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MuKa: the last of the Tamil Titans

In the demise of DMK supremo M Karunanidhi (MuKa) Tamil Nadu has lost one of its tallest leaders. Multifaceted is the right description for him – journalist, writer, litterateur, poet, playwright, orator, organiser,  strategist, politician, administrator, rationalist, parliamentarian… all rolled in one. In each of these attributes, Karunanidhi excelled.

Muthuvel Karunanidhi (Mu Ka) strode the Tamil Nadu polity like a colossus.His public life spanned seven decades. All through these, he had put in long hours of tireless work. Dravidar Kazhagam leader E V Ramaswamy Naicker and his lieutenant C N Annadurai groomed him. His style of powerful oration mixed with humour, sarcasm and poetry won him lakhs of fans. The speeches were spontaneous and dealt with issues of the day. The strong anti-Brahmin stance and sustained effort to use political power to further his social objectives were the hallmarks of this titan.

MuKa made the best use of the powerful medium of cinema. His strong dialogues on social issues proved instant hits. It also threw up several stars including Sivaji Ganesan, M G Ramachandran and S S Rajendran. Parasakthi (1952) was a game-changer in Tamil cinema that catapulted MuKa into stardom. MK’s baani of public speaking became a model to emulate.

Used the power of mass media

MuKa effectively used mass media for attracting the attention of the masses. Films, his own newspaper Murasoli, plays and public meetings, contributed to nurturing loyal party-men and women. The sheer delight of listening to his witty and thought-provoking speeches attracted the youth.

Within months of the DMK coming to power in Tamil Nadu in 1967, MuKa made a mark as an administrator. The first World Tamil Conference organised in 1968 with several statues of Tamil savants unveiled on the seashore of Marina, was the first instance of this. Pretty soon, as Minister of Transport, he nationalised the state’s bus transport. I remember his address at the SGS Sabha, T Nagar, explaining the plan to large numbers of bus transport operators, led by TVS’ T S Santhanam. By the ingenuous method of not renewing the permits he avoided compensating the bus operators for taking over their businesses, points out S Narayan, IAS (Retd) in his recent book.

On the demise of Annadurai, despite the seniority and closeness of other leaders like V R Nedunchezhiyan, MuKa mobilised a more substantial following and assumed charge as the chief minister.

Shrewd strategist

MK was a shrewd strategist making the best use of opportunities that came by. In this, he did not have any qualms about changing track on ideologies. Look at these instances:
• In 1971, Indira Gandhi was desperate to get C Subramaniam and Mohan Kumaramangalam elected to the Lok Sabha. She saw strong opposition from the DMK and the formidable Rajaji-Kamaraj combine. She chose to join hands with MuKa. The latter was willing to go along, albeit on his terms. He got away offering 10 seats to Congress to contest for Lok Sabha and none for the Assembly. Mrs. Gandhi was successful in getting CS and Mohan elected, but for the first time, the TN legislature went without Congress for a full term of five years.
• Indira Gandhi dismissed the DMK government in January 1976 on charges of corruption, and appointed the Sarkaria Commission to probe into the allegations of corruption. The Commission indicted DMK on several counts. In the 1977 elections that followed, the AIADMK under MGR trounced the DMK.
• In contrast to 1971, in 1980 MuKa had no problem in aligning with Indira Gandhi, conceding a liberal number of seats to the Congress to contest the Lok Sabha elections. The combine recorded impressive wins.
• In 1991, the Chandrashekar government dismissed the DMK government on charges of abetment and aiding the LTTE. Still, in 1996 the DMK joined hands with the Tamil Maanila Congress and inflicted a devastating defeat on AIADMK.
• In 1999, MK joined hands with the BJP and was part of the Vajpayee’s coalition government. Just a few months before the 2004 elections, MuKa withdrew from the NDA, joined hands with the Congress and was part of UPA I and II over the next two terms!
• Just months before the 2014 elections DMK withdrew from the UPA.
All through MuKa benefitted by honing the art of the possible and the profitable. This strategy helped the party to be part of the coalition governments in the Centre during 1989-90, 1996-98 and 1999 to 2014. The party wielded considerable clout at the Central government and won plum posts for his partymen.

A legislator to emulate

I covered the assembly proceedings for a few decades from the 1970s. Witnessing the humorous repartees of MuKa was fascinating. He believed in listening to the opposition and also encouraged his party-men to do so. He responded to the queries raised. His regular attendance and active participation were good lessons for other legislators to emulate.

MuKa had the longest tenure, of 19 years, as chief minister of Tamil Nadu. He did attempt to place officers of his choice as chief secretary and other principal secretaries. By and large, he allowed bureaucrats to function with a degree of independence. A senior bureaucrat recalled the phone calls he used to receive around 5 a.m., MuKa’s references to newspaper reports on complaints and criticism. He sought explanations and suggested quick action. Sadly, however, the role of the bureaucracy suffered severe deterioration in successive regimes through crass interference and directions and reached the nadir under his successor Jayalalithaa.

The employment bandwagon…

Two aspects of MuKa impacted the financial health of the state. The first related to the spree of recruitments on the government payroll. It started with the electricity board and further bloated when the government took over the employment of aided colleges. IE has pointed to the irrationality of taking the burden of such flourishing educational institutions like the Loyola College or the Ethiraj College. Likewise, the centralisation of employment of schools further increased the government’s responsibility. Add to these, the later addition of the staffs of mid-day meals. Tamil Nadu today has over 12 lakh under government employment, the largest share related to the population of the state.

As pointed out by retired bureaucrat M S Srinivasan, the Hindi agitation and later bringing schools and colleges under government payroll, resulted in injecting politics in students and teachers impacting a divisive society even more divided. Of course, this brought in dividends in the form of expanding the following for DMK across the state, especially in rural Tamil Nadu. In course of time, it also resulted in humongous corruption in recruitment and transfers. The centralisation also denied accountability at the local levels with Panchayats or districts having no say in appointments and transfers. Successive finance commissions have been recommending handsome increases in salaries and indexation of pensions of government employees. Today, these account for around 60 per cent of the state’s revenues.

For such massive expenditure, there are no commensurate, tangible returns through productivity and accountability. In most government activities, budget allocations are almost entirely consumed by salaries and pensions leaving little resources for capital expenditure or on development initiatives. These are increasingly met from Central grants, loans and other allocations and funds from bilateral and multilateral loans. Unlike in the earlier years of the 1950s to early 1980s, enthusiasm for new public sector or joint sector projects vanished.

Politicisation of bureaucracy
MuKa also started the politicisation of bureaucracy by appointing favoured officers as chief secretaries and heads of departments. Jayalalithaa’s preference to give extensions of service to superannuated officers further accentuated this. The pattern of ‘punishing’ civil servants for the loyal work for one regime by the other became the norm. Sadly, bureaucrats, as a reflection of the society, are also branded for political loyalties.

MuKa often used to refer to himself as a communist and kept a distance from business leaders. The predecessor Congress government of K Kamaraj and R Venkataraman maintained close contacts with business leaders and helped them evolve as entrepreneurs. Their ‘clean’ approach also endeared them to business. In contrast, MuKa was more comfortable with party-men, film personalities and literary figures. This did impact on business distancing from the politicians, which, in turn, affected the ease of doing business. Add to this the attempts to gain control over trade unions and in the institutionalisation of corrupt practices.

MuKa’s predilection for public ownership also proved a drain. Most of the state public sector undertakings incurred losses. The distance maintained with Central public sector undertakings and the adversarial relations with the Centre in the initial decades also impacted Central investments. Except for the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant, despite the DMK enjoying power at the Centre for nearly 25 years, the state did not attract substantial Central investments. The failure to get Chennai included in the Mahanagar Telecom Nigam Ltd (MTNL) and the decision to opt for the expansion of the Chennai airport with the IAAI are glaring instances of missed opportunities and wrong policies. Just look at the contrast provided by the spectacular growth of telecom in Mumbai and Delhi under MTNL and the new airports of Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad!


MuKa, for most part, was media-friendly. In 1969, when a few of us formed the Madras Press Club, MuKa readily agreed to inaugurate it and provided a large building at the Omandurar government estate. As the founder-editor of Murasoli, he was prolific with articles, essays, and letters. His daily letter addressing party-men as Udanpirappe (brethren) were literary masterpieces. In office or outside, MuKa had regular comments and suggestions on various issues. I watched with amazement the evolution of Murasoli from its modest beginnings in Thousand Lights and MuKa’s family evolving as powerful media barons, making best use of their power at the state and the Centre. In later years MuKa ensured his family members and party-men flourish. While younger son M K Stalin rose from the ranks through hard work, other family members were presented with plum posts. Grand-nephew Dayanidhi Maran and elder son M K Alagiri obtained cabinet ministers’ positions in the Centre even as they entered Parliament for the first time with little administrative experience.

The DMK won the 1967 elections on the anti-Hindi platform, and the acute food shortage suffered in 1975. There was the untenable promise of populist measures like three measures (3.3kg) of rice for a rupee. Over the next 50 years, the two Dravidian parties continually expanded the content of welfare measures and freebies.

Long years of political exile during 1977-89 resulted in MK innovating new range of freebies purely on electoral considerations. Thus in 1989 MK offered, among other things, free power for agriculture. From a modest expenditure of Rs 200 crore, over time, it snowballed to over Rs 4000 crore. In 2006, to wrest power from the AIADMK, he expanded the list that included offer of 20 kg of rice at Rs 2 per kg, waiver of agricultural loans, provision of free colour television sets and a bizarre promise of 2.5 acres of land each for landless agricultural workers. At the end of his term, five years later, the state’s public debt crossed Rs 100,000 crore (the one-upmanship on freebies continued with predictable results: today public debt is close to Rs 350,000 crore eating over 20 per cent of revenues for servicing this).

Nearly half the revenues of the state go for such grants and freebies; along with salaries, pensions and debt servicing, the three items account for 120 per cent of the total revenues of the state.

The unique health insurance scheme

MuKa would be remembered for several of the welfare measures; most importantly for the health insurance scheme, the Kalaignar Kaapeettu Thittam (Chief Minister Kalaignar Insurance Scheme). Under this some 60 per cent of the population is provided healthcare including surgeries, up to a value of Rs. 1 lakh each (now expanded to Rs 2.25 lakh). This scheme is emulated by the Centre in the more ambitious Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Abhiyan (PMJAA) or Ayushman Bharat scheme to provide a healthcare cover of Rs.5 lakh per family per annum for around 50 crore of the population to be implemented from 25 September.
MuKa evolved among the tallest political leaders of the country. Through his nephew Murasoli Maran, built a close rapport with the national politicians. If only he had taken to Hindi like Narendra Modi, with his oratorical skills, he would have won the whole of India.


On J Day: death must be like this

I was walking to my room after work. The shops were closing. My room-mate was about to leave for the night shift when the cab driver called to say that the roads are being blocked. That’s when I realised something is going to happen to Karunanidhi by today.

The security guard told me that MuKa was no more and cautioned me from going outside. I smiled and asked, “Did you witness it?” and made my way towards the Kauvery Hospital.

On the roads thousands had assembled and the followers were screaming for him. We were told to use the mobile light to show a tribute to the departed leader. Soon they were shouting, VENDUM VENDUM MARINA VENDUM.

I got a call from my cousin. He asked me about the news. I explained the situation and told “Anna, death must be like this.” Who is Karunanidhi? What am I to him? Why should I come here?

The following day the Madras High Court gave permission for Karunanidhi’s burial at Marina. I thought of going to see the funeral. I began walking towards the Marina. The place was occupied by people for a radius of 5 km. The body had reached. Police protection was in full. They weren’t allowing anyone inside.

A lady dared and asked the policeman, “Sir, I will jump the wall and go inside- I want to see Kalaingar. He permitted her and I followed her. We reached the burial place. Well-wishers were taking the body inside the earth. After some time the police allowed the crowd to get in through the gate. I started going back to the room. – Kiran Madduri

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