One who set the agenda for half a century

Accepting and adapting to the ground realities of a given situation was Karunanidhi’s greatest strength as a politician.

Published : Aug 17, 2018 11:00 IST

 (From right)  Vice-President K.R. Narayanan, H.D. Deve Gowda, Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma, former Prime Ministers Chandra Shekhar, P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, G.K. Moopanar and Karunanidhi at the swearing-in ceremony of I.K. Gujral as Prime Minister on April 21, 1997.

(From right) Vice-President K.R. Narayanan, H.D. Deve Gowda, Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma, former Prime Ministers Chandra Shekhar, P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, G.K. Moopanar and Karunanidhi at the swearing-in ceremony of I.K. Gujral as Prime Minister on April 21, 1997.

After the results were announced formally in the 1967 elections, when the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) captured power in Tamil Nadu, senior DMK leaders, including C.N. Annadurai, M. Karunanidhi and V.R. Nedunchezhiyan, travelled from Chennai to Erode and got Periyar E.V. Ramasamy’s blessings. This happened just a couple of days before Annadurai formally took oath as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu along with his Cabinet colleagues. This was an interesting development because after floating the DMK and until 1967, not a single DMK leader had visited Periyar. So, it was only after 18 years that the DMK leaders met their mentor Periyar.

One of the interesting aspects of the history of not only the DMK but also the political personality of Karunanidhi was his inherent ability to accept and adjust to the ground realities of the politics of the day and enter into post-election alliances with any party.

The DMK was a constituent of the United Front government in New Delhi from June 1996 to February 1998. From June 1996 to April 1997, H.D. Deve Gowda was the Prime Minister and the DMK got the posts of one Cabinet Minister and two Ministers of State. When the Congress withdrew its support to Deve Gowda, the latter stepped down in April 1997. I.K. Gujral became the Prime Minister and the DMK was a constituent in that government too. The Gujral government was toppled in November 1997 by the Congress and fresh elections were held in February 1998 and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power, with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the Prime Minister. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), with its 18 MPs, supported the NDA government and got a couple of Ministerial berths too. When Jayalalithaa, the AIADMK general secretary, withdrew support to the NDA government, the DMK, with its six MPs, voted in favour of the Vajpayee government. Yet, Vajpayee lost by just one vote on April 17, 1999.

Thus began the electoral understanding with the BJP. The DMK joined the NDA and contested the September 1999 Lok Sabha elections with the BJP. Plum portfolios such as Petroleum and Industry were allotted to the DMK. Murasoli Maran, T.R. Baalu and A. Raja became Ministers. But after the death of Murasoli Maran on November 23, 2003, the DMK quit the NDA on December 10, 2003. The DMK then joined the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the alliance swept the 2004 Lok Sabha elections by winning all 39 seats in Tamil Nadu and the lone seat in Puducherry (then Pondicherry).

In the first UPA government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the DMK got seven Ministerial berths. In the 2009 elections, too, the DMK-Congress alliance performed well by winning 28 seats in Tamil Nadu, and the DMK got seven Ministers in the UPA government’s second innings. But just a year before the Lok Sabha elections on March 21, 2013, the DMK’s Ministers resigned and the party presented a letter to the President stating that it was withdrawing support to the government. The DMK cited the letting down of Sri Lankan Tamils by the government in an important vote in the U.N. as the reason for the decision.

From 1996 to 2013, the DMK enjoyed power at the Centre. No regional party in the country has enjoyed so many years of power at the Centre. Was the DMK taking care of Tamil Nadu’s interests or was it just power hungry is the million-dollar question.

Much before 1996, the DMK was a constituent of the government at the Centre headed by V.P. Singh between 1989 and 1990. In the November 1989 elections, the AIADMK-Congress alliance swept the Lok Sabha elections in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry by winning 39 out of 40 seats. A lone exception was the Nagapattinam constituency where the Communist Party of India (CPI) won in alliance with the DMK. The DMK was not able to win even one seat. But in spite of that Murasoli Maran was made Union Minister for Urban Development. At that time, Karunanidhi was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. Adapting quickly to new, fast-paced, political developments was one of the great strengths of Karunanidhi. And Karunanidhi had that rare quality of convincing his own party cadres of the soundness of his decisions. Sometimes, he allotted that work to Murasoli Maran. The classic case was when the DMK decided to vote in favour of the NDA government led by Vajpayee in April 1999. The DMK’s six MPs voted in favour of the government. At that time, convincing the seniors in the DMK became a big challenge for Karunanidhi. In a shrewd move he left that job to Murasoli Maran. It took three hours for Maran to convince those seniors who were deeply agitated by the DMK’s move to support the Vajpayee government.

“Thalaivar [Karunanidhi] entrusted that job to Murasoli Maran. At that time the atmosphere within our party was a charged one. Maran spoke for two hours and convinced us. Maran said that Jayalalithaa was exerting pressure on Vajpayee to dismiss the DMK government in Tamil Nadu, but Vajpayee was not yielding. Vajpayee was going to lose his government for us. So, in this situation we had to support Vajpayee. We had no options,” a senior DMK office-bearer, who did not want to be named, told this writer.

“For Karunanidhi, there was no yesterday. For him only today and tomorrow were important. He never looked back and that was his greatest strength,” said Peter Alphonse, ex-Congress MP and a senior politician. When Emergency was proclaimed and after the Karunanidhi government was dismissed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on January 30, 1976, several DMK leaders were arrested. This included M.K. Stalin, Karunanidhi’s son and now working president of the DMK. Stalin and other DMK leaders were subjected to torture and they were released just before Emergency was withdrawn and fresh general elections were held in early 1977. Just two and a half years after that in the 1980 Lok Sabha elections, the DMK entered into an electoral alliance with the Congress and Karunanidhi gave a new slogan: “Let Nehru’s daughter come and give a stable government.” The DMK-Congress alliance saw several twists. In 1971, Indira Gandhi advanced the general elections from 1972. Chief Minister Karunanidhi too advanced the Assembly election by a year. In 1971, elections for both the Lok Sabha and the Tamil Nadu Assembly were held simultaneously. Indira Gandhi was particular on winning as many seats as possible from Tamil Nadu. An agreement was reached between Indira Gandhi and Karunanidhi. As per the electoral pact, out of the total 40 Lok Sabha seats (including Puducherry), 30 were given to the Congress and 10 to the DMK. But Indira Gandhi succumbed to Karunandhi’s pressure and gave all the 234 Assembly seats to the DMK as a quid pro quo. Yes, in the 1971 Assembly elections the Congress did not contest at all in Tamil Nadu and gave all 234 seats to Karunanidhi on a platter.

Though Karunanidhi embraced three different political formations at various times, the one with the BJP subjected him to more pressure, from inside and outside the party. At the initial stages he vociferously justified the party’s ties with the BJP by saying that whether the DMK liked it or not the BJP was ruling the country and that the party’s alliance with the BJP was made in order to control the growth of fundamentalist forces. He also pointed out that the Common Minimum Programme did not mention contentious issues such as Article 370, a uniform civil code or the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya.

Then, at some point of time, especially after the Gujarat pogrom in the early months of 2002, Karunanidhi started saying that both the parties were only partners in the NDA and that there was no question of the DMK having an alliance with the BJP. “We are not with the BJP. We are in NDA and the BJP is also in NDA. That’s all. So, where is the question of we having an alliance with the BJP?” But this cut no ice with the secular forces and several political parties in the State.

The death of Karunanidhi also raises another important issue—the role of regional parties in shaping the country’s foreign policy. Undoubtedly, the DMK tried to improve the conditions of Tamils in Sri Lanka. But the DMK was not able to succeed and the last stages of the Sri Lankan civil war in April/May 2009 was one glaring example of its inability. An academic based in Chennai and a specialist in South Asian affairs once told this writer: “Tamil Nadu should have a say in the Sri Lankan issue. For that matter, any regional party which shares a common culture and language with its geographical neighbour must play an important role in shaping India’s foreign policy with that particular country. This holds not only for Tamil Nadu but also for West Bengal, which has so many commonalities and geographical proximity with Bangladesh.”

Whether one likes it or not, no one but Karunanidhi set the agenda for politics in Tamil Nadu for the past half a century. But whether the DMK will continue to play this role in future is anybody’s guess.

R.R amasubramanian is a freelance journalist based in Chennai.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment