COLOMBO: Muthuvel Karunanidhi (1924-2018) and M.G.Ramachandran (1917-1987),were both outstanding politicians and Chief Ministers of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Being colossuses who strode the Tamil Nadu political stage for decades and that too simultaneously, the duo tended to be compared and contrasted.

While both excelled in their eventful careers, they were as different as chalk and cheese. The simplest and the most widely acknowledged difference was that MGR was loved and adored by the hoi polloi while Karunanidhi was respected and admired by the intelligentsia and the ideologically-oriented and upwardly mobile Tamil middle class. But “Kalaignar” or “artiste” as he was referred to, was not exactly “loved” in the same way MGR was. The contrast is similar to the difference between Nehru (who was adored as Chacha or Uncle Nehru) and Sardar Patel (who was respected and admired as the Iron Man of India).

Karunanidhi was known as a better administrator than MGR who tended to be offhanded and whimsical to the despair of professional civil servants, many of who threw in the towel. But Karunanidhi was also known as the “Father of Scientific Corruption”, a system of corruption which became an integral part of the decision making process in Tamil Nadu in the 1970s.

Unlike MGR, Karunanidhi was an ideologue of Tamil identity. He was passionate about the Tamil language, history and culture and gave the Tamil political class a sub-nationalist, ethnicity-based ideology to rally round. He was a litterateur, shining as a writer with a distinctive style, even as he climbed the political ladder and reached the pinnacle in State politics. MGR, on the other hand, was no ideologue, nor was he well read.

But MGR understood the woes and aspirations of the common man better that Karunanidhi would. Known as the Puratchi Thalivar (Revolutionary Leader) MGR was more concerned about the common man’s bread and butter questions than ethnicity-based ideological issues. MGR had a greater empathy for the economically downtrodden, while Karunanidhi had a penchant for fighting to secure “ethnic rights” , the rights of the Tamils as a collectivity undivided by caste or class.

As the leader of an avowedly “Dravidian” or “Tamil” party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), MGR did mouth phrases associated with Dravidian or Tamil nationalism and Tamil pride. But he was also unequivocally for Tamil Nadu’s unity with India, something which is evident in the name of this party, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. But Karunanidhi would often air separatist sentiments. He had said that though Tamil Nadu was not separatist anymore, the reasons for the call for separation in the 1940s and 1950s still existed. In 1989 he even supported the separatist stir in Kashmir.

MGR was motivated by a desire to serve the poor irrespective of their ethnicity. He was passionately wedded to social welfare. He would give millions from his pocket to help the poor tide over crises. He also re-oriented State policy to make Tamil Nadu a welfare state with special concern for the poorest of the poor which was reflected in his free mid-day meal scheme for all school kids even in the most remote villages. MGR would not let cadres of his party harass the common man for funds but would collect money from the rich to fund his cadres.

In sharp contrast to MGR, Karunanidhi kept his wealth to himself and his family and allowed his cadres to fend for themselves which, in turn, led to harassment of the people. Time and again he would lose power as a result of the cadres’ behavior despite the many progressive schemes launched by the governments he headed.

As a person brought up on a diet of social justice as enunciated by “Periyar” E.V.Ramaswamy Naickar, Karunanidhi did device policies which led to downtrodden communities rising up in life. He effectively used governmental power to bring about social mobility from which Tamil Nadu benefitted immensely. If Tamil Nadu is teeming with doctors, engineers ,accountants and entrepreneurs from the down trodden classes or castes, it is substantially due to the regimes headed by Karunandhi. MGR and Jayalalithaa only continued the policies initiated by Karunanidhi.

Karunanidhi was first elected to the State Legislative Assembly in 1957 and he was to win every election he stood for. He was Chief Minister five times and a Member of the State Legislative Assembly 13 times.

“No Indian politician can boast of such an unbroken record. He had been at the helm of the DMK for 49 years leading the party through thick and thin. He was dismissed as Tamil Nadu Chief Minister twice by the Indian Central government. His party was defeated several times at the polls. On one occasion Karunanidhi was the sole victor from his party at the Assembly polls. But despite of all these setbacks the indefatigable Karunanidhi always bounced back,” observes Sri Lankan journalist D.B.S.Jeyaraj, a close follower of Dravidian politics across the Palk Straitd.

Unlike MGR, who entered politics as a popular film star, Karunanidhi took to politics first, established himself as a script writer for ideologically oriented films in subsequent years and made use of the popularity he gained as a film script writer to climb the ladder in politics.

While Karunanidhi was an entertaining and educative platform speaker, setting a phraseological model for thousands to follow, MGR was no public speaker. His presence on the stage was enough for the audience to applaud him. He was known for “action” (the things he did for the poor) and the simple social welfare themes he projected in his entertainment and song-filled films.

A hard boiled political animal, Karunanidhi formed a political organization even as he was a high school student. He started the journal “Murasoli”(Drum Beat) quite early is his life. Murasoli became the organ of his party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, in subsequent years. Karunanidh’s film scripts carried huge doses of Tamil nationalism. He wrote books on Tamil history and culture. His immense contribution to meaningful Tamil cinema led to fellow actor M.R.Radha giving him the title “Kalaignar” (Artiste) which became his moniker. Radha had bestowed upon him the title when the stage play “Thookumaedai”(Gallows) was staged for the 100th time. Karunanidhi had written and acted in that play. Indeed, a stage came when it was considered discourteous to refer to Karunanidhi in any way other “Kalaignar”.

Jeyaraj observes: “Kalaignar Karunanidhi developed a writing style for cinema that was flowery and alliterative(adukku Mozhi), which soon became very popular. His reputation had producers advertising their movies by proclaiming: ‘Story and Dialogue by Kalaignar Mu. Karunanidhi.’ When film titles were projected in the cinema halls, his name would be shown ahead of the stars and greeted with applause.”

Karunanidhi had written the screenplay and dialogues for over 60 films. His dialogues in “Parasakthi” delivered by thespian Sivaji Ganesan are considered a classic.

Karunanidhi’s family too entered the film and TV industries. His nephew Murasoli Maran was a script writer before he became an MP and a cabinet minister at the Center. Maran’s brother Amirtham was a cinematographer. Maran’s sons, Kalanidhi and Dayanidhi, are co-owners of the Sun TV network . They also produce films under the banner “Sun Pictures”. Karunanidhi’s son and heir apparent M.K. Stalin was the hero in the TV serial “Kurinji Malar”. Stalin’s son Udhayanidhi is both a successful film producer as well as a hero. His wife Krithika is a film director. Karunaidhi’s “second wife” Rajathi Ammal was a stage actress. Their daughter Kanimozhi, is a member of the Indian parliament’ Upper House as well as the owner of “Kalaignar TV”. Karunanidhi’s involvement in the arts and literature gave him mass appeal which he channeled into his brand of ideological politics to give his political career a unique flavor and a tremendous boost.

Like MGR ,Karunandhi had named a successor to lead the party after he had gone. In the case of MGR it was his co-star Jayalalithaa, and in the case of Karunanidhi it was his son, M.K.Stalin. Although Karunanidhi remained DMK President or “Katchi Thalaivar” till the last, Stalin had been functioning as the “Seyal Thailavar” or Working President for long.

Stalin is said to be a good party organizer keeping the flock together even when out of power. He was Deputy Chief Minister from 2009 to 2011, but is still untested as a Chief Minister and as a DMK leader in the total absence of the mainspring of his power thus far, namely, Muthuvel Karunanidhi.