On the morning of May 9, 2007, violence erupted after a mob entered the premises of the office of Tamil daily Dinakaran and Sun TV network on the Madurai-Melur national highway. Three persons were killed in the protest against a political survey the media house had published with the title: ‘Who would be the political heir of M Karunanidhi?’
The incident shook the state’s political circles as the mob consisted of supporters of M K Alagiri, Karunanidhi’s elder son born to his second wife Dayalu Ammal. Further, the media firm was owned by his nephews — the children of late Murasoli Maran, for whom CM Karunanidhi was not only a mentor but a maternal uncle too. Apparently, the Alagiri supporters were provoked by the results of the survey that predicted M K Stalin, Alagiri’s younger brother, as the successor of DMK chief Karunanidhi.
At the time of the attack in Madurai, Karunanidhi was sitting in the assembly hall at Fort St. George, the state secretariat in Chennai. An intelligence officer rushed to him with a handwritten note in Tamil detailing the incident. “He read the message. As I stood beside him, expecting instructions, he began making corrections in the note. He returned it to me with corrections,” the officer recalled.
To his contemporaries as well as bureaucrats who had worked closely with him, Karunanidhi was not just a shrewd and often humorous boss, but a talented writer who would effortlessly churn out flawless pages of fiction or political statements.
“He was a spontaneous writer. At home, he would write sitting on his bed, on a note pad placed on a pillow that he held close to his chest. We could see him sweating profusely while he wrote, even if the air conditioners were on. As he wrote, he wouldn’t even realise that the finished pages were slipping off the notepad. There would be a pin drop silence, and one could hear the noise of his nib moving on the paper. He was quintessentially a writer,” said a close aide of Karunanidhi, who had joined his security team as a constable years ago to become a senior officer now.
IAS and IPS officers who worked under ‘CM Karunanidhi’, most of whom call him by his popular epithet ‘Kalaignar’, remembered their boss as “a perceptive and shrewd man” who used to ring them as early as 7am with queries and instructions. “He was very shrewd to the point of cunning, spontaneously humorous, friendly and as intimate as an elder in the family. At the peak of controversies and raids surrounding the 2G scam, his officers rushed to him informing about the suicide of Sadiq Basha (an aide and associate of 2G accused DMK Union minister A Raja). He immediately reacted that the state police shouldn’t probe the case,” an officer said. Karunanidhi’s response stemmed from the need for a CBI probe to prevent any further allegations against his government as the victim was a close associate of a ruling party leader and 2G accused Union minister, Raja.
He is often recalled as a leader who used to take harrowing calculated decisions, and his instant witty sarcasm surprised many. One of his closest friends, M Naganathan, a former vice-chairman of the state planning commission and a retired professor of economics from the University of Madras, who accompanied Karunanidhi on his morning walks at 4 am for over 25 years within the compound of Anna Arivalayam, DMK headquarters in Chennai city, at 4am every day recalled many such incidents.
Speaking to The Indian Express in an interview in April 2016, Naganathan remembered the morning walk with CM Karunanidhi on January 28, 1991, two days before the government was dismissed by the President. “As we started walking, he told me that I may not be walking with a Chief Minister the next day. He knew the President was considering signing the dismissal order of his government. On the day of dismissal, he dialled me and asked me to come home. When I reached, he was cracking jokes with his leaders about being dismissed for the second time (after January 1976). When he saw me, he said: ‘Article 356 of the Constitution has placed the knife on my (throat) neck again;, and laughingly asked me whether I would be coming for the morning walk the next day with a man who is no more a CM,” said Naganathan. He sorely missed his morning routine since 2009, when Karunanidhi was wheelchair-bound following illness.
With Karunanidhi’s demise, possibly the only leader left in the party from his generation is K Anbazhagan, 95, former finance minister and close associate of Karunanidhi since his early days. Another DMK leader who enjoyed the affection of Karunanidhi was Raja, who was recently acquitted by a special court in the 2G scam case. A senior Dalit leader in the party, Raja emerged as a Union minister from a backward district. Karunanidhi personally supported and protected him all through. Raja would say that he enjoyed the affection and protection of Kalaignar for his ideology. “He was a complete leader, who fought for the Dravidian ideology and an egalitarian society. When I resigned as Union minister post during the 2G controversy, he wrote an article in the party organ Murasoli referring me as a ‘revolutionary flower bloomed in the rural area’. Without him, I would have perished” Raja said.
During Karunanidhi’s last Trichy visit to attend a poll rally before May 2016 elections, Raja was among a group of leaders who gathered in a room for a special prayer for Karunanidhi. It was a temple priest from Srirangam temple who conducted the prayers for the atheist leader.
When Sethusamudram Shipping Canal project in Rameswaram was opposed by Hindu groups, citing religious beliefs in the myth that Rama Setu was manmade, Karunanidhi quipped, “Was Rama a civil engineer?” The remark kicked up a huge controversy. As it was, Karunanidhi knew well that many of his party men and relatives, including children and wives, were believers. While Rajathi Ammal, Kanimozhi’s mother, is a devotees of Anjaneyar Temple at Alwarpet in Chennai, he also knew of her friendship with his arch rival J Jayalalithaa’s close aide V K Sasikala. They used to meet often at the Anjaneyar temple and exchange greetings. Rajathi Ammal also visited Sasikala at Apollo Hospital when Jayalalithaa was hospitalised in 2016.
As a veteran groomed in the rationalist movement and an atheist, Karunanidhi lived by his ideals till the end. His daughter Kanimozhi recently recalled how rooted he was in his political ideology even when illness had claimed his public life and bound him to a wheelchair. In a speech early this year, she referred to an incident at home when Karunanidhi’s caretaker Nithya, a believer, applied holy ash on his forehead with prayers for his good health. “In spite of being bedridden and unable to speak, my staunch atheist father promptly wiped it off,” Kanimozhi said.