Muthuvel Karunanidhi: The quintessential politician

NK Minda | Updated on: Dec 06, 2021

All for Anna: (From left) Justice Veeraswami, C Subramaniam, K Kamaraj, M Karunanidhi and MG Ramachandran at the hospital where ailing Tamil Nadu Chief Minister CN Annadurai was being treated. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Pragmatism marked his manoeuvres

For over 75 years, M Karunanidhi has donned many roles and has played each one with aplomb. A fiery orator, he joined public life in his early teens, inspired by the speeches of the leaders of the Justice Party. He made rationalism, atheism, social justice and Tamil pride the bedrock of his politics.

As scriptwriter, he was known for powerful dialogues that espoused the theme of social justice and indulged in much upper-class bashing. Mouthing Karunanidhi’s weighty lines, thespian Sivaji Ganesan made a stunning debut in the 1952 film Parasakthi , which went on to be a massive hit.

In the tradition of the leaders of the Dravidian movement, Karunanidhi was a fiery orator. He and his mentor, DMK’s founder and former chief minister CN Annadurai, specialised in alliterative speeches, and would hold audiences spellbound.

Karunanidhi, who was well-read, would pepper his speeches with ready wit and trenchant criticism of his opponents to rouse the crowd. He was a journalist’s delight, especially when the going was good for him. As chief minister, he would make it a point to meet the reporters on the Secretariat beat at least once a week, and would ensure that there was a copy for the evening newspapers and the morning dailies, even if there was nothing important happening.

In July 1989, when Sri Lankan Tamil leader A Amirthalingam had been assassinated, a young reporter of The Hindu hesitatingly called up Karunanidhi’s residence close to midnight. The DMK had only recently returned to power after being in the wilderness for almost 13 years. Karunanidhi answered the call himself and was prepared to read out his statement, provided the reporter could write it down in Tamil. The Chief Minister then proceeded to translate into English words he thought the reporter would have trouble comprehending. Not content with this, Karunanidhi asked the reporter if there was time to catch the city edition, or whether his reaction would be edited out due to lack of space!

His wit and presence of mind were legendary. Once, the Chief Ministers of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra were meeting in the temple town of Tirupati to discuss issues relating to sharing the Krishna waters. The Tamil Nadu Assembly was in session at that time. In the evening, a reporter asked Karunanidhi if he planned to visit Tirupati. It is a custom for devotees to get their heads tonsured, and offer their hair as an offering to the Tirupati deity. Karunanidhi, stroking his bald pate, wondered “if I should still go”; he was at ease in answering tricky questions as he was in deflecting those he did not want to.

“Why go?” was his instant remark on another occasion when was asked if he would attend a meeting called by one-time-protégé-turned-foe Vaiko (Vai Gopalsamy).

His passions

Karunanidhi would always find time for two things: films and cricket. He is known to have watched almost every Tamil movie released, sometimes even suggesting to the director how the plot could have been improved upon.

He would also never miss a cricket match at the Chepauk stadium. If he was too busy to go to the stadium, he would have the television switched on in his room, not wanting to miss a single moment of the game.

Karunanidhi was the consummate politician. For him, there were no permanent enemies or friends in politics. During the Emergency, his government was dismissed in 1976, but four years later, he had no qualms in tying up with the Congress.

He hobnobbed with political leaders virtually across the spectrum, switching sides, picking allies, dumping some, and cajoling others to join him in his fight against whoever was his enemy of the moment.

In 1996, after the 13-day AB Vajpayee government fell and all non-BJP political parties were trying to cobble together a government, Karunanidhi stepped in and played a major role. He not only made sure that another politician from Tamil Nadu, who was rumoured to be the consensus candidate, did not get the coveted post, but also ensured that the DMK got plum posts in the Cabinet.

Unlike his adversary J Jayalalithaa, who made no bones of her national aspirations, Karunanidhi was happy to play a major role in forming the government at the Centre rather than running it. After the fall of the 13-day Vajpayee government, Karunanidhi was asked if he was in the running for the Prime Minister’s post. In his trademark style, Karunanidhi remarked that he was aware of his limitations – “ en uyaram enakku theriyum” , roughly translated as “I am aware of my height.”

The 24x7 politician that he was, Karunanidhi, prodded on by his nephew Murasoli Maran, had no hesitation in aligning with the Vajpayee-led NDA in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. The DMK was part of the government, with Maran and a few others getting Cabinet berths. Again, in 2004, when he sensed that the wind was blowing in the other direction, he dumped the NDA and got into an alliance with the Congress (I)-led front, and was part of the UPA government from 2004 to 2014.

Published on August 07, 2018
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