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M Karunanidhi: Tracing a life that defied all limits

Rohini Mohan | Updated on June 04, 2020 Published on June 03, 2020

The patriarch: Karunanidhi was known to have written a column every day for his magazine, as well as speeches, letters and screenplays until his death in 2018   -  V GANESAN

On the 96th birth anniversary of former chief minister and DMK leader M Karunanidhi, a look at a new biography by journalist and writer Vaasanthi, which examines his unparalleled impact on the politics and culture of Tamil Nadu

* M Karunanidhi’s life is a window into Tamil Nadu, Tamilians and the role of the southern state in shaping India

* Vaasanthi had earlier authored the biography of former chief minister J Jayalalithaa. According to her, Karunanidhi’s lifelong eloquence made his biography the greater challenge

The politician wrote every day from the time he was 14 years old, and left behind a six-volume autobiography in the language he helped shape. The screenwriter crafted 73 films and nine plays animated with dialogues that drew on and defined political identities. The grandfather raised five children and two grandnephews — four of them prominent politicians and one a media mogul.

All the characters reside easily in one man: Muthuvel Karunanidhi, who passed away in 2018 at the age of 94. The five-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu and leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) shaped a whole sociocultural mindset and style of politics in southern India.

Today, Tamil Nadu politics runs weary and inarticulate, with interchangeable leaders whose interaction with the public is too often through the police lathi and sedition cases. The state’s colour, flamboyance and incessant melodrama seemed to have departed with Karunanidhi and his bête noire J Jayalalithaa, who passed away two years before him. Corruption and nepotism thrived, just as it does in other states, but as long as the “silver-tongued” patriarch was alive, the public could count on political-is-personal conflicts, compelling verbal sparring and competitive social justice policies.

It would seem that Jayalalithaa — intensely private, rarely interviewed, and never one to forgive and forget — might be a biographer’s nightmare. But journalist and author Vaasanthi, who has written biographies of both politicians, says it was Karunanidhi’s lifelong eloquence that made for a greater challenge. She chronicles his life and times in Karunanidhi: The Definitive Biography.

Man of letters

“He wrote a column every day for his magazine, letters to his party members, gave hundreds of speeches, and wrote plays and scripts till a year before he died,” says Vaasanthi. This literary personhood was central to Karunanidhi’s politics. Dravidian ideologue Periyar rejected Hindi and Brahminical Hinduism and embraced atheism and social justice long before Karunanidhi, but it was the Kalaignar who used Tamil heritage and rich poetry to build a political culture and gain regional bargaining power.

Writing after his death, Vaasanthi builds the life of Karunanidhi — born on June 3, 1924 — through her close interactions with him and his associates, and through his own “racy” documentation of the political and social history of his time.

Only someone who knows Tamil Nadu — and Tamil — can really attempt to understand who Karunanidhi was, and what he means to India. Until there are good English translations of his autobiography or his articles, this book is the non-Tamil reader’s only glimpse into how Karunanidhi saw his own life.

Vaasanthi did this for Jayalalithaa too, in 2016. The leader of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), former actress, and ambitious protégé of the late movie superstar and chief minister MG Ramachandran, was fluent in English, but her most vulnerable moments were accessible only in Tamil. Much of Vaasanthi’s empathy for the icy and combative politician, she says, came from the memoirs of her lonely childhood and love letters to MGR. The initial personal attacks Jayalalithaa faced made her vengeful towards Karunanidhi and distrustful of the media. She had banned Vaasanthi’s biography even before it was published, which publishing house Juggernaut then released only after the politician’s death.

Leading by example

Decoding the famous foes: Journalist and writer Vaasanthi authored the biographies of both Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa   -  V GANESAN

In Karunanidhi, Vaasanthi recalls how refreshingly friendly he was to journalists — and unbothered by criticism. His modest home in Chennai was open to visitors, unlike Jayalalithaa’s fortress across the road. He rarely refused an interview, she writes, and even if a journalist didn’t get a direct answer, she could at least leave with an enjoyable witticism.

Language was Karunanidhi’s source of authority and adoration. The DMK once raised funds by selling tickets to his election rallies. Cadres thronged to listen to his lyrical speeches, enjoying the lilt and music of the words even if they didn’t fully grasp their meaning. In rallies, the leader always spoke last, and the crowds usually waited. When his audience left without listening to him — like they did during TN’s heady obsession with MGR — it drove Karunanidhi into a jealous frenzy.

Vaasanthi acknowledges Karunanidhi’s influence over Tamil-ness today, but also shows how he deployed it for representative politics. It was the fulcrum from which he boisterously asserted difference — through protests against Hindi imposition, greater reservations for the backward’ castes, and friendships with other regional leaders. The federalist in Karunanidhi never lost sight of state autonomy even while collaborating with the Union government.

The book describes HD Deve Gowda’s surprise when Karunanidhi proposed the Karnataka leader as the prime ministerial candidate of a regional coalition at the centre in 1996. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu squabbled over sharing the river Cauvery and other resources. Gowda recalls the Tamil Nadu leader’s often repeated words to him: “You have gone from the South. Do something more for the South.”

Vaasanthi is conscious that those outside South India see the leader as a secessionist and Hindi hater. “But I wanted to show the North Indian reader that he was much more complex,” she says.

Probing the layers

Karunanidhi: The Definitive Biography; Vaasanthi; Juggernaut; Non-fiction; ₹599

After Jayalalithaa withdrew her support to Prime Minister AB Vajpayee’s government in 1999, Karunanidhi allied with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which he had earlier referred to as a party of “Hindi and Brahminical Hindus”. In a chapter titled Strange Bedfellows, Vaasanthi writes that Karunanidhi was so focused on being a dependable coalition partner that the secular, atheist leader was shamefully quiet even in 2002, when thousands of Muslims were massacred in Gujarat.

Back home, Karunanidhi worked hard when in power and harder when in the Opposition. The state’s infamous political rivalries are the stuff of movies, but as the politicians trapped each other with corruption cases and competed with each other over who loved the poor more, the public had its wins. High literacy, cheap rice, a relatively dependable public healthcare system, empowered bureaucrats, great highways and glorious movies at subsidised tickets.

The founders of the Dravidian movement had extraordinary ideals for social justice, and Karunanidhi, their longest-living protégé, used astute electoral timing to launch some of these ideas as policies. Many mocked his programme to sell rice at ₹2 in ration shops as “cheap populism”, but nearly every state offers this today. It is often the only social security that the poorest can count on.

Another illustration is his early recognition of the transgender community’s rights — Vaasanthi wishes she could have written more about how Karunanidhi sought to replace the many derogatory words for transwomen in 2006 with the “beautiful word Thirunangai”.

While listing his welfare policies, the book takes a moment to analyse what might have politicised a young Karunanidhi, why he took casteism and inequality so seriously. The childhood memory of a landlord humiliating his musician father haunted him throughout his life, Vaasanthi writes. He refused to learn to play the nadaswaram, as his father used to, and instead wrote plays about untouchability.

Vaasanthi holds back on offering more such insights into the person behind the politician, as she does in her book on Jayalalithaa, a leader she evidently liked much less.

This book has a busy century to cover: Karunanidhi’s formative years in the Dravidian movement, his years of penury and poetry, his love/hate relationship with MGR, the Emergency, the Babri Masjid demolition, scandals involving Jayalalithaa, and the 2G scam.

In the busy chronology of pre- and post-Independent India, the man disappears somewhat, but the innumerable dots join to construct a canny politician, committed socialist, and champion of federalism.

Fatal flaws

Vaasanthi was the editor of India Today’s Tamil edition during the tumultuous years after former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination by a suicide bomber in Tamil Nadu. When the journalist first met him, Karunanidhi was a national villain, held morally responsible for creating an environment that sheltered the Sri Lankan Tamil militants who killed Gandhi.

The author’s first interactions with the leader were when he was out of power and reviled across the country. Perhaps because of that, the best parts of the book are those that explore Karunanidhi’s mistakes.

Karunanidhi empathised with the Tamils in Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lanka and their yearning for a Tamil homeland, Vaasanthi writes, but detested the violent approach of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). And yet, she writes, he did not act decisively when the militants ran free in the state, acquiring arms, or when the LTTE killed leaders of other militant groups under his nose. Tamil was his animating nuclear core, powerful and inexhaustible, but on this occasion, it proved fatal.

His other blind spot was family. He let his son Azhagiri’s anger fester into “goondaism” and groomed his son Stalin as his successor, but never publicly acknowledged it. Some relative was always overstepping boundaries, being disowned, then forgiven. And yet, as he grew older, the “thalaivar”, as his own children too called him, came to trust his warring, ambitious, corrupt family over senior leaders in the party. Vaasanthi writes, “Sometimes he felt like the blind Dhritarashtra, groping in the dark to assuage their conflicting demands and desires.”

Home rule: Despite Karunanidhi’s political acumen, his family was widely seen as his blind spot   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

What goes unsaid is that his greatest strength was his stamina for drama. Karunanidhi’s life is a window into Tamil Nadu, Tamilians, and the role of the southern state in shaping India.

There was never a moment to rest, this action-packed biography suggests, unless it was a grand theatrical pause.

Rohini Mohan is an independent journalist and the author of ‘Seasons of Trouble’, a non-fiction book on Sri Lanka

Published on June 03, 2020
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