Selected Writings by
Sachi Sri Kantha
10 June 2006
One Hundred Tamils
of the 20th/21st Centuries -
New Delhi's Policy on Sri Lanka
will be Tamil Nadu's Policy says Karunanidhi,
3. Swaminathan Palendira on Quo Vadis Karunanidhi?
together with response by
“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
Muthuvel Karunanidhi, the
current Tamil Nadu chief minister celebrated his 82nd birthday on June 3rd. He
was born in 1924. Perhaps since 1990, in Tamil Nadu it has become a convention
to add an 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 on
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 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 hide his blemished record as an Indian politician of Nixonian
vintage. As such for balancing the historical perspectives, I felt that there is
a need to at least peep into Karunanidhi’s closet for dangling skeletons. Sure,
Karunanidhi has worn too many hats in his public career which now span for
nearly six decades. A select listing of his so 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 the
least, family benefactor. He had 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 on the nerves of Eelam
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 DMK and parted their political paths in 1961. Since
Kannadasan had enjoyed unrivalled success in literary, cinema and journalism
arenas, his critique on Karunanidhi’s politics cannot be interpreted as jealousy
of a haggler. Thus, it is worth to read some excerpts of Kannadasan’s
autobiography, in which Karunanidhi’s skills receive an unflattering portrayal.
In these passages, Kannadasan had referred himself in 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 flattering 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 beach front,
Karunanidhi and Indira Gandhi appeared in 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
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 the cinematic magic
again, in the historical costume adventure Manohara.
In 1956, Karunanidhi was one of the 15 nominees of DMK to win their seats in the
then Madras Legislative Assembly elections. He confirmed his ascendancy within
the DMK ranks by engineering the split in 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 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
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 as 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 1977, 1980 and 1984 Legislative Assembly elections by the voters of
Tamil Nadu. Following MGR’s death, Karunanidhi was given a new lease of 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
The period of redemption (1996-2000) for Karunanidhi was a consequence of
excesses indulged 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 minoriy government.
Why had 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 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 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 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 some junior colleagues of him 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 had 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 1990s, he
had actively promoted his son M.K.Stalin as the next leader of 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 doubt to Karunanidhi. This
was partly because, success in the political arena escaped Kannadasan. But
Father Time had revealed who had 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 had written the preface for this volume in 1980 and had
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 on Eelam Tamils. He was released two weeks later on
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 pledged that such collected funds would be distributed to the Tamil
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 peacefu
lly. 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, the 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 var
iously 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; just performing an acrobatic act of having one
foot planted in New Delhi (irrespective of which Party gains power) and keeping
the other foot in Chennai.
So, what does future holds for Karunanidhi? His primal desire now is to follow
the steps of his mentor Anna and pal-turned-adversary MGR, of 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 had 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 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 had 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.