Karunanidhi's political career

Deft double role

Print edition : August 31, 2018

August 15, 1975: Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi with State Chief Secretary P. Sabanayagam after unfurling the national flag at Fort St. George. The year before, he had won for all Chief Ministers the right to unfurl the national flag on Independence Day. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

August 26, 1989: A press conference in Madras with (from left) Jyoti Basu, V.P. Singh, N.T. Rama Rao, M. Karunanidhi, Chaudhury Devi Lal and Ramakrishna Hegde. Karunandhi was the fulcrum of the National Front experiment that saw a broad coalition of secular opposition parties. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

February 6, 1989: In the Tamil Nadu Assembly, Chief Minister Karunanidhi looks on as Jayalalithaa, leader of what was then AIADMK (Jayalalitha), takes oath as a member of the Assembly. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

June 30, 2001: Karunanidhi sitting in front of the Central Jail in Chennai after his arrest in the “flyovers” case. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

April 27, 2009: On a fast in Chennai in protest against the Sri Lankan government’s rejection of a unilateral ceasefire announced by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam during the final phase of the civil war. Photo: REUTERS

A look at M. Karunanidhi’s long political career with its colossal achievements and colourful moments, always marked by the circumspection and quick thinking that kept him afloat in times of adversity.

In 1967, a movement that sought social justice for the people of what is now Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), announced to the world its first major victory by managing to secure a majority in the Madras Legislative Assembly, by winning 137 of the 234 seats. It was a huge deal, but there was a lot of work to be done: the promises made ranged from equal rights for women in property, an overhaul of the reservation system, and a better deal for the poor and the oppressed classes. There was no choice but to deliver on these promises or face obliteration in the next election.

Realising that there was no time to be lost, Chief Minister and DMK ideologue and president, C.N. Annadurai, set a furious pace for himself and for the rest of the Cabinet. But in just two years, Annadurai—Anna to his supporters and followers—fell to cancer. The DMK was then a party with little experience in governance. A combination of luck, shrewd thinking and alliances with the likes of the movie star M.G. Ramachandran, the party’s crowd puller, helped Public Works Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi emerge as the new leader.

When Karunanidhi took over the reins of administration at Fort St. George in February 1969, the Dravidian revolution was barely two years old. As the DMK came to terms with the absence of its ideologue, the pressure of soaring hopes and expectations was piling up. New ground had to be broken in Centre-State relations; the State’s autonomy had to be fought for; the federal structure had to be redefined with more power for States; the Tamil language had to be protected and propagated; and a New Deal ensured for the intermediate castes. The tasks looked insurmountable.

Over the next half century, whether in power or not, Karunanidhi strived hard to make sure that significant progress was made in all these spheres. Increased scope of reservations; gaining of the symbolic right to raise the national flag on Independence Day; the creation of a separate department for Tamil language development; the setting up of, at the State level, a Finance Commission, a Planning Commission, a Police Commission and a Slum Development Board—these were among hundreds of his achievements.

There was no time to ease into the job. Karunanidhi had to strengthen his position in the party and ensure that the next elections returned the DMK to power. That was the only sure way to step out of Anna’s shadows and chart a path for the party with a distinctive Karunanidhi stamp. In many ways, leading the party was more challenging than administering the State. The blueprint was the promises made to the people. All it needed was to work out, with civil servants, the modalities to ensure that these tasks were accomplished. Of course, the bureaucracy had to be handled with tact, understanding and, sometimes, firmness, and it was not always easy. Still, this task was manageable.

Translating promises into reality

From a promise to a government order it is not a straight path. A file has to originate at the level of a section, the lowest functioning unit of a government; it moves from table to table, gets vetted and corrected many times over before it comes to the Secretary to the Government and then the Minister in charge of the department concerned. After this, the file is sent either to the Cabinet and the Legislative Assembly (on policy issues or major monetary commitments) or for action in the form of a Government Order. This whole process has stood the test of time and forms the foundation of Indian administration. The only problem is that it is slow and demands too many clarifications at each stage.

Realising that there was no point in pulling up bureaucrats beyond a point, Karunanidhi chose to fight the appalling lack of pace through another route: he worked harder and longer and turned up for work on holidays and Sundays. There was no way out for the officials but to keep pace with their Chief Minister. When he was out of Chennai, mostly on weekends, he organised review meetings at the district level, apart from attending public and private functions. Karunanidhi sought feedback from the administration, his relatives and friends in the districts, his partymen, the press and also from officials of the Central government stationed in Tamil Nadu.

In later years, from 1996 to be specific, he delegated the monitoring job to a group of specially selected Indian Administrative Service officers who formed the Chief Minister’s Office—T.R. Ramasamy, Ashok Vardhan Shetty and R. Irai Anbu (who is still in service). His next term from 2006 had a different team. Departments were divided and handed over to them for preliminary review and follow-up. The Chief Minister came into the picture in the event of a bottleneck. This streamlining and delegation of authority had a salutary effect on efficiency, and the 1996-2001 DMK government is considered one of the best administrations of all time.

The trickier task of party leadership

This massive process of converting dreams and promises into actionable reality in the form of Government Orders was a relatively easy process compared with the nuances involved in running the party. The first test for a party leader is the very obvious one: winning an election. Karunanidhi realised, sometime in 1970, after he celebrated a year in office, that there were problems within the party and that there was an anti-incumbency sentiment building up against the DMK. This was brought on, in some ways, by the behaviour of party men—one allegation was that DMK men had taken over police stations and had let loose a reign of terror in some places.

Karunanidhi was not strong enough within the party, at this point, to control the party with an iron hand. Local-level leaders would quickly shift loyalty to their seniors within the party, and the ensuing tension would keep that particular area or district on the boil. The best he could hope for was to somehow deliver a victory and then wield the whip.

The Congress had split in 1969, and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was desperate for an alliance. The DMK could not go with the Kamaraj-led faction of the Congress because Kamaraj fought for the same political space as the DMK did. Realising the ground realities, Karunanidhi called for early elections, cut a deal with the Indira Gandhi-led Congress, and won 203 seats for the party as part of a seven-party alliance. Karunanidhi had arrived. The shadow of Anna began to fade away.

Just when he thought he would be able to consolidate his position in the party, dissidents struck. The actor-politician M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), one of the DMK’s most prominent faces in the 1971 election, decided to part ways over a minor issue. Looking back, the 1972 split was perhaps the most defining point of the DMK’s existence in Tamil Nadu. If Dravidian parties held sway in Tamil Nadu from 1967 to this date, it was because there was no space for a third major force to emerge.

With the benefit of hindsight, it appears that Karunanidhi did not treat the challenge from MGR with the seriousness it deserved. This correspondent, who reported on the DMK from 2001 to 2010, raised the question several times with Karunanidhi. He never answered it straight; his reply was always a variation of “hindsight is an exact science”.

All it needed for Karunanidhi to make MGR irrelevant in Tamil politics was to look the other way during the Emergency. After all, he was an ally of Indira Gandhi, and the spin given at that point in time—that national security was at stake—could have easily convinced the Tamil people. Also, during the Emergency, South India did not suffer as much as people in many other parts of the country. Instead, even as institution after institution fell to the brute power of the Indira Gandhi-Sanjay Gandhi combine, Karunanidhi chose to fight; and he chose to protect dissidents who came to Tamil Nadu seeking help. George Fernandes, the icon of the Railway strike of 1973, was one of the prominent personalities who took refuge in Tamil Nadu. Indira Gandhi did not take kindly to the criticism voiced by Karunanidhi and dismissed his government on January 31, 1976, about seven months after the promulgation of the Emergency.

Karunanidhi’s political correctness had cost him his government. And it would continue to remain that way for the next 13 years. MGR won the next three general elections in Tamil Nadu, and Karunanidhi could only come back to power in 1989, after MGR’s death.

A furious Indira Gandhi decided to finish off Karunanidhi for his refusal to support the Emergency. Karunanidhi once told this correspondent that he had lost count of the number of times Income Tax (I-T)officials raided his house during that time. Sometimes his wife Dayalu Ammal was summoned. At other times, his other wife, Rajathi Ammal, was summoned to the I-T office. Many a day, Karunanidhi’s daughter, Kanimozhi, came home to find there was no one around: her father was busy trying to figure out which DMK men were arrested on that day at the party office, and her mother was answering questions at the I-T office. The driver would take her to the I-T office in Nungambakkam in Chennai, where she would wait late into the evening.

Karunanidhi came out largely unscathed from the I-T scrutiny because he had not amassed personal wealth. He could prove that he bought the Gopalapuram house with the earnings from his cinema-related work. That experience possibly was responsible for his decision not to chase money—though the same cannot be said of many people close to him. At his death, he owned only what he had declared during his election in 2016, and this was a pathetic amount by a politician’s standards. Also, he had willed away the Gopalapuram house. He wanted it converted into a hospital after his death. Quite a few politicians and journalists unfamiliar with Tamil Nadu were taken aback by this fact. Some are still digging to find his money.

Even after the Emergency, Karunanidhi was out in the political wilderness because of MGR. Unfazed, he used the years out of power to build relationships within the party and outside and to nudge the party in the path that he wanted it to take—practical and pragmatic and following a policy of give-and-take. He created and maintained structures that kept DMK men close and even clannish, and he deliberately collapsed the distinction between the family and the party. The party was one big family, or his family was the whole of the party. This meant that the household was also a party office, and family members—young and old—were aware of most developments in the party. In later years, this proved to be an Achilles’ heel as family members sought to peddle influence.

The attempt to appeal to as many sections of people as possible was clear from the way he encouraged his children to marry anyone they chose. He would gladly preside over all such marriages. He once boasted that almost all caste groups in Tamil Nadu were represented in his family.

It was Karunanidhi’s focus on building and maintaining relationships that helped him stay at the helm, despite losing three elections. Thousands of people in Tamil Nadu have a Karunanidhi anecdote to narrate. One from a former Chairman of Sulur municipality, Ponmudi (now no more), went like this: “We had won the 1996 local body elections massively. All of us were called to Anna Arivalayam, the party headquarters. There were thousands and thousands of elected representatives and their relatives around the party headquarters to meet Kalaignar. I managed to reach his room more than 20 minutes after my name was called. When I touched his feet and got up, he touched my cheek and asked me: ‘Enna Ponmudi, are you happy with this margin? What happened?’ I was flabbergasted. He had no prompting. He had once come home when I was 14 or 15. Yet, he remembered me, and knew that I had slipped in my margin. That is the mark of a leader.”

As Karunanidhi lay in state at Rajaji Hall, everyone who came forward to speak to the press had a personal incident to share with the people. In a conversation with this correspondent, Karunanidhi had explained that he was able to manage so many relationships because he woke up at 4 a.m. for most of his life. He did his writing work first, then read the newspapers and called up people on the basis of the day’s news reports, made calls, and thus had a handle on the day before most people had even woken up.

Karunanidhi attended as many functions in DMK families as possible, and the marriages provided occasions to speak of the Dravidian ideology. In weddings, the bride and the groom were almost relegated to the background as DMK leaders addressed people who came to greet the newlyweds. Karunanidhi charged a small fee to attend these functions, and that money was used for building the party headquarters on Anna Salai in Chennai. “Kalaignar knows how many bricks went into the building of Arivalayam,” party treasurer Arcot N. Veerasamy told this correspondent in a conversation many years ago. “Do you know why?” he asked, and then added: “The struggle to raise money was such. He took anything people gave him and converted it into cement, brick and steel to build this.” The Emergency era also taught him to be circumspect about everything. He never took anything for granted and questioned almost any fact presented to him. His travels within the city were a secret until the last moment, and no one knew where he was headed even if his cavalcade was on the road.

The fast for Sri Lanka

His fast in an attempt to force the Central government to intervene in Eelam War 4 in Sri Lanka is an example of how cautious he was. At 5:30 a.m. on April 27, 2009, Karunanidhi, then the Chief Minister, asked his motorcade to be readied. Five minutes later, he took the elevator down from his first floor office-cum-drawing room, where he had completed his routine of writing one of his 7,000 “udanpirappe” columns for the front-page slot of the party organ Murasoli, read all newspapers and made a few calls to a western district based on a report.

Once he was down, Ganesh Pillai, his PSO on duty, escorted him to the front seat of the bullet-proof car. He sat in the car and told his driver of 40 years, “Left.” A few hundred metres later, where the Gopalapuram road merged into Cathedral Road, he said again, “Left.”

No one knew where Karunanidhi was headed, though the trips were more or less predictable after he became Chief Minister for the fifth time. Shanmuganathan, his secretary of 40 years, usually arrived at his Gopalapuram residence at 7:50 a.m. each day. A few appointments later, he left for Fort St. George, the seat of State power, by 8:45 a.m. Sometime between 12:45 p.m. and 1:30 p.m., he headed to his CIT Colony residence for lunch and a quick nap. If he was unable to squeeze in a visit to the party office by afternoon, he arrived there for a few hours in the evening. There was invariably a public function in the evening, and he retired home by 10 p.m.

Karunanidhi had a reason for not disclosing the destination of his travels within Chennai. He once had a close shave after being betrayed by a driver. He was on his way home late one evening when the driver stopped the car on Anna Salai and fled after apologising to him. With remarkable presence of mind, Karunanidhi quickly jumped out of the car because he suspected a possible attack. A few minutes later, he saw another vehicle pull up and examine the car he had been travelling in. From that day, Karunanidhi refused to disclose his destination when he travelled in the city, and he retained the habit even after he was accorded Z+ security.

That morning in April 2009, once the cavalcade reached the Gandhi Statue, he directed again: “Left.” Then he told the PSO on duty to dial this correspondent, then with The Hindu. As soon as I picked up the phone, Ganesh told me, “Ayya wants to talk to you”, and handed over the phone to Karunanidhi. “Come to Anna Samadhi. I am going to sit on a fast there,” he told me in Tamil. “I shall tell you the rest there.” He hung up.

By the time I reached Anna Samadhi, he was seated in a chair half way down the memorial. “Tamils are being killed in Sri Lanka. We have done nothing about it,” he said. I told him that the war was almost over, and that there was no point.

This was seen by opposition political parties and Sri Lankan Tamils as a drama enacted by Karunanidhi at the fag end of the Eelam war. He was criticised by Sri Lankan Tamils and Tamil nationalist people across the world for “not doing enough” to stop the genocide in Sri Lanka. Even C.V. Wigneswaran, Chief Minister of the Northern Province, Sri Lanka, did not forget to mention this in his condolence message: “Karunanidhi led several protests for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause, but the fact that he could have further pressured Delhi to prevent the Mullivaikkal massacre remains one of concern for our people.”

(Wigneswaran, a former judge who was a compromise choice for Chief Minister, was not in the thick of the struggle even as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was fighting a losing battle. A serious effort was made by India to avert a massacre, and it involved players at the highest level of the government. This followed a desperate satellite phone call from the LTTE’s Natesan to a friend of his in Madurai. Through two intermediaries, the seriousness of the situation was conveyed to the then Union Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, who discussed the issue with both the leadership of the party and the government before directly calling up Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. According to two people in the know, Gotabaya assured Chidambaram that LTTE men would not be killed if they came out waving a white flag. The Sri Lankan Army Commander of that time, Sarath Fonseka, told a reporter after he fell out with President Mahinda Rajapaksa that those bearing white flags were shot down mercilessly. This formed the basis of the “white flag case” in the Sri Lankan Supreme Court. Fonseka later went back on his statement and claimed that the reporter had made up the story. The reporter, belonging to the Island newspaper, had to flee Sri Lanka.)

Toughest challenge

The perception that Karunanidhi did not do enough to prevent the massacre of LTTE men in the final war was a “blemish” that cost him a title that he most coveted: the leader of Tamils across the world. This, despite Karunanidhi’s record of publicly praising the LTTE for fighting the Indian Army and declining to receive returning Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) soldiers after India’s withdrawal from Sri Lanka in 1990.

In fact, Karunanidhi allowed a free run for the Tamil militant groups in Tamil Nadu, which finally ended with the assassination of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front’s (EPRLF) K. Pathmanabha and a dozen of his comrades by the LTTE in Choolaimedu in Chennai in 1990. It was the LTTE’s first big attack outside Sri Lanka. The Karunanidhi government, which had come to power in 1989 in the elections following MGR’s death, was dismissed in 1991, and the attack was cited as the reason. The real reason was that Rajiv Gandhi and Jayalalithaa had struck a deal for an alliance ahead of the 1991 elections.

A few months after the DMK government was dismissed, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by the LTTE on May 21, 1991. The DMK was blamed for the assassination, and it faced the toughest challenge in its entire existence. Two years down the line, the tallest second ranking leader of the party, V. Gopalasamy (later Vaiko), left the party, taking with him almost a third of the party’s powerful district secretaries. Even worse, the DMK put up its worst ever show in the 1991 general election.

Karunanidhi appeared weak in every way, and the party seemed to be losing ground, and that, too, to Jayalalithaa, who he thought was a political novice. He could never forget this, and there began the most vicious period in Tamil Nadu politics, with the leaders of the two main political parties considering each other enemies. For the AIADMK, the DMK was not an opposition party, it was an enemy to be vanquished. This logic worked both ways. When a prominent businessman and his wife joined the AIADMK, Jayalalithaa reportedly called the wife aside and told her: “I know you are a friend of Kanimozhi. I am not saying you should not be in touch but you should remember that our partymen do not approve of such contact.” AIADMK leaders did not attend even family functions of prominent DMK men, and DMK men did not attend functions organised by AIADMK men.

This atmosphere of mutual hatred cost the State dear in many ways. Any scheme piloted by Jayalalithaa would not be seriously pursued by the DMK, and any project commenced by the DMK would be given a silent burial by the AIADMK regime. Karunanidhi, too, was human. There used to be a tacit understanding among politicians that the leader of the rival party would not be jailed, regardless of the charges. This changed when Karunanidhi jailed Jayalalithaa in 1996. Jayalalithaa returned the favour after she came back to power in 2001.

The DMK was wiped out in the 1991 general elections. But Karunanidhi was not one to blink in adverse circumstances; he waited for his chance to strike back. He kept on with his party work and resigned his Assembly seat, leaving his young colleague in the Assembly, Parithi Ilamvazhuthi, to fight on behalf of him for the DMK. Outside, he highlighted corruption in the State government and kept a close tab on its functioning. Eventually, acts of omission and commission by the AIADMK government gave the DMK a chance to get back into the game.

The arrest

A date with adversity brings out the true colours of a person. From the time he took over as Chief Minister in February 1969, Karunanidhi faced a thousand such circumstances. He came out on top every single time. He made almost all his mistakes while he was on top and had almost nothing to fear.

The night of June 30, 2001, was one of the many occasions when his quick thinking came to his help. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa ordered his arrest that night in what was commonly called the “flyovers case”. The scenes from his Oliver Road house, from where he was arrested, were played out on his nephew Murasoli Maran’s Sun TV that night and for many nights afterwards. He was bundled into a car, taken first to a police station, then to the residence of the Principal Sessions Judge, Kilpauk, where he was remanded to judicial custody. From there he was taken to the Office of the Police Commissioner in Egmore. His daughter, who was not in politics at that time, had jumped into the car carrying him and refused to leave his side. An “agreement” was reached at the Commissioner’s office that Karunanidhi would be shifted to the Government General Hospital in Chennai, in consideration of his age.

The Government General Hospital and the State’s Central Jail in Chennai are on either side of the Stanley viaduct, which connects the two arterial roads of Chennai, Anna Salai and Poonamallee High Road. It is also one of the many infrastructure projects that Karunanidhi built. As the car carrying him began climbing the viaduct, it slowed down. Then it stopped. After a brief while, instead of proceeding straight onto Poonamallee High Road and turning right to the General Hospital, the car took a left into the road leading to the Central Jail.

It was past 5 a.m. by then, and Kanimozhi informed some of her friends in the media (she worked for The Hindu for three years) that something was amiss. The car stopped in front of the Central Jail, and the driver and the police constable who was in the front seat alighted. An hour later, the police constable came back to inform Kanimozhi that there seemed to be no move to shift Karunanidhi to the hospital. As far as he could gather, Karunanidhi was not to be kept in the Central Jail either. He was to be taken to Vellore. Karunanidhi, who was just three years short of 80, was half-awake, but he realised that the game was changing. He stepped out of the car, and sat on the ground in front of the prison, resulting in the iconic picture that was flashed across the front pages of the newspapers the next day. In full view of the press and DMK men who streamed in from various parts of the city, it became impossible to move Karunanidhi from the Central Jail. The Prison Superintendent was instructed to take Karunanidhi into the prison campus to prevent any untoward incident.

Karunanidhi stepped into the office of the Superintendent and slept on a bench there, even as the government debated on who would inform Jayalalithaa about the turn of events. Eventually, he was kept in the Central Jail for the next five days and was released on July 4. “If he had not stepped out of the car and sat on the ground, I really don’t know what would have happened,” Kanimozhi told Frontline. “Even though he was roughed up, and extremely exhausted from lack of sleep, he made a quick decision and acted on it,” she recalled. It was this quality that ensured Karunanidhi’s longevity in electoral politics.

Longest-serving MLA

Karunanidhi contested 13 Assembly elections and never lost in any of them. He was Chief Minister five times, the first of which was in 1969. He dissolved the Assembly in 1971 to seek early elections and continued as Chief Minister from 1971 to 1976—when his government was dismissed by Indira Gandhi for refusing to toe her line on the Emergency. He had to wait 13 long years to come back to power, and finally became Chief Minister after MGR died, in 1989. That was a short-lived government as he was open in his support for Tamil militant groups. The next regime, from 1996 to 2001, saw a formidable combination of administrators who were party seniors—all at an age where they would work very hard—contributing to the making of one of the best governments of all time in Tamil Nadu. Karunanidhi lost power in the 2001 elections, only to come back to power again in 2006.

Karunanidhi used national alliances both for electoral gains and to act as a pressure group against an overbearing Centre. His efforts began soon after he was first sworn in as Chief Minister. The initial objectives were to safeguard State autonomy and push the boundaries of federalism. Realising the dangers of centralisation of power in a regime, as he saw during the Emergency, he welcomed the Janata Party’s ascent to power. But he was disillusioned quickly and formed a coalition with Indira Gandhi for the very next election, in 1980. Karunanidhi formed the fulcrum of the next experiment in coalition politics at the Centre, the National Front government, and in all such experiments subsequently. Former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda is on record as saying that it was Karunanidhi who contributed a great deal to make him Prime Minister.

But the lofty aims of taking on the Centre on complex issues faded out during the era of competitive politics with Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi heading the two main Dravidian parties. Both parties had one aim: to partner whichever party was in power at the Centre. Ideology took a back seat, and oneupmanship was the name of the game. In the 2001-2006 AIADMK regime, for instance, there was a serious attempt to build a new secretariat. Unfortunately for the party, the Environment Ministry in Delhi was headed by the DMK’s T.R. Baalu. Each time the AIADMK tried to make a move to build a secretariat—first near the Gandhi statue on the Marina, then at Kotturpuram (Jayalalithaa laid the foundation stone for this building), and then outside the southern fringes of Chennai—Baalu’s Ministry came up with one objection or another. Finally, Jayalalithaa was forced to abandon the idea. Karunanidhi built the new secretariat when he was in power from 2006 to 2011. After Jayalalithaa came to power in 2011, she refused to occupy it, and converted it into a hospital. Large parts of this massive structure remain unutilised. The Madras High Court was approached over the colossal waste of public funds. It found Jayalalithaa’s reasoning convincing.

Every time Karunanidhi formed the government, there were hundreds of achievements to celebrate. He set up the Sattanathan Commission soon after becoming Chief Minister for the first time. On the recommendations of this commission, he was able to raise the level of reservation for Backward Classes from 25 per cent to 31 per cent, while that of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes were raised from 16 per cent to 18 per cent. The total reserved quota in education and jobs jumped to 49 per cent. Karunanidhi did not fall into the trap of an economic basis of reservation, which the committee had recommended. In later years, after the concept of creamy layer was floated, he contested it.

The State formed one of the first policies on information technology in the country in 1996, when he was in power, and took steps to bring more information technology (IT) companies to not just Chennai but also smaller cities. The first public health insurance, named “Kalaignar Kaapittu Thittam”, helped the poor to access care that had been out of their reach.

There were also some sensitive schemes, such as the one for free education up to graduation for the first graduate in a family. His decision to put an end to hand-pulled rickshaws was widely hailed; the rickshaw-pullers were provided alternative employment. The marriage assistance scheme for women was another of his pioneering schemes which took a huge burden off the shoulders of the poor.

Almost all major infrastructure projects in the State were his contributions—the Gemini flyover in Chennai, the Coimbatore flyover, Tidel Park, the Anna Centenary Library, the new Secretariat complex, the Koyambedu bus terminus, the restoration of Poompuhar, the grade separators in Chennai, and many more. He also focussed on connectivity and improving of roads. But he was not blindly for development.

After he came to power in 2006, he instructed the then Industries Secretary, M.H. Farooqui, to deal with investment decisions on his own. His recommendations were discussed at an apex body and all approvals were given expeditiously. The investors were not allowed to meet anyone else in government—meetings with multiple officials and Ministers, Karunanidhi realised, provided opportunities for corruption.

In 2008, Sterlite came up with a proposal to expand capacity and build a township and establish downstream industries. This would have made Thoothukudi into a mega industrial hub rivalling similar hubs in Maharashtra and Gujarat. An excited Farooqui took the proposal to Karunanidhi. After listening to him for over an hour, Karunanidhi said: “Paarkalam” [Let us see]. Farooqui never raised the issue again. Neither did Karunanidhi bring it up.

The Marina was not merely a beach for him. He decided to use the beach front to teach Tamil culture to those who had the inclination to learn. People who had contributed to Tamil culture, traditions, and even characters in epics, came alive along the Marina. In many ways, Marina is a one-stop shop for Tamil culture.

Through his long career, Karunanidhi made his mistakes when he was in a position of strength. His decision to dismiss the threat posed by MGR, his misjudgement of Jayalalithaa as a political force, and the farcical attempt to end that career by releasing a letter of resignation that she had written (which fell into his hands), his decision to ally with the BJP on the advice of Murasoli Maran, his acceptance of the assessment that letter-pad political parties would be enough in 2001 to win the elections—all ended badly. MGR remained in power for 13 years, Jayalalithaa became a political force to reckon with, and the 2001 decision resulted in his midnight arrest and resulting issues.

Last wish

For all his faults, Karunanidhi had very few demands. He was not the one to amass wealth. He demanded a gulab jamun once in a while, or a thayir vadai. The other thing he wanted was a slot next to Anna after his death. He shared this desire with many people, including this correspondent, the poet Vairamuthu and his daughter Kanimozhi.

He also shared it with S. Ramasundaram, former Secretary to Government, Tamil Nadu. In his words:

“One late night, between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m.) in 2010, he was in the portico of the New Assembly, chatting with me on a range of issues and picking my brain, as usual. His daily companions, Ministers Durai Murugan, Ponmudi, had all left. Suddenly he said, Anna Samadhikku pogalam[Let’s go to Anna Samadhi]. It was just two of us at Anna Samadhi and a few city police constables who were on duty there. We sat on two plastic chairs and one of the constables brought two glasses of tea.

“There was a light sea breeze, and he was unusually very quiet... Maybe deep in thoughts about his association with Anna. After a few minutes, he asked me, ‘Secretary (as he used to call me), Anna Samadhiyile enna vaasagam irukku theriyumaa?’ [Do you know what the writing on the Anna Samadhi is?]. I knew, of course, and replied , ‘Theriyum, Sir. Edhaiyum thaangum idhayam ingey urangukirathu’ [I know, Sir. The heart that can bear anything sleeps here].

“He nodded and said, Enakkum ingey dhan uranganum’... [I also want to sleep here]. I was too stunned to react but managed to say, Adhellem ippo edhukku Sir pesanum?’ [Why should we talk about all that now?]. He slipped back into silence, and then said, Sari, kelambalam, romba late ayidichu’ [Ok, lets leave. It is already too late].”

After his death at 6:10 p.m. on August 7, the question of his final resting place came up. While most State Ministers expressed a desire to accede to Karunanidhi’s wish, Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami was firm that the facility could not be extended to a former Chief Minister.

As his body lay in state at the Rajaji Hall, where it was kept for public viewing, a bench of the Madras High Court comprising the acting Chief Justice heard arguments on the case. Around 11 a.m., the High Court ordered that the arguments of the State government did not hold water.

There was applause and shrieks of joy and the air was filled with the slogans “Thalaivar vaazhga” and “Kalaignar vaazhga”. In death, too, he had won, and it was being celebrated by his udanpirappugal.

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