M Karunanidhi: ‘Thalaivar’ who shaped Tamil Nadu

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M Karunanidhi: ‘Thalaivar’ who shaped Tamil Nadu

Tuesday, 13 June 2023 | Kalyani Shankar

M Karunanidhi’s autobiography ‘Nenjukku Neethi' gives a glimpse of his life and struggle

Former Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi was many things to many people. He was 'Thalaivar" to his cadres, a wily politician to his opponents and a visionary to his admirers. His autobiography 'Nenjukku Neethi ' shows his life and struggle.

 Karunanidhi is among the half-a-dozen leaders who shaped Tamil Nadu. Considering his contribution to state, regional and national politics, it is only fitting for the state government to celebrate his birth centenary for a year from June 3. He died at 94 in August 2018. In his own words, Karunanidhi said, "I have written stories and dialogues for 75 films. I have used my career in films to dispel ignorance among the people in the lower rungs of society, to light up their lives, to remove inequities in society, to spread socially reformative and progressive views and to make Tamilians aware of the antiquity, the sweep, the grandeur and the richness of their language." Karunanidhi was chief minister for five terms spread over 19 years. He was DMK chief ten times and legislator 13 times. Growing up amid the Dravidian movement of the 1930s, the multi-faceted Karunanidhi began his life as an activist and journalist. He later became a powerful scriptwriter who used films as a medium to spread the DMK message. He epitomized Dravidian politics, rooted in the Justice Party that emerged in the old Madras Presidency in 1916.

Rising from humble origins and a champion of Dravidian politics, Karunanidhi joined politics at 14. When Annadurai launched the DMK in 1949, he was part of it. Karunanidhi became an MLA in 1957, a minister in 1967 and chief minister in 1969. He weathered many political storms. Indira Gandhi dismissed his government in 1976 when He opposed the Emergency. Prime Minister Chandrashekhar sacked his government in 1990. Meanwhile, his one-time friend M.G. Ramachandran split the party in 1972. He formed a new party Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Since then, the DMK and AIADMK have ruled the State. The DMK remained out of power from 1977 to 1987. MGR ruled till he died in 1987. After the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, AIADMK leader J. Jayalalithaa won in alliance with Congress in 1991. Since then, the DMK and the AIADMK have alternated in power except from 2011 to 2021.

He also dabbled in national politics. During the 1969 Congress split, he supported Indira Gandhi. When Jayaprakash Narayan launched the Janata Party, the DMK was part of it. He had a cosy relationship with several national leaders. The DMK was part of all coalitions, including the 1989 National Front, United Front in 1996, NDA in 1999, and UPA in 2004. He declined to be the Prime Minister in 1997 when H.D. Deve Gowda stepped down. Karunanidhi asserted, "En uyaram enakke theriyum (I know my height)."

During the 1969 Congress split, he supported Indira Gandhi. When Jayaprakash Narayan launched the Janata Party, the DMK was part of it.

A consummate politician, Karunanidhi could always gauge the public mood correctly. Just before the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, I asked him how he and other senior leaders like comrade Jyoti Basu accepted Congress chief Sonia Gandhi's (a novice compared to them) leadership. True to his prediction, the UPA defeated the Vajpayee government.

He made and unmade alliances based on electoral fortunes. He believed in no permanent enemies or friends in politics. Though Indira Gandhi got his government dismissed in 1976, he became an ally of Congress four years later. They hobnobbed with political leaders virtually across the spectrum. Karunanidhi played a crucial role in Indo-Sri Lankan relations. While MGR supported the LTTE, Karunanidhi had links with Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation, which LTTE finished. He criticized the Indo-Srilankan Accord. Karunanidhi's critics blamed him for his government's failure to take a decisive stand against the massacre of Sri Lankan Tamil in Sri Lanka in 2009. In the seventies, he also faced corruption charges, and the Sarkaria Commission partly acquitted him. The 2 G scam in 2010 also was a black mark during the UPA era.

On the plus side, despite consistent complaints that Karunanidhi had made the party his family property, he kept the cadres with him. He prepared a smooth succession plan and made his son M.K. Stalin succeed him. As a good administrator, he built the basic infrastructure which became the basis for industrialization in the State. Establishing the Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation and a range of welfare boards enabled the State to attract investments. Karunanidhi outlived all his opponents. But his place in Tamil Nadu and national politics will be remembered forever. He was known for constantly fighting with the Centre on states' rights and Federalism. Karunanidhi will always be remembered as the most colourful and daring politician of his time. He has left behind a lasting legacy.

(The writer is a senior journalist)

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