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Sun Sets on Dravidian Politics With DMK Patriarch Karunanidhi's Demise

Karunanidhi acquired fame as a firebrand leader who never lost his composure. He also employed other tools in his arsenal — light-hearted humour and sharp wit — to disarm his political rivals.

Poornima Murali | CNN-News18

Updated:August 8, 2018, 7:45 AM IST
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Chennai: The patriarch of Dravidian politics and co-founder of DMK, 94-year-old Muthuvel Karunanidhi, is no more.

Karunanidhi will be remembered for his political acuity and a career spanning the lifetime of several contemporary leaders. There are some who will also remember him for his love of literature and theatre and his talent for scripting affecting screenplays.

One of the movies for which Karunanidhi wrote a screenplay, ‘Manthiri Kumari’ (1950), went on to become a huge hit and added to the popularity of its lead star MG Ramachandran, who would go on to become Karunanidhi’s arch rival.

It was this passion for literature and his contribution to theatre and the film industry that he was fondly referred to as “Kalaignar” (meaning ‘the artist’ in Tamil). He breathed his last at the Kauvery Hospital in Chennai on Tuesday evening after waging a grim battle for life for 11 days.

"With deep anguish we announce the demise of our beloved Kalaignar M Karunanidhi on 07.08.2018 at 6.10 pm. Despite the best possible efforts by our team of doctors and nurses to resuscitate him, he failed to respond. We profoundly mourn the loss of one of the tallest leaders of India and we share the grief of family members and fellow Tamilians worldwide," a press release by Dr Aravindan Selvaraj, Executive Director of Kauvery Hospital, said.

Karunanidhi is survived by four sons — MK Stalin, MK Alagiri, MK Muthu and MK Thamizharasu — and two daughters — Kanimozhi and Selvi.

At an advanced age and being ill for months, Karunanidhi spent close to two years confined to his home, except for the occasional trips he took to the hospital. His grief-stricken cadre has been thronging Anna Arivalayam (the headquarters of the DMK), raising slogans of ‘Kalaignar Vaazhga’ (Long live the artist).

While Karunanidhi supervised a smooth handover of leadership in his time — a teary-eyed MK Stalin took over as the working president of the DMK in January last year — the party still seemed to be working under his shadow.

The observers of Tamil Nadu politics recall how, back in the 1960s, Karunanidhi began to acquire fame as a firebrand leader who never lost his composure. He also employed other tools in his arsenal — light-hearted humour and sharp wit — to disarm his political rivals.

Durai Murugan, former law minister and a close aide of Karunanidhi, once recounted how even in the direst of circumstances, the ‘Kalaignar’ never let go of humour. “Once ‘Kalaignar’ was taken to hospital. He was not well and we thought that was his end. The nurse in the hospital, during preliminary tests, told him to stop breathing for a few seconds. He responded, 'Strange you ask me to do what I’ve come here to avoid'.”

Karunanidhi was born on June 3, 1924, in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvarur district into a family with a taste for culture.

He spent his time writing Tamil songs with a touch of indignation at oppression and casteism — the social order that wanted the lower classes to remain where they were.

Naturally, Chennai’s Justice Party beckoned the young Karunanidhi to its fold where figures such as Periyar were upending caste systems and bringing forth a social revolution.

In Chennai, Karunanidhi easily fit into the theatre scene. He took to writing poignant tales of poorer classes hitting back at status-quoists at a time when script writing was suffused with society’s oppressive realities.

Parasakthi, in which actor Sivaji Ganesan delivered Karunanidhi’s evocative lines superbly, was instrumental in questioning the social constructs of the time. For Karunanidhi, it was a means to making real, tangible changes on ground.

The DMK patriarch’s political life began as an activist. An agitation he led to restore Dalmia Puram, named after a cement factory, to the original Kallakudi in Trichy district, was a great learning experience for him in the art of mobilising people and fighting political battles.

Upon its success, Karunanidhi began rising fast in the ranks of DMK, though his rise was seen as controversial by many. When the DMK stormed to power on the back of the anti-Hindi agitation, Karunanidhi was given a ministerial berth in the cabinet. Two years later, in 1969, he became the chief minister of Tamil Nadu.

But then, for every towering leader, there has to be a formidable foe. The star of Sri Lanka-born Malayali actor MG Ramachandran (MGR) was rising equally fast. He captured hearts across the state through the Karunanidhi-scripted Manthiri Kumari.

MGR began his political career with the Congress, but later joined the DMK and became a force in his own right. So much so that stories of swarms of people leaving public meetings after MGR’s speeches are still told. Over time, MGR and Karunanidhi became fierce rivals.

MGR, with his populist schemes and charisma, acted as a foe to Karunanidhi, even though the latter called him a “dear friend” on many occasions.

MGR’s death in December 1987 led to the emergence of J Jayalalithaa, then an actor who became the propaganda secretary of the AIADMK.

Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa took the initial rivalry between the two parties a notch higher. Hate politics that saw midnight arrests, smear campaigns and fisticuffs in the Assembly became the order of the day.

The two leaders shared power between them in Tamil Nadu. Their legislators seemed to follow them in hate politics too. No DMK man can ever have any truck with an AIADMK man; it has remained so till now, over 18 months after the death of Jayalalithaa.

Karunanidhi’s death has brought to close a Dravidian era. The DMK will definitely miss his masterful steering at a critical time.

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