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The Last Scriptwriter: An empathetic portrait of Karunanidhi

N Kalyan Raman

Karunanidhi: The Definitive Biography by Vaasanthi, Juggernaut Books, 2020

In her recent biography of Muthuvel Karunanidhi, a political leader beloved of millions, Vaasanthi narrates his life along two strands: the politician and the artist. The astute politician was the supreme leader of his party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), for close to fifty years, and five times chief minister of Tamilnadu. The artist was a gifted boy who rebelled against an unjust social order, enjoyed thriving careers as scriptwriter, journalist, writer and memoirist. Through all the various pursuits, he gave expression to the values he had come to cherish: love for the downtrodden, and passion for the language and literature of Tamil country. His life was informed by a constant interplay between his politics and his predilections, both personal and artistic.

After an early start in the Dravidian movement writing propaganda articles and plays to spread the ideology of the movement, Karunanidhi charted his own course inside the DMK, writing fiery scripts, leading agitations and holding internal posts that would earn him wide influence within the party organisation. When Annadurai died in early 1969, MK had little difficulty in outplaying his rivals and succeeding his mentor as CM. While his political journey was rife with challenges, MK proved equal to them at every turn, often outthinking his opponents, always quick to see opportunities in any situation, and sometimes simply waiting for the fortunes of time to turn in his favour.

The falling out with MGR, which kept him out of power for thirteen years, electoral defeat at the hands of Jayalalithaa three times under entirely different circumstances and bouncing back each time, having his government dismissed twice and yet keeping his party alive – Vaasanthi recounts each episode from MK’s vantage, with great empathy and a keen sense of drama. The sad saga of Tamilnadu’s entanglement getting with the insurgency movement and brutal civil war in Sri Lanka is portrayed with high skill. In a situation where no stakeholder acted wisely or in good faith, MK comes out as a man who was sincere but ineffective, and as result, betrayed over and over again. The chapter on MK as ‘Player on the National Stage’ chronicles his relationship over the years with national parties and their leaders, particularly the Indian National Congress, and his brief, unfortunate alliance, forged under trying circumstances, with the Bharatiya Janata Party government under Atal Behari Vajpayee. The political skill with which he repeatedly positioned Tamilnadu as a prime beneficiary of co-operative federalism, a principle long cherished by the DMK, makes for fascinating reading. If Tamil Nadu has been consistently among the top five states in the country in terms of economic development, it is in no small measure due to Karunanidhi’s wisdom and political ingenuity.

At the state level, Karunanidhi was an administrator par excellence. He had a proactive interest in improving the lot of the marginalized and the poor. His first two terms as chief minister witnessed an unprecedented expansion of the transport infrastructure, facilitating easy and affordable access to all parts of the state. Under his watch, tremendous improvements were effected in public housing, public health infrastructure & services, public distribution system (PDS) and education infrastructure. He also increased reservation benefits for the backward classes and passed legislation providing reservation of 33% seats in local bodies for women. He was also responsible for Chennai’s early lead in the knowledge industries by setting up the necessary infrastructure for rapid growth of IT services and for the city’s evolution as a hub for auto and ancillary industries. It would be fair to say that it was Karunanidhi’s leadership that was instrumental in Tamil Nadu’s sustained high rank among Indian states in terms of social and economic development indicators.

On the personal front, Vaasanthi provides a close account of Karunanidhi’s early life, and his relationships with family, friends and associates. His friendship with MGR, with its ups and downs, is described in detail. Another key player in his political life was his trusted nephew, Murasoli Maran who was the DMK’s face in Delhi and rose to become a minister in Vajpayee’s cabinet. After Maran’s untimely death, the patriarch became hostage to the stormy events and squabbles involving his children and grandnephews, the Maran brothers. The tragic imprisonment of his daughter Kanimozhi in connection with the 2G scam investigation has Karunanidhi cutting a Lear-like figure. The man who read voraciously all his life, wrote film scripts, penned commentaries on classical Tamil texts and retold the exploits of subaltern folk heroes, signed off by writing the script for a television serial on Rmanaujar, the 10th century Vaishnavite saint, shortly before he passed away on 7 August 2018.

This is a critical and empathetic biography of an important political figure, meticulously researched and put together with great narrative skill. While the biographer is always in sympathy with her subject, it doesn’t prevent her from a scrutiny of his all-too-human frailties and his various political acts of commission and omission, which have had serious consequences. While Tamil Nadu is far from being a perfect place, it has indeed come a long way under the leadership of this gifted, mercurial and passionate politician. For readers across India with an interest in how politics shapes society, his story is well worth reading.

Review published in OPEN magazine on Oct 9, 2020


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