Home >Lounge >Features >M Karunanidhi versus J Jayalalithaa: A clash of titans
DMK supporters near Chennai’s Kauvery Hospital where DMK president M. Karunanidhi was admitted. Photo: PTI
DMK supporters near Chennai’s Kauvery Hospital where DMK president M. Karunanidhi was admitted. Photo: PTI

M Karunanidhi versus J Jayalalithaa: A clash of titans

An excerpt from journalist Vaasanthi's new biography of the DMK leader revisits his famous rivalry with AIADMK's J Jayalalithaa

A sordid political drama…began to unfold (after MGR’s death). The AIADMK split vertically as MGR’s wife Janaki, a novice in politics, was propped up by MGR’s trusted lieutenant R.M. Veerappan aka RMV, to be installed as the state’s first woman chief minister. The other faction too was led by a woman, MGR’s favourite film star, Jayalalithaa Jayaram. Jayalalithaa declared: ‘When Karunanidhi expelled MGR in 1972, the former had the MLAs but the latter walked away with party workers. The same thing is happening now.’

Tamil Nadu Governor Sundar Lal Khurana hastily accepted Janaaki’s claim to form the government but also gave her three weeks to prove her strength in the Assembly. The factional fighting that now came out into the open was the worst in Tamil Nadu’s political history, with each faction holding MLAs hostage in five-star hotels. On the appointed day, the warring groups turned so violent that the Assembly had to be adjourned sine die. A state of emergency was declared and President’s rule imposed for six months, and again extended for another six months, for no reason except perhaps to conduct the Assembly polls along with the Lok Sabha elections in 1989.

The electoral battle following the lifting of president’s rule was fought by four fronts: the Janaki and Jayalalithaa factions of the AIADMK, the DMK and the Congress.

The Congress decided to go alone and suffered a humiliating defeat…. The split in the AIADMK into the Janaki group and the Jayalalithaa group divided the votes as well and the people of Tamil Nadu went for a less confusing choice. They opted for stability and voted for the DMK and its experienced leader, Karunanidhi, who had been languishing in the political wilderness since 1977.

The DMK won 151 seats while Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK won twenty-seven and the Congress twenty-six. Jayalalithaa became the leader of the Opposition. The Janaki faction failed miserably and MGR’s widow quit politics altogether, announcing the merger of her faction with that of Jayalalithaa.

The merger gave Jayalalithaa the popular two leaves electoral symbol and she became the undisputed leader of the AIADMK. And lest anyone still had any doubts, Jayalalithaa, at a post-election conference in Chennai, declared, ‘I am the leader of this party and it is my utterances alone that are to be considered, not irresponsible statements made by others in the party.’

In by-elections to two constituencies that followed soon after, the AIADMK won with a big margin, signalling that Jayalalithaa was a force to reckon with, even though her party had fared poorly in the main polls.

Many AIADMK leaders were unhappy at the way Jayalalithaa was consolidating her position, and they worried about their own future. But they did not revolt since the election results had clearly shown that she was the only vote catcher in the party.

'Karunanidhi: The Definitive Biography' is published by Juggernaut Books.
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'Karunanidhi: The Definitive Biography' is published by Juggernaut Books.

Karunanidhi now understood that he would have to drive Jayalalithaa out of politics. A case was foisted on Jayalalithaa and her aide Natarajan, implicating them in fraud and attempt to murder. It was alleged that the deposit money collected before the Assembly elections from the ticket seekers who were left out of the fray was not refunded, and that Natarajan threatened to kill them when they demanded their money back. Some of them lodged complaints and the DMK played it up. Lack of funds was a serious issue in the AIADMK. Finally, police harassment over these charges forced Jayalalithaa to announce that she was resigning from the state Assembly. She even wrote a resignation letter to the Speaker but later said she never actually sent the letter. Meanwhile, news appeared in the press that she had resigned. The letter had mysteriously reached the Speaker who confirmed the news. Jayalalithaa sent a letter to the Speaker claiming that since she had never dispatched the resignation letter, he need not take cognizance of the letter he possessed. The Speaker therefore announced that she remained the leader of the Opposition in the Assembly.

The public, however, was not able to figure out who was speaking the truth, and the ruling DMK spread the word that Jayalalithaa was mentally unstable.

When the budget session began on 25 March 1989, Chief Minister Karunanidhi, who also held the finance portfolio, stood up to begin his budget speech. Before he could start speaking, the deputy leader of the Congress, Kumari Anandan, rising on a point of order, said that the police had acted undemocratically and in a high-handed manner against the leader of the Opposition, Jayalalithaa, which amounted to a breach of privilege towards a member of the House. Karunanidhi, who was home minister as well, was responsible for the police, and so Anandan sought the permission of the House to discuss the matter.

Jayalalithaa then sprang to her feet and alleged that at the instigation of the chief minister, the police had acted against her and her telephone was tapped, and these acts amounted to a breach of her privilege as a member of the House and leader of the Opposition. She also charged Karunanidhi with misuse of power to deny her democratic rights. She urged the chair to discuss the motion of breach of privilege against the chief minister and the police commissioner, P. Durai. P.H. Pandian who was then in the Janaki faction (he would later fall at Jayalalithaa’s feet when she became the chief minister) objected to her motion. He used foul language that was expunged by the Speaker. But Pandian’s words sparked off a heated argument by Jayalalithaa’s supporters and the Speaker was unable to permit a discussion on the privilege motion. Pandemonium broke out as angry AIADMK members occupied the well of the House, shouting and gesticulating wildly.

When Jayalalithaa repeated that a person charged with ‘criminal acts’ should not be allowed to present the budget, Karunanidhi, according to a reporter present, made a rude remark directed at Jayalalithaa, which too was expunged. An AIADMK member charged towards Karunanidhi. He lost his balance and his spectacles fell to the floor. Several DMK ministers rushed to protect him. Missiles flew from both sides and mikes were pulled out and used as weapons. An AIADMK member tore up pages of the budget. Chappals and books landed on Jayalalithaa’s head. The Speaker adjourned the House, and the chief minister was escorted out of the House by his MLAs even as the mayhem continued. Jayalalithaa sat in tears, with her head in her hands. After a while, when she attempted to leave, Thirunavukkarasar, an AIADMK member (now in the Congress) alleged that Durai Murugan, a DMK minister, pulled the end of her sari pallu. No eyewitness came forward to support this but the allegation spread fast among the public.

Durai Murugan to this day vehemently denies the charges made against him….

Whatever the truth, people believed Jayalalithaa’s story when she came out of the Assembly, teary-eyed and with dishevelled hair.

Enraged and humiliated, Jayalalithaa left, swearing never to step foot inside the House ‘until conditions are created under which a woman may attend the Assembly safely’.

Assured of its strength, the DMK probably concluded that the shame and humiliation would make Jayalalithaa flee from active politics. Little did they know they had given her a magnificent obsession and a burning ambition – to come back as chief minister of Tamil Nadu.

Edited excerpt published with permission from Juggernaut Books. Karunanidhi: The Definitive Biography (Rs599) is available to read for free on the Juggernaut app. It will be on sale soon.

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