How Karunanidhi’s ambition and strategy catapulted DMK to the national stage

In this excerpt from his forthcoming book, Dravidian movement chronicler R. Kannan describes Karunanidhi’s tumultuous early years

R Kannan
First Published11 Jul 2024, 05:00 PM IST
M. Karunanidhi. Photo by RS Kumar/MINT
M. Karunanidhi. Photo by RS Kumar/MINT

M. Karunanidhi showcased his talent for writing and organization early on. He edited a handwritten journal, headed a student organization and led processions against Hindi imposition in 1938. While in high school, EVR’s (E.V. Periyar Ramasamy) weekly, Kudiarasu (Republic), interested him much more than school lessons. The result: he failed his intermediate exams all the three times he was allowed to take them. Furthermore, his self-respect precepts upended his marriage to the girl he had fallen in love with from a conservative family. Heartbroken, he dabbled in playwriting and acting and in 1945, on EVR’s invite, Karunanidhi joined Kudiarasu in Erode as an assistant editor. It would be the best apprenticeship he could have ever had.

A year later, with EVR’s permission, he relocated to Salem to pen the script for Rajakumari (Princess, 1947), where he met Marudur Gopala Ramachandran (MGR), its hero. It was a runaway success. Mandhirikumari (Minister’s Daughter, 1950) that followed was also a huge hit. A string of successes would make them household names by 1950. The two would begin a friendship and journey that helped each other scale newer heights in films and public life.

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Karunanidhi penned stories and scripts for seventy-five movies and innumerable propagandist plays such as Udayasuryian (Rising Sun), which helped popularize the DMK’s symbol, the rising sun. His commentaries for Thirukkural Sangam literature, displayed his ceaseless pen, which poured out rich, elegant Tamil with often sharp social reform messaging. Parasakthi (1952) with Sivaji Ganesan remains his most popular film, with the hero’s five-minute court monologue being the jewel among the immortal lines in the film.

In the 1949 split between EVR and Anna, Karunanidhi stood by Anna. His commitment, drive and talent would soon give him an early start. He presided over the party’s Kovilpatti conference in 1951, which had chalked out visions of a drawn-out struggle for an independent Dravida Nadu or south India. Not surprisingly, in less than two years, he led the party’s now famous Kallakudi agitation in 1953—displaying imagination and leadership when he lay on the rail tracks, exceeding the party mandate and cementing Anna’s confidence in him. That year, he also enticed MGR into the party.

Karunanidhi began to command an individual following in the party early on. As the third treasurer of the party from 1959 till Anna’s death, he proved a consummate fundraiser. His influence was such that, in 1961, E.V.K. Sampath demanded that the function be entrusted to no one individual. He was far-sighted. In 1972, MGR, now treasurer, took exception to how Karunanidhi played favourites with the election funds in the 1971 elections without his knowledge. But earlier, in the 1967 elections, Karunanidhi’s money-raising skills exceeded Anna’s expectations and the 10 lakh limit set by the party, prompting Anna to give him the moniker ‘Mr Eleven Lakhs’. Anna increasingly relied on Karunanidhi to deal with intra-party issues. On Anna’s behalf, he negotiated political alliances and, in 1967, stitched together the rainbow alliance that brought the DMK to power that year.

'The DMK Years: Ascent, Descent, Survival', by R. Kannan, published by Penguin Random House India, 752 pages, 1299

Felicitating him on his birthday on 3 June 1968, Anna said: “Karunanidhi is someone who, whether asked to lie on the rails or take up the minister of public works position, would take the command as the same and would harness all his talent to complete it—the country knows that I for sure have a great deal of affection and respect for him.”

On 6 March 1969, Karunanidhi succeeded Anna as chief minister. In his first and second innings that lasted until 31 January 1976, he took the social revolution engineered by the DMK forward with his left-of-centre agenda, social justice, populist schemes like eye camps, Tamil cultural renaissance and clamour for state autonomy. He proved an able administrator in touch with the ground. He nationalized buses, expanded the public distribution system, increased food subsidies and promoted industries.

His ambition, operation and political strategy catapulted the DMK to a national role. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi banked on his support for her reformist agenda and to break free of K. Kamaraj, the regional boss. In 1971, the DMK was re-elected with a brute majority, and Karunanidhi emerged out of Anna’s shadow. The young chief minister’s combative spirit and ideological assertiveness grated on Indira Gandhi’s lieutenants in Tamil Nadu. Relations with Delhi began to sour. In 1971, when he was at the zenith of his second political innings, his followers compared him to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of Bangladesh. However, his worst nightmare also began in October 1972, when ally-turned-rival MGR broke away, levelling charges of nepotism and corruption that dogged his political career until his end. Similarly, he lived through the charge of introducing a whole new generation to alcohol when he lifted prohibition in 1972, citing financial reasons.

A new low between the Centre and the DMK was reached when Karunanidhi fiercely opposed the Emergency. His bête noire MGR’s craven rollover to Indira Gandhi may have left Karunanidhi with little choice. Karunanidhi, nonetheless, prided himself as a valiant fighter. On 31 January 1976, his government was dismissed for corruption and planning violence. A witch-hunt of DMK men followed with 419 party workers, including Stalin and nephew Murasoli Maran, jailed under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). In this dark period, he refused to yield.

Shaken by the dismissal and the repressive Emergency measures, some frontline leaders feared Karunanidhi was taking the party down with him and advocated disbanding the DMK and turning it into a social welfare outfit. At this point, echoing their sentiments, Pulavar Govindan, the Assembly Speaker, wrote Karunanidhi a letter, requesting him to step down. In his lengthy reply, Karunanidhi said they could have given him poison instead and that a good politician was akin to a captain who would not desert his ship even if it were to sink.

The ‘captain’ was friendless and alone. Those who owed their place to him were now asking him to quit. With the Emergency censors banning political activity or writing, Karunanidhi resorted to allegory. On 19 July 1976, he wrote about himself and his situation poignantly using the selfless palm tree as a metaphor. The best of his letters, this deals with the palm’s humble beginnings, how it grew on its own without anyone watering or tending it, and its self-effacing sacrifice and service to others who proved ingrates….

Despite what those cowering leaders thought of him, Karunanidhi had long become the party. Notwithstanding the Emergency, men and women travelled to Chennai in buses and vans to meet their Thalaivar (leader), get photographed with him and contribute to the party’s legal defence fund against the Sarkaria Commission. To avoid the regime’s restrictions, they dressed as pilgrims and tonsured their heads, except that their shrine was their Thalaivar’s abode. While party elders were so stricken with the fear of associating with him, droves of families came daily to hold his hand, shed tears and assure him that they were with him.

Excerpted with permission from ‘The DMK Years: Ascent, Descent, Survival’, by R. Kannan, published by Penguin Random House India.

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First Published:11 Jul 2024, 05:00 PM IST
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