Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Quo Vadis Karunanidhi?

by Sachi Sri Kantha

“Hereafter, every step of mine is towards my grave. Nevertheless, in every inch of my move, I pledge to uplift the lives of my folks and community. Since I believe that each drop of sweat should fertilize the ethnic pride which have been trampled and dried. I offer my tears, blood, breath and body draped by bone and skin to the welfare of this Movement.” (Manimekalai Publishers Editorial Team, 1994, p.176).

Quo vadis? (Latin): ‘Whither goest thou?’ These words were supposedly uttered by Christ on meeting Saint Peter when the discouraged Apostle was leaving Rome. This is the title of a novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz, on the persecution of the Christians by Nero.” [Dictionary of Foreign Phrases and Abbreviations, by K.Guinagh, Pocket Books, New York, 1968, p.224]

The Consumate All-rounder

KarunanidhiMuthuvel Karunanidhi, the current Tamil Nadu chief minister, celebrated his 82nd birthday on June 3rd. He was born in 1924. Starting in about 1990, in Tamil Nadu, it has become a convention to add a year to one’s nominal age [especially if the individual has passed the Biblical span of three score and ten years; see for example, ‘The Hindu’ news item of June 3, 2006 on Karunanidhi’s birthday]. This astrological practice is derived from the prevalent traditional custom in some cultures of adding the period of 10 months of fetal age into one’s stated age. It is based on the assumption that one’s life begins not on the individual’s day of birth, but from the day of conception.  Thus, in most write-ups, we could note that Karunanidhi is felicitated as the “83-year old elder statesman from Tamil Nadu.”

37 years have elapsed since Karunanidhi became the leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), following his mentor C.N.Annadurai’s (Anna) death on Feb.3, 1969. Even Anna’s tenure as the founder leader of DMK lasted only 20 years, from 1949 to 1969. M.G.Ramachandran (MGR), Karunanidhi’s long-term pal turned adversary, held the leadership of his newly formed party, Anna DMK, for only 15 years, from 1972 to 1987. It is not an exaggeration to note that the tenures of Anna and MGR as founding leaders of their parties were cut short by their illnesses and rather premature deaths. By Tamil Nadu standards of a politician’s life span, Anna (1909-1969, at 59 years) and MGR (1917-1987, at 70 years), for better or worse, indeed died prematurely. But, their contemporaries such as C.Rajagopalachari (Rajaji), E.V.Ramasamy Naicker (Periyar), and C.Subramaniam lived well into their nineties. Another Congress Party leader and former President of India, R.Venkataraman is still living, past ninety.

Now that Karunanidhi had become the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for a record fifth time, his sycophants are busy at work in producing hagiographical profiles, to polish his record as an Indian politician of Nixonian vintage. As such, for balancing the historical perspective, I feel that there is a need to at least peep into Karunanidhi’s closet for dangling skeletons. Sure, Karunanidhi has worn many hats in his public career which now spans nearly six decades. A select listing of his many hats include, stage actor, movie script writer, playwright, lyricist, journalist, politician, orator cum verbal gymnast, expositor of ancient Tamil literature and last but not least, family benefactor. He has excelled in some of these roles and blazed new paths. But it is his role as an unprincipled (call it flexible, if a positive spin is what one prefers) politician which has pinched the nerves of Eelam Tamils.

Poet Kannadasan’s Portrayal of Karunanidhi

By any scale of literary and social success from a poverty-drenched family background in Tamil Nadu, poet Kannadasan (1927-1981) was an equal in standing to Karunanidhi. Both were founder members of the DMK and parted their political paths in 1961. Since Kannadasan enjoyed unrivaled success in literary, cinema and journalism arenas, his critique on Karunanidhi’s politics cannot be interpreted as the jealousy of a haggler. Thus, it is worth reading some excerpts of Kannadasan’s autobiography, in which Karunanidhi’s skills receive an unflattering portrayal. In these passages, Kannadasan has referred himself in the third person singular – "He." To quote,

“[In 1963] When Pundit Nehru visited Chennai, he had grown senile. How Nehru had been affected by the untrustworthy deeds of China! He recited a poem to him. An English translation was offered and Jawaharlal had stuck it in his sherwani suit. He then touched his feet and greeted him. The next day, Karunanidhi had satirized this act. Those feet – He had only greeted those feet which had served and labored to free India. Were those feet engaged only in buying houses and collecting property wealth?

He felt elated that one of his poems is safely tucked in Nehru’s sherwani suit. He promptly offered a rebuke to Karunanidhi. He wrote, ‘It’s better to be the tail of a lion than the head of a fly’. Now, when one sees the flag carried by that great man Nehru fluttering in the DMK stages, one wishes to query, God, Isn’t this a game of yours?”(‘Manavaasam’ autobiography, p.85).

To provide the context to the above lines, Kannadasan, while writing these lines in 1980, had pricked Karunanidhi for his subsequent alignment with the Congress Party headed by Indira Gandhi. On September 30, 1979, in Chennai's beach front, Karunanidhi and Indira Gandhi appeared on the same stage and the DMK leader had welcomed Indira with a greeting couplet, ‘Nehruvin Mahale Varuha! Nilaiyaana Aatchi Tharuha’ [Welcome the daughter of Nehru! Give us a Stable Rule!].

On Karunanidhi’s power grab in the Party following Anna’s death in 1969, this is what Kannadasan wrote.

“Some men anticipated Anna’s death with much interest. Even in Anna’s deathbed, campaign for collecting heads had begun. In that Party, Anna was Number 1; Nedunchezhiyan was Number 2. That remained as the consensus. There were serious attempts to break that consensus, after Anna’s death. Whether Naavalar [Nedunchezhiyan] knew it or not, He had felt it clearly. He had learnt the horoscopes of some top rankers of DMK. Anna himself had realized it and he had wished none came to see him, when he was sinking…

After Anna’s death, even MGR had offered his support to Karunanidhi, whether knowing or not (the back-room designs). When the news spread that MGR had offered his support to Karunanidhi, the ranks siding with Karunanidhi increased. Thus, raising Karunanidhi to be the Party’s leader, by ignoring Nedunchezhiyan, had become easy. In those days, Karunanidhi met with MGR in mornings and evenings. In the meeting of Party’s MLAs, Karunanidhi was elected as the leader. Naavalar [Nedunchezhiyan] and Madhavan could only weep in front of Anna’s statue.” (‘Manavaasam’ autobiography, pp.195-197).

Karunanidhi’s Political Phases

Upto now, one can categorize Karunanidhi’s political career into six convenient phases.

Phase 1 (1952-1964) – period of ascendancy

Phase 2 (1965-1971) – period of peak

Phase 3 (1972-1976) – period of descendancy

Phase 4 (1977-1995) – period of rot and hard labor

Phase 5 (1996 – 2000) – period of redemption

Phase 6 (2001- 2006) – period of senile idling.

The period of ascendancy (1952-1964) saw Karunanidhi emerging as a front rank leader for the Dravidian cause. In 1962, the Parasakthi Tamil movie, which introduced a skinny Viluppuram Chinnaiah Ganesan (as ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan, 1928-2001) also brought to limelight the spell-binding prose of Karunanidhi, who by then had become popular with the prefix ‘Kalaignar’ (the literal connotation being,' The Artiste') to his name. His admirers would never even call him by his name, but only by the glorified prefix ‘Kalaignar.’ The Kallakudi (Dalmiyapuram) train-stopping agitation carried out in 1953 made his name a household word in Tamil Nadu. In 1954, the Sivaji-Kalaignar [the hero-script writer] combination worked cinematic magic again, in the historical costume adventure Manohara. In 1956, Karunanidhi was one of the 15 nominees of the DMK to win their seats in the then Madras Legislative Assembly elections. Karunanidhi confirmed his ascendancy within the DMK ranks by engineering a split in the DMK for the first time in 1961, by evicting the then Number 2 in the party ranks, E.V.K.Sampath and Sampath-aligned poet Kannadasan. Kannadasan’s two volumes of autobiography ‘Vanavaasam’ (1962, pp.371-372) and ‘Manavaasam’ (1988), provide first hand details about Karunanidhi’s manipulations, which resulted in the first major split of the DMK.

The period of peak (1965-1971) for Karunanidhi began with the agitational protest against the imposition of Hindi as the official language of India in 1965. Then, in 1967, he saw the DMK becoming the ruling party in Tamil Nadu. When the DMK Cabinet was formed by Annadurai, the nominal Number 2 at that time was V.R.Nedunchezhiyan, university educated, ranking orator. Karunanidhi’s then nominal rank within the party was Number 3. However, in mass appeal, MGR performed equally or even better than Karunanidhi, a fact noted by the party founder Anna himself.

When Anna fell ill and succumbed to gullet cancer in February 1969, Karunanidhi outfoxed Nedunchezhiyan for the leadership post. As noted aptly by Kannadasan in his autobiography, MGR’s vital support to Karunanidhi at that critical moment tilted the leadership throne towards Karunanidhi’s head. Having anointed himself as the legitimate heir of Anna, Karunanidhi reached his zenith in the 1971 Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly elections, by leading the DMK to capture 184 seats against a paltry 13 seats won by the Congress Party (Old) led by Kamaraj. The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s ‘rebel’ Congress Party, was aligned with DMK in that election. After reaching the pinnacle, Karunanidhi became rather ‘top heavy’, and crossed swords with MGR, and that saw the beginning of his period of descendancy.

The period of descendancy (1972-1976) for Karunanidhi commenced with the eviction of MGR and his supporters from the DMK in October 1972. MGR formed his rebel party and labeled it the Anna DMK. This party was initially ridiculed by Karunanidhi and his supporters with a movie metaphor as ‘a successful movie’s 100 day run.’ But, MGR had the last laugh.

The period of rot and hard labor (1977-1995) set in for Karunanidhi in 1977. MGR, with his mass-voter appeal, never allowed Karunanidhi to gain political power in Tamil Nadu until he died. He was chosen as the victor in the political duels of the 1977, 1980 and 1984 Legislative Assembly elections by the voters of Tamil Nadu. Following MGR’s death, Karunanidhi was given a new lease on life by the Tamil Nadu voters in the 1989 Legislative Assembly elections, mainly because MGR’s Anna DMK Party vote was split between the factions of Janaki Ramachandran (MGR’s wife) and Jayalalitha (MGR’s leading lady in the movies and unofficial partner in life). However, Karunanidhi failed to consolidate his standing and was knocked out again in the 1991 Legislative Assembly elections by Jayalalitha (24 years junior and a political novice), who claimed to be the ‘protégé of MGR.’ It has been noted that Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in May 1991 was also a contributing factor in Jayalalitha’s success in that year’s election. In that election, Karunanidhi survived by scraping a victory with a narrow margin of only 350 votes.

The period of redemption (1996-2000) for Karunanidhi was a consequence of excesses indulged in by Chief Minister Jayalalitha and her cronies between 1991 and 1995. But, why Karunanidhi couldn’t lead the DMK to victory in a sequential election in 2001? After his party was voted out of power, Karunanidhi spent the past five year period in senile idling. In his current term as the fifth-time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, his party leads a minority government.

Why has Karunanidhi fared badly in the esteem of Tamils (both Tamil Nadu and Eelam) since 1977? Three factors may be attributed, other than the much publicised ‘political corruption’ which MGR used to his advantage in the first half of the 1970s. First, though blessed with excellent organization skills, oratory and mass adulation, Karunanidhi relied too much on his manipulatory cunningness and vanity. He wanted to be the ‘leader’ badly and out-foxed his seniors and contemporaries in the DMK by devious methods. Initially, it was E.V.K.Sampath in 1961. Nedunchezhiyan was first outsmarted in 1969 and MGR was thrown out of DMK in 1972. Whereas Sampath and Nedunchezhiyan failed to tackle Karunanidhi effectively in politics, MGR succeeded in keeping Karunanidhi in the political dog house for 11 years from 1977 to 1987. Nedunchezhiyan left Karunanidhi’s DMK and joined with MGR in 1978, and later even served as Jayalalitha’s Number 2, until his death in 2000.

Secondly, when there were signs that whenever some junior colleagues of his showed skills in oratory or gained mass support, Karunanidhi ‘cut them short.’ This happened to K.Subbu and V.Gopalasamy (Vaiko). Even his contemporaries who didn’t toe his line occasionally, such as Arcot Veerasamy and Nanjil Manoharan were snubbed by Karunanidhi and then taken back to lick their wounds with docility.

Thirdly, promoting nepotism became a passion for Karunanidhi. That’s why one cynic has noted aptly that in Indian politics, ‘Blessed are the leaders (Kamaraj, Anna and MGR) who did not have a biological progeny; they have been freed from the nepotism stain.’ In early 1970s, while being the Chief Minister, Karunanidhi aimed to promote his son M.K.Muthu against MGR in the movie arena to check MGR’s influence among the party cadres. That step cost him a lot. Then since the 1990s, he has actively promoted his son M.K.Stalin as the next leader of the DMK, to neutralize the ascendancy of Vaiko. This led to Vaiko leaving the DMK party.

When poet Kannadasan highlighted the manipulative mind of Karunanidhi in his 1962 autobiography, many Tamils gave the benefit of the doubt to Karunanidhi. This was partly because success in the political arena escaped Kannadasan. But Father Time has revealed who told the truth. It was Kannadasan who also labeled Karunanidhi as a Goebbels (for exploiting the Tamil masses with exaggerated lies), and wrote and acted in a drama with that title. Reference to this exists in Kannadasan’s 2nd volume of autobiography, Manavaasam (pp. 48 and 75). Though Kannadasan wrote the preface for this volume in 1980 and died on Oct.17, 1981, the volume in appeared in print only in 1988.

Some Highlights of Karunanidhi’s Deeds on the Eelam Issue

On September 15, 1981, Karunanidhi was arrested for protesting against the Sri Lankan government’s actions against Eelam Tamils. He was released two weeks later on September 29th.

On July 27, 1983, Karunanidhi led a protest demonstration in Chennai, to condemn the ‘Black July’ atrocities against Eelam Tamils and plantation Tamils. He resigned his Anna Nagar constituency seat in the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly to show his solidarity for the plight of Eelam Tamils.

On June 3, 1986, Karunanidhi’s 62nd birthday felicitation function was held in Chennai. To support the Eelam Tamil cause, funds were collected from his well wishers and hepledged that such collected funds would be distributed to the Tamil militant movements.

These deeds of Karunanidhi in 1980s had a common linking strand. These were carried out merely to upstage the then Chief Minister MGR’s hand and not much with sincerity to the cause of Eelam Tamils. Then in May 2000, Karunanidhi as the Chief Minister waffled as follows:

“On May 12, he said: "We (the DMK) will be happy if they (the LTTE) get Tamil Eelam, either through negotiations or through armed conflict." He assured the House at the same time that the State would not be allowed to be used as a base by the LTTE. On May 13, he did a volte face. He explained that he did not support the establishment of an independent Eelam and that what he meant was that he would be happy to see an end to the Sri Lankan conflict and the creation of conditions in which Tamils could live peacefully. Then on May 15, he elaborated on how the DMK "distanced itself" from the LTTE many years ago, and that just because the DMK had at one time supported "Tamil Eelam" it should not be construed that "we supported all the activities of the LTTE". [‘Some Questions in Tamil Nadu’ – cover story, Frontline magazine, Chennai, May 27, 2000]

To continue with the political expediency of Karunanidhi, Chennai’s Frontline magazine again reported as follows:

“The vacillation continued, and on June 3 Karunanidhi mooted a "Czech-type division" of Sri Lanka. (He likened it to the separation of a man "from an unwilling wife.") He affirmed that it would be ‘a negotiated political’ settlement as required by India but appeared to ignore the fact that it did not conform to the other, more important, condition that any settlement should be ‘within the framework of Sri Lanka's territorial unity and integrity’. The suggestion drew instant protests. It was described variously by other political parties - including the BJP and some of its allies - and newspapers as ‘vague’, ‘irresponsible’, ‘irrelevant’, ‘inappropriate’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘violative of the declared policy of India’.

Five days later, on June 8, DMK leader and Union Minister for Commerce and Industry Murasoli Maran blamed the media for ‘blowing it out of proportion’. However, interestingly, Karunanidhi had no complaints against the media when he issued a four-page statement on June 6, elaborating his earlier suggestion and defending it as ‘a right medicine, even if it is bitter’….” [‘The double speak in Tamil Nadu’, Frontline magazine, June 24, 2000]

Having been burnt by the dismissal of his Cabinet by the panjandrums of New Delhi in 1976 and 1991, the prime political objective of Karunanidhi since then for survival has remained simple; performing the acrobatic act of having one foot planted in New Delhi (irrespective of which Party gains power) and keeping the other foot in Chennai.

Quo Vadis

So, what does the future hold for Karunanidhi? His primal desire now is to follow the steps of his mentor Anna and pal-turned-adversary MGR - exiting the world stage while holding the post of Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. When the Great Recorder finally levels up a guy’s performance, what merits overall are not his victories or defeats, but how he played the ‘game.’ Karunanidhi is sure to flunk in the final grading, because, despite all the gifts and advantages he was blessed with, Karunanidhi’s cunningness and vanity have prevailed over his better talents. That is a pity.

My conclusion may disappoint the true fans of Karunanidhi among Eelamists. He still has a constituency among Tamils of Eelam, because many consider that - compared to his chief political adversary Jayalalitha and other nondescript characters representing the Congress Party in Tamil Nadu - Karunanidhi has a far better profile in fighting for Tamil causes. A pledge of Karunanidhi (probably made in the 1980s), appears in one of his biographies. To quote,

“Hereafter, every step of mine is towards my grave. Nevertheless, in every inch of my move, I pledge to uplift the lives of my folks and community. Since I believe that each drop of sweat should fertilize the ethnic pride which have been trampled and dried. I offer my tears, blood, breath and body draped by bone and skin to the welfare of this Movement.” (Manimekalai Publishers Editorial Team, 1994, p.176).

Great words of inspiration from the lips of a spell-binding orator. But the proof of the pudding lies in the eating. Realistically speaking, Eelam Tamils can hardly expect that Karunanidhi would offer a helping hand to their cause, like what MGR did in his last four years. MGR helped the Eelam Tamils and LTTE, when it counted the most. As I have noted previously in my commentaries, one non-political reason for this is that MGR shared a ‘birth-soil bond’ with the Eelam Tamils. If one believes the decades-old observations of Kannadasan, it will be a miracle if Karunanidhi rises to the occasion like MGR. What one can only wish is whether Karunanidhi’s son and Prince-in-Waiting, M.K.Stalin, would turn out to be a sincere character devoid of his father’s Machiavellian traits.

Cited Tamil Sources:

Manimekalai Publishers Editorial Team: The Founding and Growth of DMK, Manimekalai Pirasuram, Chennai, 1983, 195 pp.

Kannadasan: Vana Vaasam – 1st volume of Autobiography, Vanathi Pathipagam, Chennai, 1991 (12th edition; 1962 original edition), 376 pp.

Kannadasan: Mana Vaasam – 2nd volume of Autobiography, Vanathi Pathipagam, Chennai, 1988, 228 pp.

Manimekalai Publishers Editorial Team: Kalaignar Karunanidhi, Manimekalai Pirasuram, Chennai, 1994 (revised 2nd ed), 224 pp.


In Defence of Karunanidhi

by V.Thangavelu

I have been a vehement critic of Kalignar Karunanidhi for a long time. Though I am a great admirer of his phenomenal literary skills as a film script-writer and author of several books, including a commentary to Thirukkural I had no admiration for politician Karunanidhi.    

Those who followed Karunanidhi's political career closely will not be surprised to observe his several Kuththukkaranams [acrobatic summersaults] on the Tamil Eelam issue.

During his tenure as a successful and corruption-free Chief Minister (1996-2001) he declared on the floor of the Tamil Nadu State Assembly that he would be happy "if the LTTE secured Thamil Eelam through armed struggle or negotiations," but then hurriedly extricated himself from the "armed struggle" part.  He clarified that "his sentiment should not be taken to mean that he would raise his voice on behalf of Tamil Nadu for the creation of Tamil Eelam. What he meant was, whether it was a question of Eelam or Tamils securing all rights there should be a conducive atmosphere where Tamils could live in peace."

He further clarified that  "he made it clear that for achieving this objective he would neither accept or welcome the presence of LTTE in Tamil Nadu nor allow the Tigers to use Tamil Nadu as a base for their activities.  The police had prevented certain activities of LTTE supporters in the State and that only demonstrated the Government's firmness in this regard."   Karunanidhi was alluding  to the banning of the conference organized by Pazh. Nedumaran scheduled to be held at Chithamparam in 2000.

Once he even questioned the credentials of the LTTE's right to hold itself as the guardian of Tamil people's rights. In support of his stance he raked up old memories how the LTTE rebuffed him by refusing to accept the Rs.50, 000 he wanted to give to the LTTE.

At times Karunanidhi paid compliments to the LTTE when he said "Those go sought and obtained money from me have given up the struggle for Tamil Eelam, but those who refused to accept the money (LTTE) are sacrificing their lives for the liberation of Tamil Eelam."

Unfortunately for the Eelam Thamils, Karunanidhi was adversely influenced by his nephew, the late Murasoli Maran, who had no sympathy for the Thamil Eelam cause. Karunanidhi would say one thing in the morning, but after listening to Murasoli Maran he would sing a different tune in the evening.   Things did not change much after the demise of Murasoli Maran. In his latest gimmick, Karuanidhi said after meeting Manmohan Singh in Delhi that his policy towards the Eelam struggle is the same as the foreign policy of the Central government.   

He says this despite his tall claim to be the leader of the Thamil race (Thamizhinath Thalaivar)!

Having said all this I disagree with the broadsides  by Sachi Sri Kantha who relied mainly on the autobiography of devil's advocate poet Kannadasan.  Kannadasan was a gifted and a versatile poet, but he was a failed politician and a bundle of contradictions!   He left the DMK along with EVK Sampanth to form the Thamil Thesiya Katchi that later got merged with the Indian Congress. In his final days he joined his fo,e MGR, when the latter bought him over with the offer of being poet laureate of Thamil Nadu.  In his personal life he was a pedithein addict, a womanizer and a heavy drinker. So Kannadasan's criticism about Karunanidhi should be taken with a heavy dose of salt. 

Though Nedunchezhiyan was No. 2 in the DMK hierarchy, he lacked ground-based cadre support.  Hailing from a middle class family he was ill at ease with ordinary members of the DMK.  So it was no surprise that Karunanidhi edged him out to become the chief minister.  

The decision to expel MGR from the party was not taken solely by Karunanidhi. It was Neddunchezhiyan who jumped the gun and announced the expulsion of MGR by the central committee of the DMK.

It is true that Karunanidhi remained in the political wilderness while MGR remained alive. But it is a riddle wrapped in enigma how a mediocre like MGR was able to capture power and hold on to it. MGR's accusation that Karunanidhi was corrupt (The Sakkariya Commission described him as having committed scientific bribery - he used a calculator to compute the commission to the last cent) had some merit.  A better actor like Sivaji  was a failure in politics.  At the tail end of his political career MGR  was a walking corpse!  

Promoting family politics is not something new in Indian politics. The Nehru family  is a good example. Rajiv Gandhi became leader of the Congress and Prime Minister of India straight from the pilot's cockpit! Compared to Rajiv Gandhi, Stalin has been in active politics for the last 25 years.

One of the greatest achievements of Karunanidhi is his firm grip on the DMK for the last 37 years!  Noone has challenged him for the party leadership.

There is still time for Karunanidhi to make amends for his past sins. Otherwise, history may record that he was the Nero who fiddled when Thamil Eelam was burning!