Friday marks the 50th year of veteran politician Muthuvel Karunanidhi being the DMK President. The 94 year old elder statesman has been a fixture of Tamil Nadu politics for decades. His son MK Stalin called on party cadres to mark the occasion saying in part, “Let us celebrate the golden jubilee of our leader assuming office as party chief”. In a letter to party workers, he noted the responsibility that his father bore, assuming the role of President on July 27 1969 after the passing of the DMK founder leader C N Annadurai.
Currently, he is seeking medical care for a urinary tract infection with doctors stating that there has been a slight decline in his health due to his age but others have stated that he is on the road to recovery. Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam and other senior AIADMK leaders visited him at his residence on Thursday where he is being monitored by doctors.
Early Life & Dravidian politics
Last month, he celebrated his 94th birthday where the party’s IT wing played videos in his honour. Given the nickname Kalaignar, he was born on June 3, 1924 in Tiruvarur, Tamil Nadu into a poor Isai Vellalar family, who were members of a temple-dependent caste. Through his early music classes, he was introduced to practical lessons in politics which portrayed the caste hierarchies of the era.
Politics was something that did interest him from a young age; he looked at the Dravidian movement led by reformist leader Periyar EVR when he was still a teen. He joined as a student activist in Periyar’s Self Respect movement. Inspired by the leader, many young students took to the streets to protest, after Hindi was introduced as a compulsory language in schools in 1937. One of those was Karunanidhi, who gave speeches and brought out a handwritten magazine. Another person he admired was the founder of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), C N Annadurai. The two leaders took notice of this young man and encouraged him to continue his activism.
Like many in Tamil Nadu politics, he was a prominent person in the Tamil film industry as well. Early on, he would write scripts for theatre groups to make a living. Having caught the attention of the two titans of the Dravidian movement, his roles and responsibilities became more prominent; address public gatherings and later being appointed editor of their Dravidar Kazhagam party magazine, Kudiyarasu.
The roots of his political thinking and ideology stem from the Justice Party and the Self Respect Movement. In December 1938, Periyar became the leader of the Justice Party. On August 21 1944, the Justice Party was renamed Dravidar Kazhagam to include all the linguistic peoples of Southern India. The Dravidar Kazhagam mainly worked towards social change and was primarily anti-Brahmin, anti-Congress and an anti-North Indian party. These movements were primarily formed to give the people of the state a voice, particularly those who belonged to lower castes.
This was also when Annadurai aspired to get involved directly with the politics of a newly-independent country. In 1949, the DMK was formed. Karunanidhi was a prominent force within the party becoming its treasurer. He continued his prominence in the film industry writing scripts that would weave melodrama with political undertones. In essence, this was a strategy that was adopted by the DMK to present its ideology to the masses through films.
The DMK contested its first elections to the state assembly in 1957. Karunanidhi was among the 13 DMK legislators elected. While the Congress enjoyed a comfortable majority, the tide changed towards the DMK in the decade that followed. In 1967, the DMK became the first non-Congress party to win an outright majority in the state elections and Annadurai was the Chief Minister. Karunanidhi wasn’t the face of the party then, but his political skills were central to the party’s success; mobilising crowds, organising party cadres and fundraising.
Party split & AIADMK rivalry
Following the death of Annadurai, Karunanidhi, with the help of Tamil cinema legend MG Ramachandran aka MGR became Chief Minister. In 1972, the party faced a split. MGR, unhappy with the way the part was being run, not being given a cabinet post and having differences with the new Chief Minister was expelled and later formed the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK) which was later called All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). This would begin a rocky period for the DMK as MGR’s popularity rose and the AIADMK easily defeating the DMK. MGR became the Chief Minister in 1977.
It wouldn’t be until 1989, two years after MGR’s death that Karunanidhi would step back into the Chief Minister’s chair. However, a shameful episode in the state assembly that year proved to be pivotal for Karunanidhi and the party. By this time, Jayalalitha had become the leader of the opposition. A budget speech to be given by Karunanidhi quickly erupted into chaos over allegations of harassment and spying on Jayalalitha. As the popularity of the DMK continued to fall, two years later, in 1991, the DMK was easily defeated and Jayalalitha became the Chief Minister.
In the two decades since, both parties and their respective leaders have traded power every five years. A political rivalry almost unmatched. In the decades since, he has survived numerous corruption charges and scandals. A particular incident that comes to mind took place shortly after midnight on June 2001, when he was arrested in connection to a flyover scam and physically lifted and escorted out of his home, protesting and shouting “they’re trying to kill me”.
His children have played a key role in the party, most prominently his son MK Stalin and daughter Kanimozhi. The latter, who has a close relationship with her father, would be involved in the 2G scam that would drag the Congress party to defeat in 2014. There are however divisions within the family. Azhagiri is someone who’s seen as an outsider and has largely been kept at a distance. Stalin, currently the public face of the party maintains his father will always be the leader, but he’s a Chief Minister in waiting.
Karunanidhi’s extended family has branched out into film production and broadcasting with the Sun network started by his grand nephew Kalanithi Maran. He encouraged him by providing him real estate and money. However, things weren’t rosy for long when he went to war with the Marans by taking the unprecedented step of establishing a public-sector company, Arasu Cable Corporation to challenge Sun. It’s a classic tale of internal family backstabbing and corruption.
The house where Karunanidhi was born is now a museum celebrating his life in politics, and is filled with photographs of his family. Tamil Nadu politics over the decades has been shaped by Karunanidhi one way or another; it’s become indispensible as no government at the Centre has been formed without the support of either the DMK or the AIADMK for the past two decades. His record in elections is flawless; he personally hasn’t lost an election in which he has contested.
Veteran actor, comic and journalist Cho Ramswamy said of how Karunanidhi will be remembered, “As someone who looked after his family very well
”. Journalist N Ram said of him, “Karunanidhi will be remembered for the three to four institutions that are working decently in Tamil Nadu— the public distribution system, healthcare and a few social welfare programmes… he will be mostly remembered for institutionalising corruption in all spheres of the state
More columns by Varun Sukumar