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DMK leader M.K. Karunanidhi's life is the story of a movement and a party that's now a family affair
This is the story of a patriarch and his kin. Spanning a time frame of over eight decades, this is also a story of their politics and its connection to the future of a party and a movement, two factors that contributed immensely in shaping the destiny of Tamil Nadu.
His story takes you back to Thirukkuvalai, one among hundreds of obscure villages in the then Madras Presidency, to June 3, 1924. The Muthuvel-Anjugam family was a humble rural household. In fact, the birth of the boy who went on to become five-time Chief Minister and ten-time president of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, was no longer the biggest event by the following morning: a thief who broke into their house stole his thunder.
Fourteen years later, Karunanidhi became the leader of a small group of youngsters, Tamil Students Federation, who grew up with the Self Respect Movement led by Dravidian icon Periyar (The Elder) E.V. Ramasamy. The movement that started in 1925 had given special significance to words to spread its social reform agenda. Even when he was young, Karunanidhi had a way with language that made him special among the backward class's assertive new generation. By then, he had started an eight-page, handwritten magazine called Manavar Nesan to be circulated at a zero-profit basis among 50 people. This craft became especially useful for the group of elders during the Dravidian movement and also during the birth of its political form, the DMK, in 1949.
His elder sister Shanmugasundarathammal's son Maran was one of the youngest members of the youth brigade led by Karunanidhi—the second one from the family to enter public life. Karunanidhi married Padmavathy, daughter of musician 'Pataka' Sundaram Pillai and sister of singer C.S. Jayaraman, at the age of 20, around the same time he wrote the script of his first movie, Rajakumari.
BY 1967, DMK had drummed up enough support from the masses to install its president C.N. Annadurai as Chief Minister, the first non-Congress Chief Minister. The South Chennai parliamentary seat that he vacated went to Murasoli Maran, the influential second-rung leader of the party and editor of Murasoli, the monthly-turned-weekly-turned-daily that Karunanidhi launched as an 18-year-old.
There are stories that trace dynastic tendencies to that period, alleging that Karunanidhi, the then PWD minister, recommended his nephew Maran's name as the potential candidate as 'he was qualified and could speak English' in the national Capital. However, it is equally true that Maran's credentials in the party and the movement were as good as anybody else's.
If the first instance of family promotion was considered automatic, the second one was planned and executed, but ended in a disaster. By the '60s, when he became one of the leading members of the DMK, much had changed in Karunanidhi's personal life. Padmavathiammal had died young—of tuberculosis—in 1948, leaving a son, Muthu. Karunanidhi lost his vision in one eye due to a medical condition after which he was advised to wear dark glasses, which became his trademark.
Karunanidhi later married Dayaluammal and had four children—Azhagiri, Stalin, Tamilarasu and Selvi. Around the time he became Chief Minister, he accepted Rajathiammal as his companion. When he was asked to explain his relationship with Rajathiammal in the State Assembly, he said, "She is my daughter Kanimozhi's mother." There were not too many questions asked after that.
Karunanidhi became party president and Chief Minister after Anna's death in 1969. According to old-timers, this promotion came with ample support from matinee idol MG Ramachandran, who became the treasurer. Two years later, even after facing serious charges of corruption, the DMK came back to power, riding on campaigns by Karunanidhi and MGR. The consecutive defeat also pushed Congress to the periphery of state politics.
But soon, there were frictions between the writer and the actor, which prompted Karunanidhi to introduce his first son, Muthu, into the tinsel world as a counter to MGR. When Muthu was launched in home production company Anjugam Pictures' Pillayo Pillai in 1971, his resemblance to MGR was accentuated by the make-up, mannerisms and acting modelled on the superstar. Those who lived in Chennai then remember Muthu taking out processions across the city on a white horse with a group of ministers in tow.
But his moderate success was not enough to take on the idol status that MGR attained by the '70s. If anything, his promotion only hastened MGR's exit from the party to form the Anna DMK (the present-day AIADMK led by Jayalalithaa) that claimed it would restore a non-corrupt government and the party symbolised by Annadurai.
Muthu's failure as a replacement idol soon pushed him to oblivion. In came M.K. Stalin, Karunanidhi's third son, who was born on March 5, 1953. Four days later, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin died.
Stalin was active on the sidelines even before Muthu made his movie foray and had campaigned for Maran in the 1969 Lok Sabha elections. Though he was inducted as a member of the party general council, it was Emergency that put this wild child on the political course. By the time Stalin emerged from prison, a year after he was arrested under MISA on January 31, 1976, he attained anti-Emergency credentials that more than carried their weight in gold.
In 1980, the DMK formed its youth wing with Stalin in charge. The same year, elder brother Azhagiri was sent to Madurai to 'manage the Madurai edition of Murasoli', though it was later interpreted as a move to avert an imminent clash of interests between the brothers who did not share the best of relations.
If Muthu was moulded after his rival, Karunanidhi groomed Stalin after himself. Stalin became the general secretary of the youth wing. He also acted in a couple of movies, including Ore Ratham (same blood) and Makkal Anayittal (when people decide) in the '80s, apart from a brief stint on the mini-screen.
Over the years, Stalin toured the state and grew in stature within the party and outside, attracting criticism of family politics. Critics raised several points: Karunanidhi was the seniormost leader of the party; his son was in charge of its youth wing; and nephew Murasoli Maran was the party's pointsman in New Delhi and its boss' conscience-keeper.
However, there is no denying that the party did not have a leader to replace Maran at the Centre, and Stalin had his initiation into full-time politics as a member of the Opposition party after MGR's AIADMK relegated DMK to the fringes for 13 years—between 1976 and 1989.
In the hotly-contested personality politics in Tamil Nadu, Muthu made a brief, dramatic comeback, to join the ruling AIADMK in the '80s. But he was reported to have a drinking problem and soon faded out of public life, leaving only memories of some songs that he had sung for his own movies. The next time he made news was when a Tamil weekly published a report about Muthu living a life of penury.
Over the years, while in the Opposition, Karunanidhi came to be more in control of the party. The leader's writ ruled in a party that believed in consensus in decision-making. So when Stalin was elected Mayor of Madras Corporation in 1996, it was seen as an apprenticeship to succeed his father, the then Chief Minister.
The only person capable of upstaging the plan was Maran, who was by then an important leader in Delhi and a minister in the United Front Government. The space was divided well, not leaving any ground for grudges.
Just When the path was cleared for Stalin, Azhagiri returned as a challenger. The elder brother, often portrayed as the hot-headed Sonny Corleone of this Godfather story, never had any post or responsibility in the party or Government. But this didn't mean he had no control over the party apparatus in the southern region.
In the first three years of this decade, supporters of the brothers clashed on the streets of Chennai and Madurai, and inside the meeting halls of local bodies, seriously undermining the functioning of the cadre-based outfit. This was the first struggle for succession.
After Karunanidhi, Stalin and Maran were arrested under corruption charges in 2001, the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa put Azhagiri, too, behind bars as an accused in the murder of senior DMK leader and Stalin supporter, T Kiruttinan, two years later. The family then joined hands against the common enemy and this working relationship was crucial in ensuring the DMK-led alliance's victory in the 2004 elections.
According to a keen observer of the family, the present-day problems began with the death of Murasoli Maran in November 2003. With this, two new power centres evolved in the family: Rajathiammal and her daughter Kanimozhi, and Kalanidhi and Dayanidhi Maran. If there was a singularity in purpose during Murosoli Maran's time, the new groups reportedly pulled in different directions that eventually led to the bigger crisis.
Dayanidhi Maran's rise, fall and partial resurrection are part of folklore. If the infamous survey by AC Nielson for the Marans' daily Dinakaran gave Azhagiri only a meagre two per cent public acceptance as Karunanidhi's heir, the feud that followed its publication only helped rehabilitate him in the family in a battle of Us vs Them.
Maran's fall from grace was closely followed by Kanimozhi's transformation as a politician after years of remaining non-political. Kanimozhi grew up as a public figure without entering politics. She worked as a sub-editor in The Hindu and was also in-charge of a Tamil weekly from the 'Sun' stable.
After waiting in the periphery since the UPA victory in 2004, she finally entered active politics when she was made a Rajya Sabha member in 2007, two months after Maran was shown the door. There were strong rumours at that time, most vocally aired by Opposition leader Jayalalithaa, that she would be made the IT and Communications Minister, though that did not materialise. But her residence in CIT Colony in Chennai, which she shares with her mother, became an important address.
For a while, she was seen as Karunanidhi's answer to the woman-power that Jaya boasted of, and DMK's plan to organise its first-ever women's conference at Cuddalore last year was to be her launchpad. But during the meeting, she had to share the limelight with a surprise newcomer: Kayalvizhi, the politically ambitious daughter of Azhagiri.
Karunanidhi's daughter Selvi, married to the Maran household, was instrumental in their resurrection, as was Stalin. But not many outside the inner circle know the real deal behind the patch-up between the Marans and the Karunanidhi family. Apart from the talk of money changing hands, one of the rumours that gained currency spoke about a regrouping of the core family to keep out Rajathiammal and Kanimozhi from power. Interestingly, Kanimozhi was missing at the time of the reunion, like she was absent when Azhagiri and Maran took oath as Cabinet members on Thursday.
Karunanidhi's life is a story of a movement, the party and the politics of a state—but finally reduced to a family. Whoever wins this internal struggle will lead the party in the coming days. It will also complete the metamorphosis of the DMK from an ideological entity to one based on dynasty and thus patronage.
In a warm sidelight to the main story, Muthu came back again, this time standing on his own feet as a singer. He has shaken off his past and sung a film soundtrack. His son Arivunidhi, a doctor by profession, has also sung for a film, the audio of which was released by Karunanidhi. Arivunidhi has also floated a trust in the name of Padmavathyammal, which, some say, is part of a grand design for the politics of the future.