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Kalaignar’s 7 National Roles

Kalaignar’s 7 National Roles

Karunanidhi’s writing skills, Dravidian identity politics and achievements as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu have been mentioned several times over after his death. However, no other regional leader can claim to have played so many roles in the formation, survival, collapse and defeats of several Governments at the Centre as Karunanidhi did during his career spanning over half a century.

Since the ‘national media’ is dominated by those without a sense of history and general disdain for the ‘Madrasi’, it was not surprising that none highlighted the many crucial roles that Karunanidhi played in national politics. Here’s a checklist:

25 MPs for Indira : After the 1969 split of Congress, Indira Gandhi’s government at the Centre was reduced to a minority but survived with the help of mainly the DMK, which offered the support of its 25 MPs. Indira consolidated her party by nationalising banks and abolishing the Privy Purse. In return, Karunanidhi got approval for the Salem steel plant. When Indira Gandhi went for early polls in 1971, a year before the term ended, so did Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu, in alliance with her faction of the Congress. Both emerged victorious but that marked the beginning of the end of Congress in TN.

Aiding Indira’s Comeback : During the Emergency, Congress’ ties with the DMK began to sour. Indira dismissed Karunanidhi’s Government on corruption charges and imposed President’s rule. When DMK joined Opposition ranks, Indira aligned her party with MGR’s fledgling AIADMK after splitting the DMK. The new alliance won TN but Congress was trounced nation-wide. Soon Morarji Desai’s Janata Party arm-twisted MGR’s party to align with it to isolate Indira. This prompted Karunandihi to return to Indira’s rescue in the 1980 Lok Sabha elections, which the Congress-DMK alliance swept. DMK had yet again helped Congress to secure a majority nationally by helping it win 20 out of the 39 seats in TN.

VP’s Rock of Gibraltar : The DMK could not win a single Lok Sabha seat in 1989 despite winning the assembly elections earlier that year even after AIADMK split into four following MGR’s death. This was because the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress picked the right faction of AIADMK (Jayalalithaa’s) for alliance in 1989. Yet, Karunanidhi proved to be a great mentor and advisor for the VP Singh government.

After Indian Express Editor Arun Shourie almost single-handedly wrecked the VP Singh Government, following its decision to implement the Mandal Commission award, proprietor Ramnath Goenka was forced to remove Shourie because of a silent role Karunanidhi played. The accounts of the then undivided Indian Express were based in Chennai and Singh was able to get a copy of the accounts via CM Karunanidhi. He used it to tell Goenka that there could be a scrutiny of the accounts if he did not remove Shourie.

Providing Tiger Sanctuary : With VP Singh at the Centre, Karunanidhi had a free run in Tamil Nadu, where Sri Lankan Tamil refugees had created law and order problems and turning into a threat to national integrity too. Tamil chauvinism regained ground and DMK competed with parties such as Vaiko’s MDMK to promote such sentiments.

However, things changed after Singh’s government collapsed and Chandra Shekhar became the PM with the help of the Congress. Congress’ ally, Jayalalitha made a case to Rajiv Gandhi about the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam having a free run in her state and demanded that the Karunanidhi Government be dismissed. A convinced Rajiv forced Chandra Shekhar’s hand. He was criticised for yet another anti-democratic use of Article 356. However, months after Karunanidhi’s dismissal, Jayalalithaa’s contention proved right when Rajiv was killed by an LTTE human bomb at Sriperumbadur, not far away from the state capital.

Karunanidhi had no role in the assassination of an Indian PM but by failing to check the free run of Tamil Tigers in his state, he unwittingly influenced the change of guard in the Congress, which managed to return to power at the Centre based on the sympathy gained in phases of the Lok Sabha elections held after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

Splitting TN Congress: By 1996, the Congress had seen departure of several leaders. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao was unfairly blamed for economic reforms that changed the face of India and for the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

However, Rao was still confident the Congress would be able to form another government until the Tamil Nadu unit split following his decision to continue the alliance with AIADMK.

Encouraging G K Moopanar to split the party was Karunanidhi, who had no hopes of returning to power on his own. He also managed to rope in Rajinikanth, who campaigned against Jayalalithaa Government’s corruption.

BJP emerged largest party with 161 seats, while Congress came second with 140 seats. If Karunanidhi had not weaned away Moopanar, the Congress-AIADMK would have won another 40 sure seats from Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.

That would have ensured that Rao and not A B Vajpayee would be invited to form the government. Rao, who survived five years after being called out of retirement to lead a minority government, would have perhaps managed to form another minority government. But that was not to be and Karunanidhi played a role in it.

Triggering Gujral’s Fall: India saw three PMs in 1996 and one more a year later. Instability was the only certain thing. When I K Gujral took over from Deve Gowda in 1997, no one expected him to last the remaining term but none expected the Congress to pull the plug too soon either.

Although it was the internal politics of the Congress that resulted in the fall of the Gujral Government, the provocation was provided by the Jain Commission report. The Commission’s interim report indicted the Karunanidhi Government for providing a free run for the LTTE, which resulted in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

Congress asked Gujral to remove DMK ministers from the Government. However, the United Front said it was not willing to sacrifice Karunanidhi’s party, leading to the fall of the Gujral Government and elections that saw BJP assuming power.

Building & Demolishing UPA : It would be easier to recollect that DMK provided the numbers for the UPA to trounce BJP-led NDA in 2004 and 2009. The Jain Commission report was water under the bridge as Sonia extended her hand of friendship to Karunanidhi.

However, UPA’s second term was mired in controversy over the irregularities in the distribution of spectrum for telephone companies by telecom minister A Raja of DMK in UPA-I. Karunandihi was unwilling to expel his minister and cut losses. It led to a huge anti-corruption campaign against the Congress-led UPA, its defeat in 2014 and arrival of Narendra Modi.


(Published on 13th August 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 33)