Karunanidhi and MGR: Best of friends, worthy rivals

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader M. Karunanidhi’s touching eulogy, of December 24, 1987, to his “dear friend Dr. MGR” (M.G. Ramachandran) was both poignant and gracious. The two had been the best of friends and collaborators until they reached the pinnacle of fame, wealth and power. The high point of their cooperation came in 1969 when with his friend’s support, Karunanidhi overtook the next in line, Era. Nedunchezhian, to succeed party founder C.N. Annadurai (Anna) as Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister and head of the party. In return, Karunanidhi ensured that MGR was made the party treasurer. However, from that point on, there would be a sense of unease.

Game of chess

They were no more the humble 23-year-old script writer who had discovered his hero in MGR, the handsome 30-year-old, or the struggling actor who had found his muse in Karunanidhi after 11 years of an uneventful film career. They were now the two major political forces in a party, the DMK, that was too small to accommodate both. The inevitable had to happen sooner or later.

Karunanidhi wanted to emerge out of the shadow of not only Anna but also MGR. The massive mandate in the 1971 general election set Karunanidhi free. Or so he thought. He had tried to put MGR in his place, which MGR would not forget. He flaunted his crowd-gathering capacity and at the party’s meet in Madurai in May 1972, crowds began to disperse soon after his address scuppering the Chief Minister’s speech. Each slight would make the other wary. So in October 1972, they ended their 27-year-old relationship. A game of political chess had begun.

Real life began to imitate screen life as MGR painted Karunanidhi the villain. MGR and his Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (later the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or AIADMK) would grow from strength to strength. In the game of one-upmanship and vilification, Karunanidhi would compare MGR to Judas even as MGR painted Karunanidhi as a dark force.

In 1977, the roles reversed. Chief Minister since June 30, 1977, MGR invited Karunanidhi, the Leader of the Opposition, to the Independence Day ceremony. Importantly, he graciously noted that it was Karunanidhi who had made this possible for Chief Ministers. In the Assembly the camaraderie between the two was such that a DMK MLA even asked Karunanidhi to explain what was going on. The reply: they were not consulting the almanac for a merger. But that was exactly what was happening behind the scenes. Just days prior to being sworn in, MGR had sought a merger; talks began though an emissary. Yet by the end of October, the MGR administration pressed murder and conspiracy charges against Karunanidhi for the DMK’s demonstration against Indira Gandhi on her visit to Madurai in 1977. Karunanidhi was interned for 40 days. Agitations by the DMK and arrests and internments by the administration marked 10 years of MGR’s rule.

The relationship between the two leaders was unfathomable after a point. Karunanidhi saw the MGR administration as capable of no good while MGR appeared intent on erasing all traces of Karunanidhi. On September 18, 1977, he said the court would decide on the issue of Karunanidhi’s statue on Anna Salai in Chennai (whether it posed a problem for traffic) while counselling his audience: “Do not do anything in anger.” It became a bit absurd when a government order said that no public space or building should be named after a living person. ‘Karunanidhi Maligai’ was renamed even as some other names escaped change.

Sharp moves

Two no-confidence motions that were moved by the DMK in 1978-79 and a censure motion in 1979 tore into the MGR administration as being corrupt and inept. On April 14, a daily announced that MGR would star in the film, Unnai Vidamatten (You cannot get away from me). It was obvious who it was meant for. Yet on September 13, 1979, the two reached an agreement on a merger only for MGR to renege on it the next day. On November 3, 1979, Karunanidhi alleged in the Tamil Nadu Assembly that MGR was about to commit the “scandal of the century” by buying ships from Bulgaria. MGR replied that he would resign if there was proof that he had personally taken a bribe. Then in 1980, Karunandhi, just to unseat MGR, did the unthinkable. He came to an electoral understanding with Indira Gandhi, whose Emergency had caused much pain to him (party and his family). MGR’s government was dismissed just as Karunanidhi’s had been on January 31, 1976. But in the elections that followed, MGR, like his on-screen persona did, bounced back.

Karunanidhi, taking full advantage of the luxury of being in the opposition, painted MGR as being indifferent to the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils. MGR, on the other hand, took a personal liking to LTTE leader Prabhakaran — also because he had spurned Karunanidhi’s invite to meet him.

But there were moments of tenderness. In February 1982, when 58-year-old Karunanidhi went on a 200 km march in protest against the MGR administration, a thoughtful MGR arranged for an ambulance. Then, on October 30, 1982, the two men showed up at a wedding at 6 a.m., holding each other’s hands and displaying warmth. The Chief Minister even advised the bride and groom to learn from this — ‘when to fight and when to put their arms around the other’s shoulders and unite’. In the Assembly, when an AIADMK MLA referred to Karunanidhi as just “Karunanidhi”, MGR cut him short and said, “Address him as Kalaignar. He was my leader.”

J. Jayalalithaa’s induction into the party in June 1982 was a snub to Karunanidhi after his opposition to MGR’s wish to bring her to the Madurai conference in 1972. Karunanidhi just ignored her.

When MGR took ill, on October 22, 1984, Karunanidhi penned the most moving of his over 4,000 missives, saying that prayer meant appeal and in that sense he, an atheist, would also pray for him to recover. Yet during the elections, the DMK wondered if MGR was alive. On MGR’s return however, the political one-upmanship resumed. Ambition had helped a beautiful friendship blossom, flourish and wilt but could never destroy it completely.

R. Kannan is the deputy head of the UN Mission in Somalia’s HirShabelle office. He is the biographer of Anna and MGR

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Printable version | Oct 19, 2021 4:41:05 PM |

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