When Mr. Karunanidhi arrived, party cadres faithfully launched fireworks into the night sky. The audience, mostly middle-aged men, stood on their chairs to gain a better view of their “Kalaignar,” meaning “artist,” as Mr. Karunanidhi is popularly known for his role in the past as a film scriptwriter and ideologue for the D.M.K.
As Mr. Karunanidhi was placed on the stage in his wheelchair, a familiar figure with his trademark yellow shawl draped around his shoulders and oversized goggles, a small-time local leader frothed at the mouth in a burst of sycophantic frenzy. “Periyar’s disciple, Kalaignar!” he roared. “Tamil poet, Kalaignar!”
After a round of welcoming speeches – essentially panegyrics for Mr. Karunanidhi’s benefit – a microphone was placed in front of Mr. Karunanidhi. Reading from a prepared script, Mr. Karunanidhi spoke for an hour, discussing at length the state of Sri Lankan Tamils and his dedication to the Tamil language.
These issues, emotive in the past, are now largely symbolic, of little electoral currency in this parliamentary election, and his speech was remarkable mostly for its omissions. Mr. Karunanidhi refrained from addressing the defining themes of this election: widespread disenchantment with corruption and dynastic politics. The audience heard him in respectful silence, but his remarks drew few cheers.
It was unusual to see a veteran politician like Mr. Karunanidhi straying so far from the popular pulse. But it was understandable, too, for the issues of corruption and dynastic politics are ones on which Mr. Karunanidhi and his party have long ceded the moral ground.
In the late 1940s, the D.M.K. emerged from the embryo of the Dravidian movement, an egalitarian social churn that sought to mobilize the lower castes on an anti-Brahmin platform.
But Mr. Karunanidhi, who succeeded C.N. Annadurai, his mentor and the party’s founder, as chief minister in 1969, has converted the D.M.K. into a family enterprise. Mr. Karunanidhi, who has been president of the D.M.K. since 1969, eliminated all political rivals over the decades in order to install a heir from his family as his successor in the party.
Mr. Karunanidhi and the D.M.K. also find themselves ill equipped to galvanize widespread public revulsion against corruption. In 2011, the 2G telecommunications scam, widely considered the biggest corruption scandal in Indian political history, dealt the Congress-ruled alliance in New Delhi a blow from which it never really recovered.
But at the center of the storm was the D.M.K.’s Andimuthu Raja, who was telecommunications minister at the time and is alleged to have received tens of millions of dollars in kickbacks. (Mr. Raja was arrested in 2011 and is out on bail while he awaits his trial.)
Mr. Karunanidhi was chief minister of Tamil Nadu when the scandal broke. Initially, Mr. Karunanidhi appeared to dismiss the public backlash against his party. But in local state elections held later that year, the D.M.K. suffered one of its worst defeats and was relegated to third place, behind the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Desiya Morpokku Dravida Kazhagam.
In the run-up to the 2014 elections, considered critical for the future of the D.M.K., Mr. Karunanidhi found himself in the middle of a bitter power struggle that had broken out between his sons M.K. Alagiri and Mr. Stalin. In late March, Mr. Alagiri was expelled from the D.M.K. for “anti-party activities,” paving the way for the coronation of Mr. Stalin.
As Tamil Nadu readied for the vote on Thursday, Mr. Karunanidhi crisscrossed the state in a last attempt to salvage his legacy and secure the political future of Mr. Stalin.
No politician in India has made more comebacks than Mr. Karunanidhi. In 1972, shortly after Mr. Karunanidhi became chief minister for the first time, he fell out with M.G. Ramachandran, a charismatic and widely popular actor who had helped propel him to the state’s top job after the death of Mr. Annadurai, the party’s founder.
Mr. Ramachandran formed the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam after Mr. Karunanidhi orchestrated his exit from the party. It was a move Mr. Karunanidhi would come to regret.
Mr. Ramachandran’s fan clubs across the state immediately transformed into party units, and spurred on by his charisma, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam stormed to power in 1977.
Mr. Karunanidhi spent 12 years in the political wilderness, only returning to power in 1989, after Mr. Ramachandran’s death. Sampath Kumar, a former journalist with the BBC and professor at the Asian College of Journalism, remembers interviewing Mr. Karunanidhi shortly after Mr. Ramachandran’s death.
“He was beaming,” Mr. Kumar said. “It was as if he had got a new lease of life.”
Another setback soon followed after the Tamil Tigers assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Mr. Karunanidhi, who was seen as close to the Tamil Tigers, was decimated in the 1991 state elections, and Jayalalithaa Jayaram, a former associate of Mr. Ramachandran, came to power.
Yet by 1996, corruption charges against Ms. Jayaram had mounted and the D.M.K. returned to power in one of the most spectacular landslides in Indian electoral history. Mr. Karunanidhi and Ms. Jayaram have swapped power every five years since.
In 2014, as Mr. Karunanidhi once again endeavors to craft a political resurgence, there is the feeling that this may prove to be a comeback too far for the D.M.K. chief. Having converted his party into a family enterprise, Mr. Karunanidhi, much like the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, is now grappling with its chief limitation: the chosen descendant lacking the charisma and political authority of his predecessors.
There are also the debilitating rigors of age. Mr. Karunanidhi is no longer the vigorous politician of his youth; he is not even the energetic figure of a decade ago. It is unlikely Mr. Karunanidhi will ever campaign in another election. Given his failing health, he may not even last until the next local state elections, scheduled for 2016.
On Monday, Mr. Karunanidhi spoke laboriously, far from the spellbinding orator he once used to be. A frail, rotund figure on a wheelchair, Mr. Karunanidhi appeared very much the lion in winter.
He often stumbled over his lines, or repeated arguments he had made minutes before. His stamina and determination alone kept him going for nearly an hour.
Toward the end, as the 10 p.m. deadline for election meetings approached, Mr. Maran, whom Mr. Karunanidhi affectionately calls his grandson — although Mr. Maran is his grandnephew — indicated to him that he draw his speech to a close.
Mr. Karunanidhi folded the paper from which he was reading. “My grandson says it’s time,” he said.