The year was 1934, and 10-year-old M. Karunanidhi was listening to his father Muthuvelar playing the nadaswaram, filling the room with notes from the raga Sankarabharanam.
A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door. When Muthuvelar opened the door, a man said, “Pannaiyar (landowner) wants you to come and see him.”
As Muthuvelar set out, Karunanidhi also followed. When his father approached the landlord who was sitting on a swing, Muthuvelar bent his torso and spoke in a deferential tone.
After a brief conversation, they returned home. But it upset Karunanidhi that his father was forced to be so deferential. Muthuvelar was a farmer who read and wrote in Tamil and Sanskrit, and a poet who could recite the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
This incident, according to a new biography of the five-time chief minister, sparked an aversion in the boy towards the caste hierarchy.
“It left a deep mark on Karunanidhi and it lasted till his death in 2018 at 94. It shaped his policies. He felt he had to be just to the underprivileged,” says Tamil writer Vaasanthi, who wrote the fast-paced Karunanidhi: The Definitive Biography, recently published by Juggernaut.
This is not Vaasanthi’s first attempt at charting the life of a charismatic political leader: her biography of former chief minister J. Jayalalithaa was a best-seller. She has also written several novels and short story collections.
After Karunanidhi’s death, the senior journalist, who was the editor of the Tamil edition of India Today for 10 years in the 1990s, wrote the Dravidian leader’s biography in Tamil first at the suggestion of Kannan Sundaram, the editor of literary magazine Kalachuvadu.
The 259-page book, an enjoyable read, is filled with fascinating anecdotes and intense observations that ensure the reader won’t be tempted to put it down to check phone notifications. The life that emerges is that of an efficient administrator and powerful mass leader who, even at the pinnacle of power, was a little lonely. Not unlike his powerful nemesis Jayalalithaa.
“His advantage was that the bureaucrats revered him and implemented all his orders at once,” says the writer, who rates Karunanidhi’s administrative abilities much higher than that of Jayalalithaa.
Karunanidhi was a multi-faceted individual: apart from politics, he was a talented scriptwriter, editor, writer and orator.
“People outside Tamil Nadu knew little about Karunanidhi as compared to Jayalalithaa,” says Vaasanthi.
Jayalalithaa was a Brahmin who belonged to an affluent family and had an English-medium education. Later, she became a film star and a close friend of superstar MG Ramachandran (MGR), the founder of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and former Tamil Nadu chief minister.
“She was made the propaganda secretary of the party by MGR, so she had an easy entry into politics,” says Vaasanthi.
But how did Karunanidhi, who belonged to a backward community, reach the heights of power in Tamil Nadu?
When he was growing up, says Vaasanthi, it was a time of great ferment. The freedom movement was taking place. At the same time, Tamil pride was resurgent.
British missionary Reverend Robert Caldwell said that Tamil was an independent language and had no links to Sanskrit, unlike other languages. That had a big impact on the Tamil psyche. In the 1930s, E.V Ramasamy Naicker, who later came to be known as Periyar, caused a stir with his anti-Brahmin stance.
“This appealed to the young Karunanidhi, as he remembered the humiliation of his father,” says Vaasanthi. “So he was in the right place at the right time. Karunanidhi was also intelligent, hard-working and ambitious.”
While researching the book, Vaasanthi met politicians belonging to different parties. Her friend K .S. Radhakrishnan, a member of the DMK, gave her access to his vast library. “It was astounding,” she remembers. “There were articles, photographs, the history of the Dravidian movement, the journals of the founder Periyar, film scripts and copies of the daily letters that Karunanidhi wrote to the workers in Murasoli, the party newspaper.” These were neatly bound in several volumes. The entire first floor of Radhakrishnan’s house was dedicated to this archive.
Vaasanthi’s stint as a journalist during eventful years in Tamil Nadu had also given her a deep knowledge of the leaders of the two Dravidian parties and their functioning.
For the book, she spoke to Shanmuganathan, Karunanidhi’s personal assistant for many years, and Durai Murugan, a prominent DMK leader who was a close friend of Karunanidhi’s. As a journalist, Vaasanthi had frequently interacted with Karunanidhi’s children, MK Stalin, MK Alagiri and Kanimozhi, but did not speak to them specifically for the book.
Vaasanthi, who had a close rapport with Karunanidhi when he was alive, also read his six-volume autobiography titled Nenjukku Needhi.
“There was sparse information about the childhood of Karunanidhi,” she says. “So the first volume was invaluable for me.”
Vaasanthi says that the five-time Chief Minister had the state of Tamil Nadu foremost in his heart.
“The North, for a long time, believed he was a secessionist, but Karunanidhi always stressed on the concept of federalism,” she says. “He strived for greater autonomy for the states within a strong, federal structure at the centre.”
However, Vaasanthi believes that if Karunanidhi had been alive now, he would have been upset at the way the Narendra Modi-led BJP government has been squeezing the decision-making abilities and financial freedom of states.
“The centre is doing this because it has an absolute majority in Parliament,” she said. “The opposition is weak. But he would have never shirked from raising his voice. Instead, he would have galvanised the opposition.”
But Karunanidhi had his flaws, too. He misjudged the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of Sri Lanka. “It shocked him when the LTTE carried out the assassination of [Indian Prime Minister] Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 at Sriperumbudur,” said Vaasanthi. “He had wanted to help his fellow Tamils across the Palk Strait. But the problem was that Karunanidhi did not understand the mindset of LTTE supremo V. Prabhakaran.”
Did Vaasanthi learn anything new about Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi after writing about their lives?
“Even though both were powerful leaders, with a mass base, they were very vulnerable. They could be fooled into thinking somebody is honest or a loyal friend. And because of the isolation that supreme power brings, both were very lonely.”
The quality that Vasaanthi admired the most about Karunanidhi was his power of conviction. “You have to believe in what you do or say,” she says. “He was such a powerful Dravidian leader. He played his cards very well about being secular and protecting the rights of the states.”
But like most human beings, there was a marked decline at the end. His health broke down and it pained him that his daughter Kanimozhi had to spend six months at Tihar Jail in 2011 because she was an accused in the 2G telecom scam.
“By then he became silent because doctors had inserted a tracheostomy tube in his throat to help him breathe,” says Vaasanthi.