Strategist in sunglasses: How Karunanidhi forged his political career

Key points
  • At 45 years of age, he was the youngest CM of the state.
  • A five-time CM of the southern state, he anointed himself as the kingmaker in New Delhi.

When Muthuvel Karunanidhi was first elected as a legislator in Tamil Nadu, Jawaharlal Nehru was still the prime minister of India. In less than a decade, the monolithic Congress party found itself without any friends in Tamil Nadu thanks to the fiery orator and his comrades.

The grand old party’s salvation came many years later, when Karunanidhi agreed to make it a minor partner of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu. Congress president Sonia Gandhi described the veteran as one of the greatest leaders in Indian politics.

The man who always sported dark glasses was a master tactician. A five-time chief minister of the southern state, he anointed himself as the kingmaker in New Delhi. The DMK almost always remained a part of the ruling dispensation at the center thanks to the nimble politics of its leaders.

The party was part of various governments since 1989, including the Janata Dal-led National Front and United Front as well as the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance.

Though mentored by Periyar E V Ramaswamy and C N Anna Durai, Karunanidhi did not have it easy in his home state. He had formidable challengers such as K Kamaraj, M G Ramachandran and J Jayalalithaa. He needed all his might to get elected to the assembly for 13 times. His parliamentary career spanned about 60 years.

Karunanidhi became the DMK treasurer in 1961. He was the opposition leader at the beginning of his parliamentary career. When the DMK romped home to power in 1967, the firebrand leader became a minister in the Anna Durai ministry.

In 1969, Karunanidhi became the president of the DMK. Later that year, he was sworn in the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. At 45 years of age, he was the youngest chief minister of the state.

The spectacular achievements came after years of struggle. He was a member of the DMK ever since its formation in 1948. He was elected to the assembly from Kulithalai in 1957. He tasted victory from Thanjavoor, Saidepet and Anna Nagar for several terms. He quit as the representative of Anna Nagar in 1983 to protest the central government’s inaction in the Sri Lankan Tamil crisis. However, he got himself elected to the Legislative Council and gave the 1984 assembly elections a miss.

He won from Harbor in 1989 and 1991. He switched to Chepauk in 1996 and stayed with the city constituency for three terms. In 2011 and 2016, he was elected from Tiruvarur.

Firm grip

Karunanidhi succeeded Anna Durai as chief minister. The state politics was rife for the ascent of the poet who was high on rhetoric. He laid the foundation for the populist politics of Tamil Nadu but lost out to the popular appeal of his friend-turned-foe, matinee idol M G Ramachandran.

When MGR walked out of the DMK to form the All India Anna Dravida Kazhagam in 1972, Karunanidhi knew he had found his match. MGR left the mantle to his screen pair Jayalalithaa. She was equally magnetic but Karunanidh refused to acknowledge her as a political rival. He managed to stay afloat whichever way the political winds blew. Even when the DMK was razed in 1991 in the sympathy wave created by the assassination of Rajeev Gandhi in favour of the Congress and its ally AIADMK, Karunanidhi was elected to the assembly as the lone member of the DMK. He quit in 1993 but returned as the chief minister in 1996.

In 2006, he was sworn in as chief minister for one more time. The octogenarian leader proved that age has not mellowed him a bit. He joined hands with the Congress to form the Democratic Progressive Alliance in the state to unseat Jayalalithaa.

Karunanidhi’s game plan was simple. He lavished seats on the allies. The DMK contested fewer seats than ever in the past 25 years yet emerged the victor after the polls. The party contested only 131 of the 234 constituencies but Karunanidhi had made the allies promise not to seek a piece of the power pie.

He forged a double treaty in the south with the Congress. The Congress was to offer outside support to the DMK in Tamil Nadu, in return for DMK support to form a government in adjoining Pondicherry.

Unable to tear through the AIADMK government, Karunanidhi turned tot he time-tested way of offering sops. The DMK manifesto heaped promises of rice per Rs 2, colour television and land for the homeless. Jayalalithaa was swept away.