The passing of Muthuvel Karunanidhi at the age of 94 marks the end of an era spanning nearly seven decades and more. His has been a turbulent life and he died the way he lived, fighting till the last breath.
It also marked his transformation from a separatist leader to a national leader after his DMK under its founder C N Annadurai gave up the separate Dravida Nadu in demand 1963. When he was wedded to separatism, Karunanidhi as second rung leader under Annadurai, played a signal role in getting maximum contribution from Tamil Nadu for the defence fund when China invaded India in 1961.
The DMK also changed its goal from Dravida Nadu to separate Tamil Nadu to finally State autonomy. He set the long-term goal of ushering federalism at the Centre and autonomy at the State level which he realised in his life time by mainstreaming the DMK as a pivot to rally anti-Congress parties and launching the National Front in 1989.
The DMK under his leadership was a crucial partner in the National Front and the United Front in the 1990s which saw the dawn of a coalition era. The DMK was also a partner in the Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance and from 1999 to 2004 and was later as part of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance from 2004 to 2009 thanks his strong rapport with Sonia Gandhi.
Call it opportunism or pragmatic politics, Karunanidhi explained his shifting loyalties by saying that politics is the art of the possible and consistency is the virtue of fools. Therefore, he had no problem in aligning with Congress under Indira Gandhi in1971 and then steadfastly opposing the emergency of 19 months, even to the point of losing power in 1976.
Though his son M K Stalin was detained under the MISA during that period and was tortured in jail, Karunanidhi did not let emotions coming in the way of renewing his ties with Indira in 1980 after the Janata experiment failed at the Centre, citing the very instability at the Centre as the reason for his shift in stand and only Indira can provide a stable Government.
Likewise, he opposed tooth and nail under A B Vajpayee from 1996 to 98 and yet when AIADMK leader J Jayalalitha toppled the Government, he moved to fill the breach justifying his somersault by saying that Vajpayee was the right man in the wrong party. With equal felicity, he quit the NDA to join the UPA.
During all these times, he saw to it that his family members were made Minister, be it his nephew Murasoli Maran in the V P Singh Government, the Janata Party government and the UF regime. After Murasoli Maran’s death, he nominated his son Dayanidhi Maran as a Minister in the UPA Government I and II.
Despite Jayalalitha’s strident criticism that Karunanidhi was only interested in feathering his own nest and promoting his family rule, his grip in the DMK as well in the government whenever he was in power, remained firm.
He became Chief Minister and president of the DMK in July 1969 after the passing of Annadurai While he remained unchallenged as party boss, a grip he kept even when the party was out of power for 13 years after it split and matinee idol M G Ramachandran formed the AIADMK.
Though he was five time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, he had a full term only twice, from 1996 to 2001 and again from 2006 to 2011. He had the dubious distinction of two of his ministries being dismissed, the first in January 1976 during the emergency, the second time in January 1991 when his patronage of the LTTE emboldened the militant group to kill Rajiv Gandhi on Tamil Nadu soil in the run up to the elections on May 1991.
Karunanidhi also had another distinction as a leader who never lost any election from 1956 when the DMK entered electoral politics till 2006. Even when the DMK was routed in 1991, he emerged as the sole winner for the party.
After the emergence of M G Ramachandran as his arch rival after the 1972 split and the birth of AIADMK, Karunanidhi could not bring his party to power . MGR ruled from 1977 till his death in December 1987.
Till date, Kamaraj remains the only Chief Minister who has had the longest, unbroken tenure of nine years. Though MGR ruled for ten years, his tenure was broken in 1989 after Karunanidhi with the help of Indira Gandhi got his ministry dismissed on the basis of the AIADMK’s poor showing in the Lok Sabha polls. A blunder which only made MGR a martyr and enabled him to come back to power and stamp Karunanidhi as an evil force, an impression which got stuck in the minds of the masses.
Karunanidhi, an able administrator was also known as the man who institutionalised corruption in Tamil Nadu, what the Sarkaria Commission of Enquiry called “scientific corruption”. Though Karunanidhi started it in lakhs, MGR and his successor Jayalalitha took it to dizzy heights. Yet, the stigma stayed only with Karunanidhi. Even the conviction of Jayalalitha in the assets case by the Supreme Court came after her death in December 2016.
In the post-MGR phase, people alternated between Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha. Until Karunanidhi’s last term from 2006 to 11 was marked by scams and stifling control over every sphere of public life in the State by his family that so alienated the people that they gave Jayalalitha a second consecutive term in 2016.
During his rule, Karunanidhi introduced some far-reaching measures like enacting law to give equal property rights to women and enabling all castes trained in agamas to become temple priests. He also initiated land reforms and urban land ceiling.
He remained committed to the fight for the uplift of the backward classes, an offshoot of the non-Brahmin movement led by Periyar E K Periyar Ramaswamy.
Karunanidhi is also remembered as the man who lifted the prohibition in 1971 despite warning by Rajaji that he would be exposing the evil to a new generation. Neither MGR nor Jayalalitha could put the genie back in the bottle. So much so, Tamil Nadu tops in liquor revenue at 28,000 crore a year.
His was a controversial life. Yet he remained a man you could love or hate, but could never ignore.