On a September day in 1944, while a 20-year-old bridegroom was waiting for his bride, an anti-Hindi rally passed. “Long live Tamil, down with Hindi,” shouted M Karunanidhi, the groom, and joined the protestors. The bride, Padmavathi, had to wait more than an hour before some relatives brought Karunanidhi back.
For young Karunanidhi, who took the plunge into the Dravidian movement as a teenager, the movement and the party were his family. Two more marriages and six children later, he grew into a patriarch, and detractors said his family became the party.
By 2009, family members occupied important posts in the party and the UPA government at the Centre. MK Stalin remained CM-in-waiting, while older son MK Alagiri was Union minister for chemicals and fertilisers, and daughter Kanimozhi was a Rajya Sabha member. Grandnephew Dayanidhi Maran was Union IT and telecom minister.
Political dynasties have ruled the roost in Indian politics, from the Nehru-Gandhi family at the Centre, the Abdullahs in Kashmir, the Badals in Punjab to the Karunakaran family in Kerala. But none probably matched the Karunanidhi tribe in size and influence.
Stalin is the only one in the family who is seen to have earned his stripes, having served time during the Emergency and working his way up the ranks. CM Karunanidhi kept Stalin out of his cabinet in 1989 and 1996 though the son was an MLA. But, there was no threat to the younger son’s eventual ascension as Vaiko, DMK’s rising star, was forced out in 1993. The only other rebellion came from within the family, but Alagiri proved to be just sound and fury. In fact, in the nearly 50 years that he was at the helm of the party after Annadurai’s death, there has never been a challenge to his leadership.
Karunanidhi shared a special relationship with his nephew Murasoli Maran, and made Maran’s younger son Dayanidhi a central minister in 2004 and 2009. Dayanidhi remains in legal tangles including the ‘telephone exchange case’ and the ‘Aircel-Maxis case’ and the families have fallen out publicly, but it was the Marans’ closeness to Karunanidhi that built the Sun Group into the behemoth it is today.
Against the backdrop of the 2G spectrum case and Radia tapes that featured the names of Stalin, Kanimozhi, Alagiri and Karunanidhi’s wives Dayalu Ammal and Rajathi Ammal, the late political commentator Cho Ramaswamy told TOI in November 2010 that he was convinced that Karunanidhi was one of the most loving fathers he knew. “His biggest mistake was introducing so many of his family members in politics,” he had said. “He became a puppet, and there were too many puppeteers.” Karunanidhi took criticism of nepotism in his stride, but felt the pain when Kanimozhi went to jail and investigators wanted to question an ailing Dayalu Ammal.
In November 2010, DMK ideologue the late Chinna Kuthoosi told TOI that Karunanidhi knew that promoting too many family members would be bad for the party, but he probably had his compulsions. “As long as Karunanidhi is alive,” he had said, “there will be no problem.” And now, the question is: Will problems begin?