyam, an ancient work on Tamil grammar. The news evoked gasps all round. Another time, he turned his attention to Thirukkural, hailed as the Tamil veda. His puns have endeared him to the masses too.

In these circumstances, a seventh stint as the Chief Minister would have been a fitting finale to a career spanning nearly eight decades, but age has overtaken him.

Karunanidhi would like to be the bridegroom in every marriage, poet Kannadasan, his onetime associate, had jibed. He might not be one in the next round of state elections, but his son Stalin would be. And if he does triumph, the credit would redound to his dear dad in a large measure.

All images: www.dmk.in archives.

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