A revolutionary leader and a man of the masses (1924-2018)

Afilm script writer par excellence, a political wizard who wielded power as the Chief Minister (CM) of Tamil Nadu for five terms between 1969 and 2011, and a champion for the rights of the poor
and downtrodden, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, who passed away in Chennai on 7 August 2018, strode the political firmament like a colossus. Born in an Isai Vellalar family on 30 June 1924 in a small rural hamlet, Thirukuvvalai in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi evinced keen interest in the arts, especially writing. He was later to turn into a very successful scriptwriter in films, and was to play a pivotal role in the success of two of Tamil cinema’s greatest stars M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) and Sivaji Ganesan. While his scripts for Manthirikumari and Marudhanaatu Ilavarasi gave a fillip to MGR’s career, Sivaji Ganesan made his debut with Parasakthi released in 1952.This film
stirred a hornet’s nest as it lashed out at social evils of the time like untouchability.

Karunanidhi was highly influenced by rationalists like E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker (EVR, and later by the founder of the Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) C.N. Annadurai, and was in turn mentored by them. A silver tongued orator, Karunanidhi or ‘Kalaignar’ as he was better known, steadily rose in the DMK and was a minister in the first DMK cabinet headed by Annadurai. The latter died in harness in 1969, and though Karunanidhi was lower down in the pecking order after frontline leaders like Nedunchezhian and Natarajan, he took over as the Chief Minister with a little help from his old friend, actor MGR. This was the first of his five stints as CM.

His connect with the masses was established with a single daily column in the family owned newspaper Mura- soli, titled Udanpirappe (Brothers and sisters). As a Chief Minister he also waged a relentless battle for the rights of the states in a federal structure. The right of a CM to hoist the national flag on Independence Day too was secured by Kalaignar who became the first CM to do the honours on 15 August 1974. Karunanidhi opposed the Emergency imposed in 1975 by Indira Gandhi, tooth and nail, and many DMK leaders were jailed under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). The government too was dismissed. Karunanidhi was elected to the state Assembly thirteen13 times and at the time of his death, represented Tiruvarur in the assembly. In his long and eventful career he didn’t taste a single defeat at the hustings. Although he never evinced any interest in embracing politics at the national level, he ensured that the DMK remained a force to reckon with in the national arena. Karunanidhi also played a significant role in the installation of three Prime Ministers, V.P. Singh, I.K. Gujral and H. D. Deve Gowda.

Karunanidhi’s political career suffered a severe setback when actor politician MGR quit the DMK to form the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam ( AIADMK). MGR , the eternal do-gooder on the silver screen, proved invinci- ble, and till his death in 1987, Karunanidhi and the DMK could not unseat him. MGR’s successor Jayalalithaa too proved a formidable opponent for the DMK veteran, and though he could defeat her in the elections, she too, like MGR died in office with her party in power and the DMK in the opposition. Karunanidhi’s younger son, Stalin, the party’s Working President is the heir apparent of the leader ,and is likely also to take over as party President, a post that Kalaignar
occupied for over five decades.

The prolific scriptwriter also wrote novels, stories and plays. His novels Romapuri Pandian and Thenpaandi Singham, also made it to the small screen. Kalaignar’s autobiography Nenjuddku Needhi, came out in six parts and turned out to be a best seller. Rich tributes were paid to the departed leader by among others, the President and the Prime Minister. But the outpouring of grief from every quarter of Tamil Nadu and the lakhs of mourners who bid him adieu by attending his funeral proved beyond doubt that he was really a man of the masses.

C.V. Aravind

C.V. Aravind is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist.