In 2009, when M Karunanidhi was chief minister of Tamil Nadu, the chairman and managing director of Neyveli Lignite Corporation was finding it tough to deal with the DMK-led union at the plant. Despite giving the highest performance bonus among all power corporations in the country, a strike had been threatened. It was certain to affect productivity.
Unable to make the union leader see reason, the chairman used the good offices of the chief secretary to meet the chief minister. Karunanidhi enquired about the trade union leader. The man was summoned to the phone and given a dressing down. “You have ten minutes to get out of Neyveli. Come immediately to Chennai and meet me,” Karunanidhi ordered. “Katchi verra, Aatchi verra” (party is different, government is different).
On another occasion, during his term as chief minister between 1989 and 1991, Karunanidhi got word that a minister in his cabinet was using muscle power to prevent the registration of land by its owners. Karunanidhi immediately told the minister to back off. Despite criticism that the DMK was a party that encouraged political goondaism as an art form, these instances showed Karunanidhi wasn’t willing to let his party’s name be dragged into the mud.
But there were occasions when Karunanidhi made it a point to stand by his party men. Like he did when former Union telecom minister Andimuthu Raja was arrested in the 2G scam in February 2011. A day after the arrest, Karunanidhi spoke at a public meeting in Chennai. But instead of talking plain politics, Karunanidhi dug deep into his knowledge of Hindu mythology and his ability to weave a tale: The narrative of the oppressed Dravida and the famous baritone to drive home a point.
“Today, I will tell you the story of Dravida king Maveli,” started Karunanidhi, describing him as a just ruler. He kept the audience spellbound, talking about how the gods became jealous of Maveli and decided to finish him off. “They sent Lord Vishnu disguised as a poor Brahmin boy to deceive the king and push him into the netherworld. Our Raja is like king Maveli who has been targeted because of his Dravida origins,” Karunanidhi concluded. When pushed to the wall, Karunanidhi went back to his roots — central to the DMK ideology — and used the Tamizh and Dravida victimhood template to take on the “aggressors from the north”.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Karunanidhi, along with his two arch political rivals MG Ramachandran and J Jayalalithaa, defined Tamil Nadu politics for the past five decades. Karunanidhi was the DMK and the DMK was Karunanidhi. In fact, observers point out that Karunanidhi was the axis on which state politics revolved: There was a pro-Karunanidhi vote and an anti-Karunanidhi vote. He evoked love, respect, admiration and hate and resentment in equal measure.
The most senior politician of high standing in India, along with VS Achuthanandan of the CPM in Kerala, Karunanidhi’s brand of Dravidian politics was also about ensuring that Tamil Nadu and the DMK mattered in the corridors of power in New Delhi. In fact, in this regard, MGR and Karunanidhi concurred. MGR always made it a point to be on the right side of the party in power in New Delhi. His motto: “Never fight with Delhi.’ It is a tribute to Karunanidhi’s abilities to make friends across the spectrum that the DMK figured in both the NDA and UPA governments at the Centre.
A common thread that runs among the voices of grief and sorrow outside the Kauvery Hospital is the connect each DMK activist feels with ‘Kalaignar’ (artist) as Karunanidhi was fondly and respectfully known as. Karunanidhi ensured he kept the party cadre motivated even when the DMK was out of power for 13 years (between 1976 and 1989). During his years as chief minister, he ensured the rank and file was kept in the loop.
Every year after the state budget, Karunanidhi prepared a summary of the financial exercise — minus the jargon — and sent it to all DMK district secretaries. Karunanidhi would tell them to educate the cadre about the budget and what the DMK government had done and spread the word among the rural folk. This was his way of making his cadre connect to the people and disseminating information. What Tamil Nadu has lost is a pragmatic leader who had a common sense approach to issues.
For the past ten days, Kauvery Hospital saw slogans of ‘ezhundhu vaa Thalaiva ezhundhu vaa” (get up leader and come out) and thirumbi vaa, thirumbi vaa (come back, come back). On Tuesday evening, the slogan changed to “poyi vaa, poyi vaa” (go and come back). The DMK that Karunanidhi nurtured for five decades as its president is coming to terms with the fact that it is time to bid farewell