Bangalore/Chennai: When Muthuvel Karunanidhi, the 86-year-old, battle-scarred veteran of Tamil Nadu politics filed papers from his native Tirvarur, a rural constituency 325 kilometres south of Chennai, seeking re-election to the assembly a record 12th time, it sent a powerful signal to his party, partners, opponents and political analysts. In what could be his final electoral battle, an emotional Karunanidhi visited his mother Anjugam Ammiyar’s memorial before the filing.
For his detractors, Karunanidhi’s shifting of constituencies was acknowledgment that the urban voter seemed to have turned against his party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazgham (DMK), because of the controversy surrounding the second-generation (2G) spectrum scam, dynastic politics and corruption.
After all, hadn’t Karunanidhi fought and won the last nine of his elections from urban constituencies in and around Chennai, including Saidapet, Anna Nagar, Harbour and Chepauk. Why would the general leading the party in the battle along with his chosen successor, son M.K. Stalin, abandon urban seats for safer rural ones, unless they perceived winds blowing against them?
For party men though, it was the patriarch’s electoral swan song, which he wanted to contest from his home turf. Never has Karunanidhi been personally defeated in an election. Not even in 1991, when the All-India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Congress alliance, riding on the sympathy wave that followed the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, swept the polls with DMK being decimated to a mere two of the 234 constituencies in the state.
Ever since 1991, Karunanidhi has alternated as the CM of the state with J. Jayalalithaa the AIADMK supremo. While all elections are important, this is a must-win battle for Karunanidhi for a number of reasons. But here we are getting ahead of the story.
Kalaignar (scholar of the arts) as Karunanidhi is called by his admirers was born into a family of temple musicians who traditionally hail from a caste called Isai Vellars, who play the nadaswaram and on some occasions like weddings double up as barbers.
The perceived slights, insults and treatment meted out to him during his growing up years as well as the ideological influence of the Justice Party, through which Karunanidhi entered public life, created an abiding hatred of the upper castes.
Even after seven decades, the fire in his demeanour and anger in tone against the injustices of the caste system has not diminished. On 2 April, addressing a rally at Vellore, Karunanidhi in his trademark gravelly voice said “those who wear the ‘poonool’ (a sacred thread worn by Brahmins) are bent upon ensuring that DMK does not come to power.” Of course, it helps him that his arch enemy Jayalilthaa is a Brahmin.
Karunanidhi made his mark initially as a 14-year-old boy by participating in agitations against Hindi being imposed in what was then Madras province, which later would become Tamil Nadu. However his true success came, when as a scriptwriter, he penned the controversial ‘Parasakthi,’ a landmark Tamil movie in which again touched upon his favourite theme of anti-Brahminism.
The movie provided the launching pad for Sivaji Ganesan who later became a super star. Karunanidhi, with his wit and powerful dialogue, emerged as a potent screen writer. Today, he is credited with 75 screenplays including some he penned after becoming chief minister. Early on, it taught Karunanidhi the power of wielding the pen and the influence that the movie industry could wield on society as a propaganda tool. A self-taught Tamil scholar who has penned, songs, plays, novels, Karunanidhi also started a newspaper which eventually became Murasoli, the party’s mouthpiece.
Inspired by ‘Periyar’ (elder one), E.V. Ramaswamy’s ideology of anti-Brahminism and a distinct Tamizh identity, Karunanidhi was a part of the Justice Party that eventually morphed into the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK). But when C N Annadurai split with Periyar to form the DMK, Karunanidhi moved with him and was elected to the Tamil Nadu assembly from Kulithalai in 1957, becoming party treasurer, an key post, in 1961.
When the DMK came to power in 1967, Annadurai appointed him as public works minister and when Anna died in 1969, Karunanidhi became chief minister for the first time. He also made a key appointment which he would shortly come to regret. The new CM appointed M.G. Ramachandran, a popular hero whose first hit movie ‘Rajakumaari’ he had penned, as the treasurer of the DMK.
As MGR’s popularity began to soar, a worried Karunanidhi tried to cut him down to size by launching M.K. Muthu, his son from his first marriage, as a hero. However, Muthu failed to match MGR’s charisma and was a disaster at the box office.
MGR accused Karunanidhi of corruption and was promptly expelled in 1972. MGR went on to build his own Anna DMK later called the All India Anna DMK. In the 1977 elections, MGR’s new party was swept to power. MGR, with his movie star charisma and popular welfare programmes such as the mid-day meal scheme (to encourage school children to attend classes) and alliance with the Congress which ruled at the Centre, also taught Karunanidhi the power of populism and the importance of alliances.
DMK and Karunanidhi never tasted power till MGR’s death in 1987. A splintered AIADMK, with one faction being controlled by MGR’s wife Janaki and another by MGR’s heroine in several of his blockbusters, J Jayalalithaa, helped Karunanidhi come back to power in 1989.
However, two years later, after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Karunanidhi, who was sympathetic to LTTE, was dismissed from power and in the subsequent election was routed at the hustings by a reunited AIADMK under Jayalalithaa’s leadership. It made Karunanidhi realise the importance of having a sympathetic ear at the Centre.
He was aided in this task by his nephew Murasoli Maran, a suave literateur and a script writer himself who was fluent in English. It was Maran who helped Karunanidhi in navigating the turbulent politics of the 1990s when the Congress party’s hold at the Centre was not as strong as it was earlier. Maran even stitched up an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, when the DMK joined the National Democratic Alliance.
It was a far cry from the days of so-called ideological purity, when the DMK would paint the Jan Sangh and the its successor, the BJP, as parties of the upper castes. The DMK may have once stood for Tamil nationalism and an anti-upper caste ideology but rivals like Subramanian Swamy of the Janata Party today accuse the ageing patriarch’s family (two living wives and three children active in politics) of running a profitable business empire rather than a political party with socialist ideologies.
Maran’s sons, grand nephews of Karunanidhi, run a business empire including numerous television channels, movie production companies, a cable distribution network which enjoys near monopoly status in the state, an all-India FM network, newspapers and other periodicals apart from an airline.
Karunanidhi’s first wife Padmavathi died in 1948. Second wife Dayalu Ammal’s elder son Alagiri, known for his rough and ready tactics, is Union chemicals and fertiliser minister and dominates Tamil Nadu’s southern districts. Younger son Stalin, the anointed successor and the current deputy CM, presides over the north and west of the state. While Alagiri and Stalin’s sons have so far steered clear of politics, they are fast rising financiers of the Tamil film industry, with Stalin’s son also debuting as an actor in the coming months. Within the family itself, Karunanidhi is sandwiched in a tug of war for power. While second wife Dayalu, 77, pushes for a better deal for her favourite son, Alagiri, Rajathi, 66, his third wife, is persistently eyeing better prospects for her only daughter, Kanimozhi, a Rajya Sabha MP.
A November 2010 report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India said that the pan-India 2G licences offered to nine firms for Rs1,658 crore by the then telecom minister A. Raja of the DMK had caused a notional revenue loss of up to Rs1.76 trillion. Raja is currently in custody for his alleged role over the 2008 allotment of frequencies. Still, Karunanidhi in his election speeches continues to say that Raja is innocent and is being targeted for being a Dalit.
The Central Bureau of Investigation, which has widened its probe into the 2G scam, has questioned Kanimozhi and his second wife Dayalu Ammal on the alleged transfer of money from Mumbai-based Cineyug to Kalaignar TV, in which both jointly own 80% stake.
A.S. Panneerselvan, executive director of Panos South Asia, who is writing a book on Karunanidhi, however claims that the 2G spectrum scam is unlikely to have any impact on the fortunes of DMK.
“For rural users, telecom prices have come down. So, they are not going to be crying over Raja. Corruption charges hurt a party when it hurts people,” he said. “The state spent on social welfare schemes and also underwent rapid industrialization that created employment opportunities.”
A fractious family, restive allies, an ageing patriarch dogged by charges of corruption and nepotism by a determined opponent, and the weight of anti-incumbency -- can the octogenarian, wheel-chair-bound Karunanidhi beat the odds?
“Karunanidhi has tremendous will power,” says A.R. Venkatachalapathy, a social historian at the Madras Institute of Development Studies.
“He cannot think of retiring. This election is important for him because he has to win this election and pass it on to his family. The traditional strength of the DMK is strong party cadre at various levels,” adds Venkatachalapathy. “It is now squandering it away for the sake of getting the family members entrenched in the power structure. Increasingly, people from the top are divorced from reality. The Karunanidhi who fought the 1957 election is not the same person now. Especially in the last few years, he has followed Jayalalithaa’s path of encouraging a huge amount of sycophancy.”
On charges of nepotism, DMK spokesperson T.K.S. Elangovan says: “We’ve created a golden period under Kalaignar and although family members are in the forefront, they are not dominating the cadre and there is significant inner-party democracy.”
For Karunanidhi, who has written many a blockbuster in the past, victory at the hustings will be the one outcome he would like to script.