DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi crossed a milestone in the country’s political history on July 27 when he became the first leader to enter the 50th year as president of the party.
The former Chief Minister was elected party president on July 27, 1969. Five months earlier, on February 10, 1969, he was elected the legislature party leader of the DMK and became the Chief Minister of the State following the death of party founder C.N. Annadurai.
For a political party launched without a president— Annadurai held the position of general secretary, leaving the post vacant for his estranged leader Periyar E.V. Ramasamy — Mr. Karunanidhi’s achievement is unparalleled.
The party actually introduced the post of presidium chairman in September 25, 1960, and the late E.V.K. Sampath occupied the post. After he left the party, the late V.R. Nedunchezhian occupied the post. Even Mr. Karunanidhi was introduced as the chairman of the party in the Tiruchi district conference in 1970. Subsequently, he was identified only as party president.
“Of course, there was an attempt to change the leadership in the party’s general council in Tiruparamkundram in the 1970s. But it did not materialise,” pointed out K. Thirunavukkarasu, historian of the Dravidian movement and author of a three-volume history of the DMK.
‘No paucity of leaders’
Asked whether Mr. Karunanidhi’s achievement was a matter of celebration since democracy would not be enriched by an individual occupying the top post in a party for this long, Mr. Thirunavukkarasu said if the party had decided to keep him in the post, others had little say in the matter.
“This does not mean there was a paucity of leaders. There were equally charismatic and talented leaders. But they could not shine since they were not elected to the party president’s post,” he said.
What made Mr. Karunanidhi stand out was his ability to steer the political course and general opinion in his favour, his far-sightedness, his quick wit, his command over the Tamil language, which was evident in his speeches and writing, and his extraordinary memory power (he is known for his ability to remember the name of even an ordinary party worker from a far corner of the State).
Mr. Karunanidhi perhaps sensed that there would be criticism against him in future for holding the post permanently. Hence, he had compared himself with Franklin D. Roosevelt, the only U.S. president to be elected to a fourth term.
In the second volume of his autobiography, Nenjukku Neethi , he had recalled the Esquire cartoon mocking Roosevelt. “Here also, some newspaper barons, mill owners, rich persons and aristocrats have discovered a bad word. In their view, Karunanidhi is a bad word,” he had recorded.
Adept at crisis management
Mr. Karunanidhi had also cited the article, ‘The task before DMK leaders’ that appeared in The Hindu on February 4, 1969.
K. Santhanam, the author of the article, had argued against dual leadership — one for the party and another for government — saying that such an arrangement had weakened the Congress and would prove suicidal for the DMK.
These opinions would have made an impact on Nedunchezhian, who was the interim Chief Minister and was in the race for the Chief Minister post after Annadurai’s death.
At a meeting held in Triplicane, Chennai, to commemorate the first death anniversary of Annadurai, Nedunchezhian said, “I stayed away from the contest for party leadership. Joining the Ministry is a matter of personal decision.”
Mr. Karunanidhi meticulously recorded all these speeches and opinions in his autobiography.
There are many who believe Mr. Karunanidhi was at his best when fighting against the odds. They recall his leadership quality as he kept the party intact after the revolt of MGR, steering it through the Emergency and 10 years of MGR’s reign and again successfully tiding over a crisis triggered by Vaiko’s exit.
DMK working president M.K. Stalin, in a message released to commemorate the occassion, called his father “the lynchpin of the party.”
Karunanidhi’s nearly five-decade political innings
- After taking charge as DMK president on July 27, 1969, he led the DMK to a massive victory in the 1971 Assembly elections
- During the Emergency, he refused to buckle under pressure and gave up the party president’s post
- In 1980, he tied up with the Congress, which dismissed his government in 1976, in the Lok Sabha elections and got the M.G. Ramachandran government sacked
- The same year he parted with 50% of the seats to the Congress in the Assembly elections but the alliance came a cropper and MGR won
- Steered the party to power in 1989 after MGR’s death
- Despite the drubbing in the 1989 Lok Sabha election, he managed to get a Cabinet berth for his nephew Murasoli Maran in the National Front government headed by V.P. Singh
- In 1996, he stitched up an alliance with the Tamil Maanila Congress — a Congress splinter group headed by G.K. Moopanar — and came to power in the State. Joined the Deve Gowda-led United Front government at the Centre
- In 1999, he joined hands with the BJP and became a part of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government
- In 2004, he tied up with the Congress and secured a landslide victory in the Lok Sabha elections. The alliance continued in 2009
- Goes it alone in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and loses
- In 2016, DMK became the largest Opposition party in the Tamil Nadu Assembly