Chennai: It was a somber evening, a few months before the April-May 2001 Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu. ‘Anna Arivalayam’, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) headquarters on the arterial ‘Anna Salai’ in Chennai, was relatively quiet that day.

The DMK president and then Chief Minister, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, was attired in an all-white splendour, as he smilingly gingered into the party office, something he did every day until even recently, to meet party men and other visitors. “Ennai Vida Oru Malivaana Mudal Amaichar Ungalakku Kidaipaargala?” he would once-in-a-while taunt his visitors with this one-liner to underscore how accessible he was at all times.

Offering shawl to Congress president Sonia Gandhi in Delhi.

For me, it was an unusual encounter with the ‘Dravidian patriarch’. Having browsed through a new arrival at the Oxford University Press (OUP) bookshop earlier that day, titled ‘India’s Development Experience- Selected Writings of S. Guhan,’ a distinguished economist and civil servant, I was stuck by one reference in that work.

Guhan in his book (published years later after his tragic demise in February 1998), had discussed at some length the “more comprehensive package of social security measures” introduced by an earlier DMK regime in 1989 when Mr. Karunanidhi had come back to power in the State after a 13-year ‘Vanvaas’, since he lost power to the charismatic actor-politician, M.G. Ramachandran leading the AIADMK.

The DMK leader with the then external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee as Kanimozhi and her mother look on at their house in Chennai.

Guhan had devoted six pages, commending the ‘Tamil Nadu Experience’ in social security measures. So, in a public-spirited rabbit run, I purchased a copy and straight headed to ‘Arivalayam’ that evening. I first ran into the then DMK treasurer, Arcot Veerasamy, telling him I need a few minutes with ‘Kalaignar’ to present a copy of a “very important book”.

Within minutes, Mr. Veerasamy took me inside to meet Karunanidhi. After the customary, ‘Vanakkam’, I gave him Guhan’s book and showed him the relevant pages and then stammered a few more words: “Sir, it is a big thing for your party’s work to be discussed in an Oxford publication.” And coming from Guhan, it had an added objectivity, for he was accomplished scholar even if he was Karunanidhi’s advisor for some time, notwithstanding DK’s barb as how a ‘Brahmin’ could be an advisor to a Chief Minister from the DMK party (in 1989).

Karunanidhi gracefully accepted the book, promising to read it as early as possible. Sporting a nonchalant smile and giving me one keen look through his trademark dark glasses, he then instantly but politely asked me, “Are you related to Guhan?” “No sir, I am only Guhan’s admirer,” I replied squeezing my heart. “That’s fine,” he said, putting me at ease and thanked me again for the book.

That personal brush with the DMK patriarch set me thinking, how inoffensively and unwittingly, Karunanidhi had opened up a hermeneutic of the compound metaphor of the now 100-years-old ‘Dravidian Movement’ itself- ‘Brahmin- Non Brahmin’. Though he was friendly to one and all including Brahmins saying DMK, as stated by his late leader C N Annadurai, “opposed only Brahmanism and not Brahmins”, he never lost sight of the ideological roots of Periyar’s ‘Dravidian Movement’ that took forward the Justice Party’s legacy of social justice for the OBCs’, oppressed and depressed communities. “If I had not met Periyar and Anna, I would have become a Communist,” he would later say.

And Karunanidhi was always quite candid about these things. Once, countering late Chief Minister MGR’s move to delete all caste name suffixes from street names in Chennai, Karunanidhi wondered: “It was a Nair, a Mudaliar, a Chetty and a Naidu who initially made up the Justice Party; take away the suffixes, what remains?” Yet, thanks to his social origins from a very poor MBC group of ‘Isai Velalars’, Karunanidhi outgrew all these narrow walls into a great Tamil leader, orator, and writer as one saw over the years.

Starting off as a pamphleteer against Hindi imposition at his tender age of 13 on the streets of Tiruvarur, close to his native village of Thirukuvalai in erstwhile Thanjavur district, the daily column he wrote in ‘Murasoli’ that he founded, almost till the very end, was the centerpiece of his hold over the DMK after Annadurai’s untimely death in February 1969. The party went through grave times during the Emergency and split several times, yet Karunanidhi stood ground, as ‘Murasoli’ was his Hermes to reach out to his party men and people at large.

There was the Sarkaria Commission, which probed charges of corruption during his earlier Chief Ministerial stint and which indicted the DMK for ‘organised corruption’ in the mid-1970s’. Much later, DMK was again assailed by the Jain Commission’s interim report for having enabled a “free run” to the Tamil militant group LTTE, in the run-up to former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in Sriperumbudur in May 1991.

But Karunanidhi stood like rock to protect the DMK and braved out after hobnobbing with Vajpayee-led BJP to re-negotiate an electoral alliance with Sonia Gandhi-led Congress for the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. “If there was anyone after Anna who could keep the DMK intact amid several crises, it is only ‘Kalaignar’,” the party’s senior Prof K Anbazhagan had said.

Even during his fifth term as Chief Minister (2006-11), when Karunanidhi was assailed by the opposition in the Tamil Nadu Assembly, that the stain of Sarkaria Commission’s findings had not left the DMK, he did not lose his nerve in the House. After all the din, Karunanidhi retorted with style and substance: “At the end of it all, even MGR, who had spearheaded the memorandum of charges, said he had no personal knowledge of them and had merely forwarded what his friends (then CPI leaders) had given.” For all the acrimony, the house split into laughter, showing up his rare political sagacity.

Even in the case of pursuing the corruption charges against the former Chief Minister, J Jayalalithaa after the DMK-TMC combine won a massive verdict in the 1996 Assembly polls, insiders in the DMK told this correspondent that he was reluctant to arrest Ms. Jayalalithaa. But surely, his absolute faith and trust in his nephew, the late Union Minister Murasoli Maran, had led him to it, with the senior Maran reportedly telling his uncle, “people have given us a mandate to act against corruption.”

But with the arrest of Ms. Jayalalithaa on December 7, 1996, (curiously ‘Amma’ passed away almost exactly two decades later on December 5, 2016), a Rubicon was crossed in Tamil Nadu politics, sharply polarizing the DMK and the AIADMK as never before.

Ironically, after Murasoli Maran’s demise, much of the ills that came to haunt the DMK later, both at the State and the Centre, stemmed from the fallout of the rapid growth of the Kalanidhi Maran-headed ‘Sun TV’ group. A series of dramatic developments took intra-familial ties to a new low. It began with Karunanidhi’s wife, Mrs. Dayalu, divesting her family’s 20 per cent stake in the ‘Sun Group’ in November 2005. Karunanidhi himself, insiders confide, was kept in the dark about some of its new acquisitions.

The flashpoint came when the Tamil Daily, ‘Dinakaran’ in May 2007, days before Karunanidhi was to celebrate his ’50 years as member of the Tamil Nadu Assembly’ (since he was first elected to the House from Kulithalai in 1957), publishing a survey that showed his elder son, M.K. Azhagiri, and his half-sister Ms. Kanimozhi, far behind his younger son, M.K. Stalin, in a popular rating of the succession battle for the DMK’s top leadership. In between, Karunanidhi, consciously, had already decided to reduce DMK’s dependence on ‘SUN Network’ and single-handedly floated a new Tamil channel, ‘Kalaignar TV’. The rest, as they say is history.

At the height of the ‘Dinakaran survey’ controversy – then Lok Sabha Speaker Dr Somnath Chatterjee had come down all the way from Delhi to felicitate Karunanidhi in the Assembly with both his wives watching from the VIP visitors gallery- Karunanidhi as leader of DMK was unflinching. The party quickly took steps to “remove” Dayanidhi Maran, then IT minister from the UPA Cabinet, implying the split in the first family was beyond repair. It looked much more serious than Vaiko’s expulsion from DMK in 1993.

“I am happy you have all come to see me; this itself is my strength,” he told the media after he underwent a major hip surgery in May 2008 that was to confine him to a wheel chair for the rest of his life. Despite attempts at intra-familial reconciliation at his Gopalapuram residence later, DMK found itself in the woods, more so after details of the ‘2G spectrum allocation scam’ was to blow on its face in the run-up to 2009 Lok Sabha polls, amid Dayanidhi Maran and his ministerial successor, A. Raja, locking horns.

Even in the face of the seemingly indefensible, Karunanidhi’s unbeatable rhetoric and humour was unmatched during the poll campaign that year: “If your thayir kaari, more kaari, and old vegetable vendors have a mobile phone today, it is thanks to A Raja,” he thundered. But being a ‘Dalit’ was A Raja’s handicap, he added in his speeches. Later, when Raja, Kanimozhi and others were acquitted in the 2G case by the trial court earlier this year, the DMK recovered considerable lost ground.

Karunanidhi’s early moorings as a dialogue and screen-play writer for Tamil films/theatre since the early 1940s’, is by now legendary. The ‘Jupiter Pictures’, founded by Tirupur M Somasundaram and S K Mohideen, not only launched the former alongside people like MGR into the new world of Tamil Cinema, but that banner gave Tamil Cinema some of its greatest hits. With ‘Paraksakthi’ (1952), the movie that also launched Sivaji Ganesan’s career, Karunanidhi reached a peak in using cinema as a vehicle for communicating the political ideology of the Dravidian Movement led by Periyar. Salem Modern Theatres Sundaram’s benevolence was another strand of his early film career which he cherished.

Equally, Karunanidhi’s contributions to Tamil literature have been equally distinct, his ‘Kuraloviam’, and a later attempt to crack the ancient grammatical treatise ‘Tholkappiyam’ in his ‘Tholkaapiya Poonga’ have stood out. The DMK patriarch’s larger contribution to Tamil culture and aesthetics speak through his ‘Valluvar Kottam’, a memorial for Saint-poet Thiruvalluvar in Chennai in the mid-1970s’ and later unveiling the 133-feet tall statue of Thiruvalluvar at land’s end of Kanyakumari, sculpted by Sri Ganapathy Sthapathy, at the beginning of the new millennium in January 2000. Both projects had a fair share of controversies, but neither helped him to solidify his Tamil constituency.

As a reporter, one cannot but remember Karunanidhi giving a masterly presentation of the genesis of the Sri Lankan Tamil crisis-, both prior to Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination and post-May 1991 tragedy on Tamil Nadu soil-, when he piloted a historic resolution in the Assembly in April 2008, urging the Manmohan Singh government to give up its “hands off policy” and re-initiate a meaningful dialogue process between the warring parties in Sri Lanka to find an amicable solution to the festering Tamil question. “They (Congress) have already borne heavy losses; they have lost their great leader Rajiv Gandhi in pursuance of the Tamils cause. So to fault or blame them now is futile,” he said with a new sense of realism and reconciliation towards the Congress then.

Karunanidhi not only visited Rajiv’s memorial at Sriperumbuduer along with Ms. Sonia Gandhi, but also in a rare, expansive gesture visited the Congress party headquarters of Satyamurthy Bhavan in Chennai on Rajiv Gandhi’s birth anniversary in August 2007. It was the first such visit by any DMK leader and a much mellowed Karunanidhi by then pleaded that DMK, Congress and Left parties should work together in the larger interests of defending secularism and democracy in the country.

One distinct impression: Shortly before the 1989 Assembly polls, rains were pounding as he was to address a DMK rally at ‘VOC Park Grounds’ in Coimbatore. Karunanidhi was returning after attending a meeting in Ooty, and he braved the rains not to disappoint his party cadres in Coimbatore also. Several speakers before him chided the ‘Rain Gods’. But when Karunanidhi rose to speak, he promptly refuted all of them quoting a couplet from Thiruvalluvar’s ‘Thirukkural’, saying rains were needed for the “good of all”.

And years later in January 2007, at a function in Chennai, when the DMK Chief shared a dais to felicitate the Spiritual Guru of Ananthpur, Sathya Sai Baba, Karunanidhi displayed the same spirit of accommodation though personally an atheist, and more of an agnostic later in his life. “People tomorrow may raise eyebrows how an atheist is sharing a platform with Sai Baba. But what brings me here is the underlying principle that we (DMK) value that service to man is service to God,” he mused. That was Muthuvel Karunanidhi the man, for all his achievements and shortcomings as a politician.

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