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Karunanidhi's accomplishments tower over Indian politics, but 5-time CM never recovered from defeats to MGR, Jayalalithaa

Call it a quirk of destiny or anything else but M Karunanidhi's health took a turn for the worse just days before Jayalalithaa's demise in December 2016. It was as if it were a signal for Karunanidhi that with his principal adversary gone, he had no big battles left to fight. His political career had been marked by a friendship with MG Ramachandran that turned sour, followed by the bitterness of his relationship with Jayalalithaa.

Karunanidhi was an ace scriptwriter, but even he could not have written the twists and turns of his story better. Rewind to 1947 when he wrote the story for the Tamil film Rajakumari starring MGR. Three years later, as the writer of Manthiri Kumari (The minister's daughter), Karunanidhi is believed to have recommended MGR's name for the hero's role. Both films were box-office hits and did a world of good to the careers of both Karunanidhi and MGR.

 Karunanidhis accomplishments tower over Indian politics, but 5-time CM never recovered from defeats to MGR, Jayalalithaa

File images of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. Reuters

Clearly, Karunanidhi had not bargained for the fact that his comrade in arms in the world of make believe would one day overtake him as the DMK's star campaigner. Which is why in sheer desperation, Karunanidhi tried to promote his eldest son MK Muthu as a rival to MGR in the Tamil film industry, even making him copy the latter's mannerisms. But with Muthu coming a cropper, Karunanidhi could not come to terms with MGR's rising popularity, and the latter was on his way out of the party after a spat.

The resentment over MGR using his on-screen persona, in whose shaping even Karunanidhi had played a part, to further his political career clearly irked the DMK chief. When MGR floated the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK), Karunanidhi referred to the party as 'Nadigar Katchi' (party of the actor). An attempt was made to remind people that MGR's cinema and politics were different, and songs were composed to push the narrative that actors were no good. One such booklet of songs was titled 'Cinema Soru Poduma?' (Will cinema feed us?) and the lyrics ridiculed cinema as misleading.

MGR was to take his revenge by submitting a memorandum listing corruption charges against Karunanidhi's government. In January 1976, the DMK government was dismissed and the Justice Sarkaria Commission was set up to probe the charges.

The period between 1976 and 1989 was perhaps the most trying time for Karunanidhi. Out of power, he had to ensure he retained his hold over the DMK and kept the cadre motivated. But MGR did not make it easy for his political rival. When Karunanidhi became an MLC in 1984, MGR brought a resolution in the Tamil Nadu Assembly to abolish the Legislative Council, on the grounds that it served no real purpose. The real aim, the DMK believed, was to deny Karunanidhi a forum to speak from.

In terms of electoral accomplishments, Karunanidhi clearly towers over most, not just in Tamil Nadu, but in the whole country as well. A five-time chief minister, 13-time MLA who won every election since 1957 — except 1984, when he did not contest — Karunanidhi has few parallels in India's political theatre.

One thing he would regret, however, is that he was bested by two people, both junior to him in politics. After the dismissal of his government in 1976, Karunanidhi couldn't become chief minister till the time MGR was alive.

But he would regret that in his political career, he was bested by two people, both junior to him in politics. After the dismissal of his government in 1976, Karunanidhi could not become chief minister so long as MGR was around. It was only after MGR's demise in 1987 that Karunanidhi tasted power again. And Jayalalithaa's victory in 2016, giving her a second consecutive term in office, denied Karunanidhi one last shot at the CM's chair.

According to available records, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa's paths crossed in Kollywood just once, in the 1966 Tamil film Mani Magudam. Jaya played the second lead in this movie, while Karunanidhi wrote the story.

When Jayalalithaa entered politics, the DMK under Karunanidhi subjected her to a bodyline attack. In her biography of Jayalalithaa, the author Vaasanthi refers to the party conference in Cuddalore in June 1982, when the whole town gathered to hear the queen of the silver screen deliver her maiden political speech. "They mainly came to see a pretty face and were instead treated to an impressive, fiery oration," wrote Vaasanthi.

The DMK, however, described her political entry as 'Cuddalore Cabaret' in its party paper.

A shameful episode inside the Tamil Nadu Assembly in 1989 then soured their relations for ever. Jayalalithaa accused the ruling DMK of tapping her phones, following which Chief Minister Karunanidhi reportedly made a remark that irked her. A ruckus followed, and in the melee, DMK leader Duraimurugan clutched at Jayalalithaa's saree and reportedly tried to pull it. A furious and upset Jayalalithaa swore not to set foot inside the Assembly till she won the next election and crushed this show of male chauvinism.

Two years later, in 1991, Karunanidhi had his worst moment. Jayalalithaa returned as chief minister, with the AIADMK winning 225 seats and the DMK-led alliance being reduced to a paltry seven. Her voteshare of 59.8 percent was nearly double of what DMK managed, with 30 percent. Karunanidhi chose to resign from his seat instead of attending the Assembly. Bureaucrats of that time said it was because he was apprehensive of an attack by the AIADMK inside the Assembly to avenge for the 1989 assault on Jayalalithaa.

But worse was to follow. Following her arrest in a corruption case in the late 1990s, Jayalalithaa took revenge by getting Karunanidhi picked up in the dead of night in a flyover case in 2001. The tit-for-tat revenge politics that the two played ensured their rivalry was characterised by vitriol and hatred.

Fifteen years later, when Jayalalithaa was sworn in as chief minister in 2016, MK Stalin was not accommodated in the front row during her swearing-in ceremony, despite heading the DMK, a party with 89 MLAs in the House. Karunanidhi fumed at this "deliberate humiliation", saying, "Jayalalithaa has not changed, she will never change." That forced Jayalalithaa to clarify that there was no intention to insult Stalin.

But beyond the public persona, insiders point out that MGR had a special affection for Karunanidhi and would scold anyone who called him by name, insisting he be referred to as 'Kalaignar' (artist). When MGR passed away, Karunanidhi was among the first to arrive at his residence and was inconsolable.

With the passing away of Karunanidhi, an era in Tamil Nadu politics has indeed come to an end. A period that saw three larger-than-life figures playing politics in their own unique manner. One can only wish it was less unpleasant.

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Updated Date: Aug 08, 2018 12:13:19 IST

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