Sri Sathya Sai Baba, who passed away on Sunday, had a large following in Tamil Nadu, mainly devotees who looked up to him for spiritual guidance, but his service to society earned him an unlikely admirer four years ago: M. Karunanidhi, veteran Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader and a self-proclaimed rationalist.

Mr. Karunanidhi joined other Chief Ministers and Governors to felicitate Sai Baba on January 21, 2007, for his role in helping augment water supply to Chennai. The spiritual leader had got his charitable trust, the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust, to build a concrete lining along a large stretch of the Kandaleru-Poondi canal that brings water from the Krishna river to Chennai. The work, meant to check seepage, cost Rs.200 crore.

In a rare gesture for one used to deferential visits by dignitaries and eminent people from all walks of life to his Prasanthi Nilayam abode at Puttaparthi, Sai Baba called on Mr. Karunanidhi at his residence in Chennai and blessed his family members.

Although he himself is an atheist, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister had wholesome praise for Sai Baba's service to mankind, and his gesture to the residents of Chennai by helping a project aimed to quench their thirst.

“When it comes to holy men, I know how to distinguish between the fake ones and the genuine ones like Arulmigu Sai Baba, who work for the welfare of the people. He wants to remove the hardships of the poor, and such persons are greater than saints. They are even equivalent to God,” the DMK leader said in his remarks at a public function organised on that day by a Chennai citizens' forum, comprising mainly Sai devotees.

Other dignitaries who hailed Sai Baba for his benevolence at the function held at the Nehru Indoor Stadium included Tamil Nadu Governor S.S. Barnala, then Maharashtra Governor S.M. Krishna, Union Ministers Shivraj Patil and Lalu Prasad, Chief Ministers Vilasrao Deshmukh (Maharashtra), Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy (Andhra Pradesh) and H.D. Kumaraswamy (Karnataka).

On Sunday, Mr. Karunanidhi once again explained his stand. “As I believe that ‘service to man is service to God,' I had said even in early 2007 that there is nothing wrong in a politician and a religious leader coming together for the people's welfare.”

At a time when even some neighbouring State governments were reluctant to release water to Tamil Nadu, Sai Baba had come forward to assist Tamil Nadu to the tune of Rs.200 crore to ensure adequate drinking water to Chennai. “He came to my residence on his own to extend such help,” the Chief Minister recalled. “Even though I am an atheist, this great spiritual leader showed great affection for me.” Conveying his condolences to Sai Baba's followers, he said Deputy Chief Minister M.K. Stalin was in Puttaparthi to pay his last respects. Mr. Stalin had attended Sai Baba's birthday celebrations in November 2009.

Keywords: Sathya Sai Baba