M. Karunanidhi: Always receptive to good ideas, he was known for swift decisions

He launched many ambitious projects, such as Chennai Metro Rail, but would examine all major projects from the angle of financial viability.

Updated - November 28, 2021 08:32 am IST

Published - August 08, 2018 02:04 am IST

 Good administrator: M. Karunanidhi at a meeting with then Education Minister K. Anbazhagan on April 30, 1989. Photo: DIPR

Good administrator: M. Karunanidhi at a meeting with then Education Minister K. Anbazhagan on April 30, 1989. Photo: DIPR

M. Karunanidhi, may not have had impressive academic credentials, but he did not have much difficulty in establishing his reputation as a seasoned administrator.

His administrative skills were evident when he became Public Works Minister in 1967, and as Chief Minister two years later. He went on to hold the post of Chief Minister for 19 years in five spells (1969-1971; 1971-76; 1989-1991; 1996-2001 and 2006-2011). Old-timers of Chennai would say that the project to clean the Cooum river, launched with fanfare at his initiative, was not a success but yet it was an ambitious plan.  Known for taking decisions swiftly, Mr. Karunanidhi attached importance to holding consultations with a wide range of officials. He would listen to what others had to say even if he had formed an opinion on a given issue, according to a cross section of former officers of the Indian Administrative Service. One of them said Mr. Karunanidhi was always receptive to good ideas.

Former Chief Secretary A. Padmanabhan, who during 1969-76 held different positions including that of Secretary for Public Works and of the Health and Industries departments, describes Mr. Karunanidhi as a “man with great intellect” and a “competent administrator”. He was quick to understand the complexities of various issues.

Mr. Padmanabhan, Chairman of the now-defunct Tamil Nadu Electricity Board in the 1970s, recalls that when he was at the helm of affairs of the power utility, the situation was so bad that 70% power cut was in force. Mr. Karunanidhi provided  him all support in dealing with the situation.

The former Chief Secretary also commended Mr. Karunanidhi for proper guidance during the early years of organisations such as the Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corporation and the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu.

Calm and composed

Another former Chief Secretary, who wished to remain anonymous, said that at Cabinet meetings or discussions with officials, Mr. Karunanidhi would listen to the views of juniors too. Though he would not normally question decisions taken by those who enjoyed his confidence, he would not also go by the advice of anyone “blindly.”  If someone “reasonably and rationally” explained that Mr. Karunanidhi’s assessment would not stand the test of scrutiny, either on financial grounds or in respect of maintaining law and order, he would not hesitate to change his position. 

The former official did not come across any situation in which Mr. Karunanidhi lost his temper. “He always remained composed during discussions with us,” the official says.  

S. Rajarethinam, who worked as a Secretary to Chief Minister Karunanidhi from 2007 to 2011, says the latter would examine any major project from the angle of financial viability. Before the commencement of work on the Chennai Metro Rail project, he asked officials how funds would be found and whether the State government had the capacity to repay a huge loan. 

Mr. Karunanidhi would always say that as agriculture would remain the mainstay of the State, irrespective of the level of industrialisation, efforts should be made to tap the funds available with the Centre for irrigation projects.  On the decision in 2008 to reduce the selling price of rice through the public distribution system to ₹1 per kg from ₹2 per kg (since 2011, rice is given free of cost), Mr. Rajarethinam says his feeling was that Mr. Karunanidhi — conscious of the failure of the scheme launched by the DMK in 1967 to provide a measure of rice at ₹1  — was keen on erasing the impression left behind by the earlier scheme.

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