The Last Lear

Karunanidhi's struggle to cling to power, and hold together his fractious political dynasty

Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu M Karunanidhi. DELHI PRESS ARCHIVES
01 April, 2011


ON THE SCORCHING FRIDAY AFTERNOON of 11 May 2007, at Chennai’s Island Grounds, Muthuvel Karunanidhi had some important business to settle privately with Sonia Gandhi.

Gandhi, the Congress party president, had come to Chennai—along with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and two former prime ministers—to join the celebrations marking Karunanidhi’s 50th anniversary as a legislator, an unprecedented milestone in Indian politics. But on this humid summer day, as thousands of his followers from across the state converged on the burning sands to celebrate their leader’s longevity, the then 83-year-old chief minister of Tamil Nadu had something else on his mind.

“It was like a thorn for him, and he had to remove it with as little damage as possible,” said an associate of Karunanidhi who described the conversation to me.

Minutes before the golden jubilee celebrations began, Karunanidhi took Gandhi aside. “Daya has to be dropped,” Karunanidhi said, referring to his grand-nephew Dayanidhi Maran, then the Union minister for communications and information technology. “He’s failed us.”

“Don’t worry,” she assured him. “Your wish will be fulfilled.” The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government, then as now, required the support of Karunanidhi and his party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Gandhi, as chairperson of the ruling coalition in the Lok Sabha, was unlikely to take issue with his request.

Dayanidhi Maran, then 41 years old, had served three years as the communications minister, a plump portfolio in New Delhi that Karunanidhi had personally requested for him. Maran quickly became the sophisticated face of the DMK in the capital: he spoke in fluent English to the national press and wore designer shirts and trousers—a marked departure from the dhoti-clad DMK politicians who had preceded him.

A picture of Karunanidhi as a child, displayed at the museum celebrating his life in Thirukkuvalai. ARUN J

But back home, tensions had been rising between Karunanidhi and his grand-nephews—Dayanidhi and his elder brother, Kalanithi, who had leveraged party connections to build a powerful media empire that included Sun TV, India’s largest television network. Karunanidhi was convinced that his own family had been shortchanged by Kalanithi Maran, who had aggressively bought back the family’s shares in Sun TV for well under the market value before taking the company public in 2006. And now, Karunanidhi believed, the Marans were intent on fomenting discord among his own children, his chosen political heirs.

The spark that finally led Karunanidhi to take action had been an opinion poll published in the Maran brothers’ newspaper Dinakaran on 9 May 2007, asking who should be Karunanidhi’s successor. Seventy percent of the respondents chose Karunanidhi’s younger son and the current deputy chief minister, MK Stalin; his elder son, MK Azhagiri, placed a distant second, with a meagre two percent. (A few days earlier, the paper had published another instalment of the survey, which had judged Dayanidhi Maran as the most efficient Tamil minister in Delhi, overtaking even the Congress party’s P Chidambaram, then the Union finance minister.)

Karunanidhi believed that the Marans had no mass base of their own, and that they were using their media (and money) to promote Dayanidhi Maran and set off a debilitating war of succession between Azhagiri and Stalin. Azhagiri’s own supporters seemed to agree: on the morning the poll was published, an angry mob of about 50 people attacked the Dinakaran office in Madurai, Azhagiri’s home base. They threw petrol bombs and set the newsroom on fire; two journalists and a security guard were burned alive. Kalanithi Maran’s deputy and the chief operating officer of the Sun TV Network, RM Ramesh, told the press that the attack was orchestrated by Azhagiri himself, and that they had evidence to prove it. Karunanidhi ordered an investigation, but his first move was to axe the Marans.

The saga of split with the Marans neatly encapsulates almost every aspect of the party under Karunanidhi: family rivalries, big money, television power, greed, violent reprisal, and outsized influence in Delhi.

“I angrily told Kalanithi Maran and Dayanidhi Maran to stop the publication of the surveys,” Karunanidhi later said. But they ignored him.

After his private chat with Sonia Gandhi, Karunanidhi moved at lightning speed, ensuring that there would be no opportunity for resistance. Within two days, he convened the 148-member DMK administrative committee. The party passed a unanimous resolution to remove Dayanidhi Maran from the Union Cabinet in Delhi for “violating party discipline”, forcing him to resign.

In the months after Maran’s removal, the political and familial soap opera in Tamil Nadu grew into something like open warfare: to rival the Marans’ Sun TV, Karunanidhi launched his own television channel, Kalaignar TV (named after the honorific given to him by his supporters: “Kalaignar” translates as “scholar of the arts”); to fight the Marans’ cable distribution monopoly in Tamil Nadu, the chief minister floated a state-owned distribution company, the Arasu Cable Corporation. In an emotional column published in November 2008 in the DMK’s party newspaper, Murasoli, Karunanidhi publicly accused his grand-nephews of “attempting to create trouble in my family” and cheating him in the buy-back of Sun TV shares.

And then, after a year and a half of fighting, the family patched up almost overnight, putting their good relations on display by giggling and smiling together in a series of photographs released by the Tamil Nadu government’s press bureau. Nobody knows for certain what precipitated the happy reunion, said to have been brokered by Karunanidhi’s son Stalin and daughter Selvi. But a hint comes from the leaked Niira Radia tapes, in which the corporate lobbyist tells former Hindustan Times editor Vir Sanghvi that the Marans paid `6 billion to one of Karunanidhi’s two wives, Dayalu Ammal—a sum, party sources told me, intended to compensate Karunanidhi for the undervaluation of his family’s Sun TV shares several years earlier.

The split between Karunanidhi and the Marans—and their eventual, if fragile, reunion—may seem like ancient history for the fractious DMK. But it neatly encapsulates almost every aspect of the party under Karunanidhi: family rivalries, big money, television power, greed, violent reprisal and outsized influence in Delhi.

Today Dayanidhi Maran is back in the Union Cabinet as the minister for textiles; his brother Kalanithi now sits at the helm of Asia’s most profitable television network. Karunanidhi’s elder son, Azhagiri, has been cleared of charges relating to the murder of a former DMK minister, and sits in the Union Cabinet as minister of chemicals and fertilisers. But the troubles of family and party have only grown: Karunanidhi’s favorite ward, Andimuthu Raja, who was forced to resign as Union communications minister late last year, now sits in a Delhi jail, accused of presiding over the biggest scam in the history of Indian politics—the giveaway of 2G mobile spectrum believed to have defrauded the government of billions, if not trillions, of rupees. Karunanidhi’s two wives, who have no source of income apart from their husband and children, are accused of having amassed fortunes in black money and playing key roles in crooked dealmaking. And the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has interrogated his poet daughter, the Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi, over a suspicious `2.14-billion transfer in connection with the spectrum scandal.

As the scams and allegations surrounding Karunanidhi and his family multiply at a rate so rapid it’s hard to keep track of them all, the grand patriarch of Dravidian politics will face the most difficult test of his six decades in public life when Tamil Nadu voters go to the polls on 13 April to elect a new state government.

Karunanidhi built his political career on the foundation of his skills as a screenwriter and orator, but the man who has scripted 77 films and written more than 200,000 printed pages now fears a dramatic climax over which he may have no control—one that would see him ejected from office with his reputation in tatters, his family deprived of their political inheritance, and his party splintered into warring factions.

Publicly, Karunanidhi is still projecting an image of confidence and self-assurance, but as the fallout from the 2G scam continues to strain his relationship with the Congress, India’s most experienced politician has begun to confess his anxieties to a handful of his closest friends. “Without realising it”, he tells them repeatedly, “Sonia Gandhi is doing exactly what Indira Gandhi did to me.” Now 87, confined to his motorised wheelchair, uncertain of whom to trust, the elderly DMK kingpin has begun to feel increasingly helpless, party insiders told me. And this, they say, only makes him angrier and angrier.

IN THE SMALL VILLAGE OF THIRUKKUVALAI, 300 kilometres south of Chennai and nestled not far from the sea, endless fields of rice paddies seem to stretch to the horizon in every direction. Palm and tamarind trees shade the roads, and the modest brick houses are fenced by bamboo panels or hibiscus bushes.

It was here that Karunanidhi was born in 1924, into a poor Isai Vellalar family, members of a temple-dependent caste that traditionally played the Nadaswaram, a south Indian wind instrument. With very little income from his caste vocation, Karunanidhi’s father, Muthuvelar, took to singing ballads and practicing vaidya—traditional medicine. Karunanidhi, the family’s first son, born after two girls, was treated with special reverence at home: at an early age, his father introduced him to the epics, oral stories and music.

The house where Karunanidhi was born is now a museum celebrating his life in politics, and is filled with photographs of his family and of Karunanidhi rubbing shoulders with everyone from the Pope to Indira Gandhi. The pictures have no captions; their contents were described to me by the museum’s middle-aged curator, who smelt distinctly of hooch.

Outside, the voluminous tales of Thirukkuvalai’s villagers presented a more sprawling portrait of Karunanidhi; it was difficult to walk more than a few metres without coming across someone willing to share a memory or a story that had become local folklore, whether flattering or scandalous. Most of these stories would be impossible to verify, and their tellers were unanimously unwilling to be quoted talking about the chief minister, especially if the story in question involved a female relative of Karunanidhi. But the villagers were unquestionably proud of the fact that a boy who had once run through these streets had risen to become the most powerful man in the state.

The daughter of the man who taught music to Karunanidhi at one of the village temples, now 80 years old herself, remembered him as a sensitive boy. “He used to come to us, and cry and cry,” she told me. “He could not take my father’s scolding.”

It was his music classes, however, that gave Karunanidhi his first practical lessons in politics, and not merely because of his teacher’s scolding: the classes mirrored the rigid caste hierarchies of the era; Karunanidhi was not allowed to wear cloth to cover his upper body and was restricted to learning only a few songs.

His musical training did not last long, but the lessons he learnt created a fertile ground for the revolutionary ideas of EV Ramasamy, the Tamil reformer known to his admirers as “Periyar” (“the great one”). At 14, Karunanidhi became a student activist in Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement, which proposed a militant awakening of the Dravidian people—composed of non-Brahmin southerners—against the hegemony of “Aryan” north Indians and their Brahmin “representatives” in the south.

Periyar had been active in the Indian National Congress, but came to regard it as an upper-caste north Indian party that was insufficiently committed to social reforms like the elimination of caste hierarchies and the uplift of lower-caste Hindus. Under the broad banner of “social justice”, the Dravidian ideology that he espoused was influenced by rationalism, communism and the ancient Tamil epics, and called for the creation of an independent nation in South India, which he called Dravida Nadu.

When Hindi was introduced as a compulsory language in schools in 1937, Periyar inspired a generation of young Tamil students into the streets to protest. They included Karunanidhi, who enacted agitprop dramas, gave speeches and brought out a handwritten magazine. Periyar and his lieutenant, CN Annadurai, who later became the first non-Congress chief minister of Tamil Nadu, took notice of the fiery teen activist in Karunanidhi and encouraged him.

Karunanidhi failed in his 10th standard exams and moved to Coimbatore, where he made a living writing scripts for professional theatre groups. But his skills as an orator and polemicist had captured the attention of Periyar and Annadurai, who asked him to address public gatherings and later appointed him the editor of their Dravidar Kazhagam party magazine, Kudiyarasu, while allowing him to continue working part-time in theatre.

When Periyar’s movement split in two after Independence, Karunanidhi joined the exodus led by Annadurai and helped found the DMK in 1949 as its first treasurer. By the early 1950s, Karunanidhi had become something of a celebrity in his own right: he had graduated from theatre to the cinema, and his scripts had produced a few blockbusters. The most famous of these, Parasakthi (1952), was both melodrama and political tract; it made Karunanidhi famous, and cemented the DMK strategy of presenting its ideology to the masses through films, which would continue to pay dividends in the decades that followed. The hero, a poor, apolitical Tamil, is drawn into politics after suffering at the hands of ruthless north Indian moneylenders, local Brahmin leaders, and an insensitive and ineffective government; by the film’s end, he has embraced the Dravidian awakening promised by the DMK as the only way forward.

When the party contested its first elections to the state assembly in 1957, Karunanidhi was among the 13 DMK legislators elected. At the time, the Congress enjoyed a massive majority, but within 10 years the tide had shifted irreversibly toward the DMK, thanks in part to the intense agitations that shook the south over the proposed imposition of Hindi. In 1967, the DMK became the first non-Congress party to win an outright majority in the state elections. The Congress has never regained political control of Tamil Nadu—the DMK and its rival Dravidian party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), have controlled the state ever since.

Karunanidhi as a young activist.
With CN Annadurai, his predecessor and founder of the DMK.

While Annadurai was the face of the DMK as its much-beloved leader, Karunanidhi’s political skills had become critical to its successes. “Annadurai brought the names together, but there was no one to run the party. Karunanidhi did that job,” says AS Panneerselvan, who is writing a biography of Karunanidhi. He became a master at mobilising crowds, organising party cadres and, most importantly, raising funds.

After losing to the Congress in 1957 and 1962, the DMK had determined that Dravidian ideology alone would not deliver victory in 1967; the party would need money power as well. As the DMK’s treasurer, Karunanidhi led the effort, telling Annadurai that he would raise `1 million, which Annadurai thought impossible. When Karunanidhi not only met but surpassed this target—raising `1.1 million—a stunned Annadurai dubbed him pathinoru latcham, “Mr Eleven Lakh”, at a public rally in Madras. After the DMK defeated the Congress and Annadurai became chief minister, Karunanidhi was appointed minister for public works and highways, the third-ranking job in the state cabinet.

WHEN ANNADURAI DIED of cancer after only two years in office, Karunanidhi—with the help of the matinee idol and DMK member MG Ramachandran, known to all simply as MGR manoeuvred his way past a more senior party colleague and into the chief minister’s office, and then led the party to a convincing victory in snap elections in 1971.

The following year, however, MGR split from the DMK—after being denied a cabinet post, among other slights—and launched his own party, the AIADMK. Despite MGR’s incredible popularity among the people of Tamil Nadu, who revered him as no less than a god, Karunanidhi dismissed the threat from his former friend and comrade. “Without sacrifice and a party structure, he will achieve nothing,” an overconfident Karunanidhi pronounced.

It was a boast he would soon regret. MGR continued to build his legend, playing the infallible melodramatic hero in a series of blockbuster films. In its first election in 1977, his party crushed the DMK so decisively that Karunanidhi would remain out of power for as long as MGR was alive. It was only after MGR died in 1987 and the AIADMK was divvied up between MGR’s wife, Janaki, and his young deputy, Jayaram Jayalalitha (now known just as Jayalalithaa) that Karunanidhi was able to ease back into office in 1989. Even as Jayalalithaa consolidated her iron control over the AIADMK, he remained confident. “How would a Brahmin woman”, he said, “knowing nothing about Dravida life, be a threat to me in Dravida Nadu?” But his bravado would fail him again, as Jayalalithaa emerged as MGR’s heir among his most devoted constituency: women and the poor.

Karunanidhi’s second fall from power began with a dramatic episode in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly on 25 March 1989. As Karunanidhi, who was also the state finance minister, stood up to read out his budget speech, a shout came from the opposition benches: a Congress MLA, Kumari Anandan, interrupted him and announced that the police had been harassing Jayalalithaa, then the leader of the opposition, who quickly spoke up in protest as well. “The chief minister used the police to harass me,” Jayalalithaa said. “They tapped my phones. The House should discuss the matter at once.”

The ideological rhetoric that brought the DMK to power has been largely discarded; it is how useful only for rallying the masses at election time.

With his friend and later rival, the actor and AIADMK leader MG Ramachandran.
With EV Ramasamy, known as Periyar, the father of the Dravidian movement.

Before Karunanidhi could continue, the assembly erupted in chaos. “People charged with criminal acts should not be allowed to present the budget,” Jayalalithaa screamed into the microphone. “The head of the government is corrupt!”

Karunanidhi issued a snide retort—which has been struck from the assembly records because it was “unparliamentary”—which made Jayalalithaa even more furious. As one of her MLAs rushed towards Karunanidhi’s desk, he lost his balance and fell; the DMK legislators dismantled the microphones and threw them at the opposition members, who flung slippers and books in response; one of Jayalalithaa’s MLAs tore the budget papers in half.

The speaker brought the proceedings to a close and adjourned the House, but it wasn’t over. As Jayalalithaa was making her exit, the DMK minister for public works, Durai Murugan, one of Karunanidhi’s favourites to this day, obstructed her path, clutching at her sari as she cried for assistance.

This incident—with its echoes of the shameful disrobing of Draupadi in the Mahabharata—was the beginning of the end for Karunanidhi. Jayalalithaa publicly vowed to “never step foot inside the House until conditions are created for a woman to attend the Assembly with dignity”. The media condemned Karunanidhi and his men as uncouth and rowdy. After the Centre dismissed the DMK government in early 1991, Jayalalithaa trounced Karunanidhi in the elections in June—held in a charged atmosphere only weeks after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in the state—taking 224 seats and holding the DMK down to the single digits with seven seats.

In the two decades since, the two rivals have traded power every five years. Both Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa have been accused, and tried, in numerous major corruption cases, but they have managed to twist the system—being its architects—to their own advantage, watering down the cases against them after returning to power and taking advantage of their close relations with the national government in New Delhi. (No government at the Centre has been formed without the support of either the DMK or the AIADMK for the past 22 years.)

These two major Dravidian parties, both born of Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement, have come to entirely dominate Tamil Nadu politics. But their formative “Dravidian” ideological tenets—social justice, anti-caste hierarchism, Tamil nationalism—have faded entirely. All that remain today of their original agenda of Dravidian empowerment are gratuitous handouts: one kilogram of rice for `1; or more recently, free colour TVs. Karunanidhi, who once devoted his life to his party’s Dravidian ideology and took great pride in having risen to his position of power after arriving in Chennai with nothing but a steel trunk, now sits atop the richest and most influential south Indian political dynasty. The ideological rhetoric that brought the DMK to power has been largely discarded; it is now useful, clearly, only for rallying the masses at election time and for defending his family and party against charges of corruption.


KARUNANIDHI MADE ONE OF HIS RARE VISITS TO DELHI this January, two months after A Raja had been forced to resign as Union telecom minister. The DMK’s influence and power at the Centre had sunk to an all-time low. The Congress had abandoned its half-hearted attempt to diminish the loss to the treasury following the 2G scam, and had begun to cite the “compulsions of coalition politics” as the excuse for its failure to take swift action against Raja when the scam came to light.

For Karunanidhi, who despises the Delhi media and its coverage of his family, only serious business merits a trip to the national capital. His infrequent visits are usually at times of crises or opportunity, as in 1980, when he engineered the dismissal of MGR’s government, and in 2008, when he lent critical support to the Congress as it struggled to stay in power after the India-US nuclear deal.

Not that the DMK’s distress was evident on the capital’s streets. If anything, the road leading to Tamil Nadu House, in central Delhi, looked like a street rally in Tamil Nadu: tall cutouts of Karunanidhi, Stalin and Azhagiri lined the pavements, and jam-packed party workers, dressed in white shirts and dhotis and waving black-and-red DMK flags, chanted slogans in anticipation of Karunanidhi’s arrival. Shouts of “Thamizhagam Vaazhikai, Kalaignar Vaazhikai! (Long live Tamilhood, Long Live Kalaignar!)” filled the air.

Karunanidhi arrived, accompanied by his daughter Kanimozhi, in a customised Toyota Alphard, which pulled right into the lobby of TN House. An automatic lift in the MPV lowered Karunanidhi’s motorised wheelchair onto the floor, and he rolled toward the flashing cameras and extended microphones of the assembled journalists.

Karunanidhi, while serving as chief minister of Tamil Nadu, presides at the inauguration of a steel plant with his then-ally, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in 1970. DELHI PRESS ARCHIVES

Karunanidhi has rarely granted full-length interviews to the national media; the last such occasion was in 2007, when he spoke to the Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta, with Kanimozhi as his translator, on an awkward episode of Gupta’s NDTV programme Walk the Talk. Thanks to his critical support for the Congress over the nuclear deal, Karunanidhi’s influence in Delhi was then at its peak, and he spoke to Gupta from a position of considerable strength.

As a rule, though, Karunanidhi never takes more than two questions from a press gaggle, which he answers invariably in one sentence, if not one syllable. His January visit was no exception, and he gave curt, sanitised responses to the two questions that he entertained: one about why he had come to Delhi, the other about his choice of allies in the upcoming elections.

I lingered after Karunanidhi wheeled into the elevator and the cameras departed. DMK leaders congregated in clusters of threes and fours in the corridors and staircases while Karunanidhi conferred privately with his innermost coterie—the state law minister, Durai Murugan; the former Union minister for shipping, road transport and highways, TR Baalu; and Kanimozhi. They were devising a strategy for two big meetings the next day, with Manmohan Singh in the morning and Sonia Gandhi in the evening.

The first meeting was a courtesy visit, intended for the consumption of voters back home, to take up the issue of Tamil fisherman killed by the Sri Lankan Navy. For the critical meeting, with Gandhi, Karunanidhi had two items on his agenda, according to DMK sources. First, he needed to convince the Congress chief that sufficient action had already been taken against Raja, and that his forced resignation had settled the issue, which could now be quietly buried. It meant, in other words, that he wanted her to rein in the investigative agencies, in order to ensure that his own family remained untouched—a delicate matter he hoped to raise with great subtlety, preserving the formal and dignified relationship with Gandhi that he had spent years cultivating.

Karunanidhi and Sonia Gandhi during a meeting in Delhi in June 2006, shortly after his return to the chief ministership. MUSTAFA QUARISHI/AP PHOTO

The second order of business concerned the Congress-DMK alliance in the looming state elections. Karunanidhi wished to convey to Gandhi, gently yet firmly, that the DMK would not buckle under any pressure to allot the Congress more seats in the assembly elections.

The night was busy with thinking and planning. Nobody emerged from Karunanidhi’s suite until after midnight, when Kanimozhi came out, wearing a bright orange sari and carrying a copy of the ‘Pakistan’ issue of Granta. It was an unusually literary choice of reading material for an Indian politician, but Kanimozhi, the author of five collections of Tamil poetry and the founder of the state’s annual Tamil cultural festival, is regarded as her father’s literary heir. This common cultural interest is one of several reasons why Kanimozhi remains among the very few members of the party or the family who still have Karunanidhi’s absolute trust.

After the Marans were cut to size in 2007, one party insider told me, Karunanidhi began to see two distinct factions taking shape: the first comprised those, like Kanimozhi and Raja, who he regarded as sincere in their commitment to the Dravidian ideology, and therefore trustworthy; the second group centred around the Marans and their associates, who Karunanidhi saw as Anglicised businessmen whose political commitments extended only to expanding their own wealth and power. Azhagiri sympathised with the first group and Stalin with the second, but their primary concern was with building their own political bases, and, secondarily, with establishing their sons as successful businessmen. Karunanidhi’s trusted aides, like Murugan and Baalu—both of whom joined the chief minister during his first night at TN House—belonged solidly to the first camp. “These groups still exist,” the party insider told me. “And Karunanidhi sends strong messages about who his favourites are.”

“Look at the way Kalaignar behaved when he departed for Sonia Gandhi’s house,” the insider continued. “He stopped the car just outside TN House and asked for Baalu to join him and Kanimozhi so they could quickly have a last-minute conversation in the car. He didn’t call for Daya [Dayanidhi Maran], who is a Cabinet minister, and, in terms of the protocol, occupies a much senior role for the party right now.”

In the end, nothing significant came of Karunanidhi’s meeting with Sonia Gandhi; the two leaders agreed to face the elections together and designated a committee to allocate seats. That night, however, TN House was again buzzing with activity as all the Tamil ministers in the government came to visit Karunanidhi, one by one. Union Home Minister P Chidambaram arrived just after 9 pm in his private car, without an escort vehicle or a security detail. He walked into Karunanidhi’s suite and, after about 30 minutes, walked out even faster.

The next day, Karunanidhi returned to Chennai, satisfied that his visit would convince Sonia Gandhi to put the brakes on further investigations in the 2G scam. He would soon be proved wrong: two days later, the CBI arrested Raja, and within a few weeks, investigators issued summonses to both Kanimozhi and Karunanidhi’s wife Dayalu Ammal. And, at the beginning of March, the DMK was forced to concede to the Congress demand for 63 seats, 15 more than it had contested in the previous elections in 2006. The Congress had refused to blink when Karunanidhi threatened to withdraw his ministers from the Centre. The crucial trip to Delhi had been a complete flop.

KARUNANIDHI’S DAILY LIFE IN CHENNAI for the last several decades has followed a rigid and unswerving routine. “The trick of Karunanidhi’s success is his time management,” a former associate of the chief minister told me. The meticulous division of Karunanidhi’s time nicely illustrates the complex intermingling of family and party that has defined his long tenure as DMK chieftain.

The distance between Gopalapuram and CIT Colony, two neighbourhoods in central Chennai, is just 2 km. Karunanidhi makes this commute twice a day, dividing his food and rest between his two wives, Dayalu Ammal and Rajathiamma. All his meetings with visitors take place at Dayalu’s Gopalapuram residence, where he also has his breakfast and evening tea. He sleeps each night at Rajathiamma’s house in CIT Colony, where he has his lunch and dinner.

“If I give you the details of the incidents that I personally know and you attribute them to my name, I’ll be finished here,” a businessman said.

Karunanidhi wakes up early every morning in CIT Colony at 4:30 am and departs for Gopalapuram. He writes for an hour or two in his office there, finishes his breakfast, meets his visitors and leaves for the secretariat. At lunchtime, he returns to CIT Colony, eats and then rests for an hour, before departing again for Gopalapuram for tea and more meetings with visitors. Then he goes back to the secretariat before proceeding to the DMK headquarters, Anna Arivalayam, to watch the news on television at 7:30 pm with party leaders.

This routine, I was told, rarely deviates and has hardly changed in the decades since 1969, when Karunanidhi, then chief minister, famously confirmed the existence of his second wife to a Congress MLA who boldly asked him, in the state assembly, about his “relationship with the smalltime theatre actress, Rajathiamma”.

The point-blank inquiry silenced the house, and Karunanidhi gave a typically blunt response, revealing a secret known only to his closest advisors: “En magal Kanimozhyin thaayaar (my daughter Kanimozhi’s mother).”

Karunanidhi first met Rajathiamma when she played the heroine in a propaganda play, Kakithappoo (Paper Flower), which he had written for the 1967 election. Karunanidhi’s script portrayed the socialist promises of the Congress as no better than the titular paper flower, and he acted the part of the hero as well. As the play toured throughout the state, his relationship with Rajathi blossomed, and a year later Kanimozhi was born.

“The two wives do not talk to each other even now,” the former associate of Karunanidhi told me. I noticed during my visit to his birthplace, Thirukkuvalai, that there were no pictures of Rajathiamma in the museum dedicated to his life, though there are several old photos of a very happy Dayalu, whom he married in 1949 after the death of his first wife, Padmavathi, and a few black-and-white pictures of Kanimozhi as a child.

Nothing flows more freely in the drawing rooms of Chennai than stories about the misdeeds of Tamil Nadu’s most powerful family, but a veil of silence is rapidly drawn when the time comes to speak on the record. After 10 days of interviews in Chennai, I could compile a list of at least 35 people, a veritable who’s who of the local elite—including senior politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, film directors, academics and businessmen—who had regaled me with detailed information and anecdotes but blanched at the prospect of displeasing Karunanidhi and his clan with their words in print.

“Criminal defamations—that’s how they silence people,” a prominent businessman told me. “I’ll talk to you, but I don’t want to be quoted.”

Karunanidhi and his daughter Kanimozhi, during her swearing in as a Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament in 2006. SIPRA DAS/THE INDIA TODAY GROUP/GETTY IMAGES

A former employee of the family pulled out a sheaf of documents and said, “See, this is how they intimidated me. And that’s when I stopped working for them.” “If you write the details,” a bureaucrat pleaded, “they will know that it’s me, so don’t use this incident or any hints—don’t write.”

The atmosphere of intimidation was palpable, and the control of the party-family over so many aspects of life—from politics to the media to business—gave little incentive to would-be whistleblowers. “I can tell you about larger criticisms, the general academic kind, even against the party. That is okay,” the prominent businessman told me. “But if I give you the details of the incidents that I personally know and you attribute them to my name, I’ll be finished here.”

Even as Karunanidhi’s power and authority have grown—along with the ambitions of his relatives and his capacity to intimidate others—he does not blindly trust the information passed to him by anyone but his personal secretary of four decades, K Shanmuganathan. “Whenever petty politics rise up within the family and the party,” a former associate of Karunanidhi told me, “Kalignar trusts only Shanmuganathan for information.”

Karunanidhi first met Shanmuganathan in the early 1960s: the DMK, because of its separatist rhetoric, was regarded as a threat to national security, and the Congress government had assigned Shanmuganathan, then a government stenographer, to follow Karunanidhi and transcribe every word he uttered in public.

When Karunanidhi learnt that a stenographer was trailing him, he grabbed Shanmuganathan’s notes, and was surprised to see his own powerful orations transcribed with perfect precision. “He didn’t miss a single comma or an exclamation,” Karunanidhi’s former associate said. So, when Karunanidhi became a minister in Annadurai’s government in 1967, he asked Shanmuganathan to work for him, and the two have been together since.

Karunanidhi, accompanied by his grand-nephew Dayanidhi Maran (right) hands out one of the free colour televisions that the DMK promised poor households as part of its 2006 election campaign. M LAKSHMAN/AP PHOTO

Shanmuganathan’s eyes and ears reach everywhere. A docile man in his early 70s, wearing a white cotton shirt and trousers, he walks with a pronounced limp. But when he carries an important document for Karunanidhi or attends to urgent business—such as ensuring that Chidambaram did not talk to the press after his late-night meeting with Karunanidhi at TN House—Shanmuganathan runs down corridors and jumps stairs. “He is so shrewd,” a senior journalist told me, “that even if you managed an exclusive interview with Karunanidhi, he would sit there, transcribe you both, and will make sure that every journalist in town got the transcripts before you reached your office.”

AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with Karunanidhi is precisely what I had been promised by Shanmuganathan. I had been told to arrive, on 2 February, at Karunanidhi’s Gopalapuram residence in time for the chief minister’s afternoon tea. As my taxi neared the house, I received an SMS from a colleague in Delhi, which said simply: “Raja arrested.” When I told my taxi driver the news, he responded, with evident satisfaction, “Uppu thinavan thanni kudipan”, which, translated literally, means “the one who eats salt will drink water”. Raja, in other words, had to pay the price for his wrongdoing. “One trillion rupees!” the driver continued. “Think of that amount. If I had even a hundred thousand rupees, all my problems would be solved.”

Many of the DMK insiders I had interviewed told me confidently that the spectrum scam wouldn’t register with ordinary voters because most would not understand what it was actually about. But for the taxi driver—and, presumably, many others as well—the intricate details of Raja’s alleged crime were irrelevant: the massive sums involved and the image of a DMK politician getting arrested sufficed to rouse his anti-incumbency sentiment against Karunanidhi.

I could see TV screens in the window of an electronics showroom flashing Raja’s arrest on their news tickers, and I realised that my meeting with Karunanidhi would now almost certainly be cancelled. When I called up my off-the-record source in the chief minister’s office, he said that Karunanidhi was furious, “barking” at anyone on the staff who went near him.

It wasn’t hard to imagine Karunanidhi’s rage and grief at the unwelcome news: Raja had long held a place very close to Karunanidhi’s heart. A former DMK student leader with degrees in science and law, who wrote essays about Ambedkar and Periyar and professed great interest in poetry, Raja had tremendously impressed Karunanidhi as he rose through the party ranks. During his stint in the Union Cabinet, Raja had also served as a sort of informer for Karunanidhi, keeping him apprised of the activities of the other DMK representatives in Delhi, particularly Dayanidhi Maran.

For Karunanidhi, Raja’s arrest meant more than the loss of a beloved ally. He had come to see the 2G investigations as part of a more sinister plan on the part of the Congress—an attempt to dump and then bury the DMK. This was the fear he confided to his innermost circle: that Sonia Gandhi was preparing to betray the DMK, just as her mother-in-law had 40 years ago. Between 1969 and 1971, when she needed the DMK’s votes to stay in power at the Centre, Indira Gandhi allied with Karunanidhi. But after Gandhi won a landslide majority in 1971, Karunanidhi believed that she jettisoned the DMK in an attempt to regain the Congress’ strength in Tamil Nadu, and offered support to MGR when he left Karunanidhi in order to split the DMK.

Only two days earlier, Karunanidhi had met Sonia Gandhi in Delhi to suggest that Raja be spared further punishment; now his loyal ally was under arrest. Soon Karunanidhi’s sources in the CBI’s Chennai office would tell him that investigators were planning to summon his wife and daughter. Meanwhile, the Congress was escalating its demands for seats in the upcoming election. Everything, Karunanidhi feared, was suddenly slipping out his control.

Many DMK insiders told me confidently that the spectrum scam wouldn’t register with ordinary voters because most would not understand what it was actually all about.

Just before Karunanidhi’s 4 pm tea, I arrived at Gopalapuram, an up-market residential colony of two and three-storey houses, where Karunanidhi’s home is located opposite a small Sri Venugopalaswamy temple. Shanmuganathan told me to wait at the gate. A grave silence hung in the air, and there seemed to be almost no movement inside the house. After an hour, Shanmuganathan delivered the obvious news: “Sorry, you don’t need to wait. He will not talk to anyone. I thought I could arrange the meeting. But these are bad days.”

A few minutes later, Karunanidhi and Shanmuganathan left the house in the Toyota Alphard, followed by 12 white Ambassadors and five Tata Safaris, which emerged one after another from behind the building. Karunanidhi and his men were on their way to hand out the contract for the last phase of the DMK’s latest and most successful handout programme—the distribution of 17.2 million colour television sets that Karunanidhi had promised the voters before the previous election.


TWO STREETS LEAD to Karunanidhi’s house in Gopalapuram.

The walls along one first street are covered with posters of Selvi, Karunanidhi’s first daughter, wearing a bright yellow sari and flashing a big, toothy smile. She does not have the trained pose of a politician before the camera, and the slightly unguarded photo looks as if it’s been taken from a family album. The other street, by contrast, is lined with posters of Kanimozhi, posed stylishly in a red sari, with her hair carefully arranged and a sober, steady smile. Both sets of posters also include a smaller inset photo of Karunanidhi, as if to remind everyone where the two daughters came from.

Selvi is not in politics and lives in Bengaluru with her husband Murasoli Selvam, a film producer. But she is regarded as the glue holding together the family’s ‘money wing’, which consists of Stalin as the political heir, Kalanithi Maran as the moneybags, and Dayanidhi Maran as ambassador to Delhi. “The posters of Selvi must have been put up by Stalin supporters to make an impression on Karunanidhi as he comes and goes every day,” the party insider told me.

Kanimozhi, who represents the family’s other camp and enjoys an enviably close relationship with her father, is not seen as a serious player in any struggle for the party’s future; she is considered too soft and shy to contend with any moves by her half-brothers, Stalin and Azhagiri, to take power.

Karunanidhi’s sons have carved up Tamil Nadu between themselves, and their respective turfs can be easily identified by whose huge cutouts line the roadside. In the nine southern districts, where Azhagiri is clearly dominant, posters of Stalin are hardly to be found. But in most districts in the north and west, as well as in Chennai, it is Stalin’s cutout that is ubiquitous. (Some of the cutouts, perhaps unwittingly, seem to depict a process of political evolution, with a miniature Periyar, slightly larger Annadurai, big Karunanidhi, and an enormous Azhagiri or Stalin.)

A poster for Thanipiravi, a 1966 film starring future Tamil Nadu chief ministers MG Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa. ARUN J

Stalin, born five days after the death of his Russian namesake in March 1953, entered politics during the Emergency, earning his stripes at 23 after being sent to jail with other DMK activists. Currently the deputy chief minister, Stalin is known as the “progress man” by his party colleagues. He has cultivated an image as a competent administrator, and is always quick to take credit for newly-constructed highways, foreign direct investment and state welfare schemes.

Azhagiri, older by three years, is a failed businessman-turned-politician. When the brothers clashed in the 1980s over who would control Chennai, Karunanidhi dispatched Azhagiri to Madurai as publisher of the party mouthpiece, Murasoli. Once there, Azhagiri appears to have made friends with almost every bigtime gangster in the city. In Madurai, several people whispered to me a list of Azhagiri’s buddies: ‘Pottu’ Suresh, ‘Attack’ Pandi, ‘Karate’ Pandian, SR Gopi, ‘Mannar’ Mannan—ganglords with notorious nicknames and criminal records, some of whom now occupy public office in the city municipality or panchayats. Generally regarded as rough, brutal and uncouth, Azhagiri was arrested and tried in 2003 for the murder of ‘Pasumpon’ T Kiruttinan, a former DMK minister close to Stalin; he was acquitted five years later for lack of evidence.

More than a few people who know both brothers, however, insist that Azhagiri is the prisoner of an image that others have created for him. His English is poor, and he lacks the sophistication and polish necessary to craft a favourable perception of himself among the educated middle class. His natural disposition is a mix of big brother and feudal lord—who will do anything to protect those loyal to him and punish anyone who poses a threat.

If formative years on playgrounds are an indicator of character, a starkly different picture of the two brothers emerges from some businessmen in Chennai who played cricket with both Azhagiri and Stalin at the Central Leather Research Institute ground. One described the strongman of Madurai as “Thankamana (golden) Azhagiri” while few had positive memories of Stalin. “Evan perukki (he’s a thug),” one said. “Stalin was individualistic, calculating and selfish,” another told me, “while Azhagiri was caring and highminded.”

If the family does break into warring camps, the victor is likely to be the one that has amassed the most power and influence prior to the split. The strength of a political base or a vote bank, in such calculations, is only one factor among many. One key area of conflict will be who controls the Tamil film industry, known as Kollywood, which has an annual turnover of `35 billion. The cinema business is a source of financial strength, but more importantly—as all of the rivals are well aware—whoever controls the Tamil film industry also controls Tamil politics.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the DMK and Karunanidhi dominated cinema production, and cannily used the medium to help the party come to power. When MGR ruled the industry in the 1970s and 1980s, Karunanidhi couldn’t unseat him. In the 1990s, the attention of powerbrokers and audiences alike turned to television, and the ascendance of Sun TV helped the DMK ensure that Jayalalithaa’s grip on the chief ministership was shorter-lived than MGR’s had been.

As the divisions within the family deepen, the battle for silver-screen supremacy has been rejoined. The sons of both Azhagiri and Stalin have their own film production companies, as does Kalanithi Maran, whose empire includes a film subsidiary named Sun Pictures. All these outfits were started in 2008, when the family conflict spun out of control. Although the rival camps have nominally reached a truce, the three production companies remain locked in competition to produce and distribute films. For now, the edge might lie with Kalanithi’s Sun, which produced the most expensive film ever made in Asia, the 2010 Rajnikanth-Aishwarya Rai blockbuster Endhiran, at a reported cost of `1.75 billion—and took in `3.5 billion at the box office.

Given that Tamil films have always played an outsized political role, it might seem natural that the battle between Azhagiri, Stalin and the Marans has been extended to the cinema screen, or that the three DMK-connected production houses utterly dominate the local market, freezing out anyone who doesn’t play by the party rules. For Karunanidhi’s generation, cinema promised political power because it very effectively promoted the ideology and ideals of men like Annadurai, MGR and the younger Karunanidhi. Today, though, the family’s film and television ventures are first and foremost a means to making a fortune; the only ideology they endorse is the interest and greed of a particular faction inside the dynasty.

IT WAS IDEOLOGY, after all—the persuasive force of the Dravidian awakening launched by Periyar and refined by Annadurai—that brought the DMK to power. But the party learnt quickly that retaining power could not be achieved by ideology alone—and decided, over time, that the spoils of its power were too good to waste pursuing ideological ends. It was under Karunanidhi that the DMK embraced power for its own sake, and the younger members of his dynasty naturally came to regard power and money as the only worthwhile pursuits.

In this lies the greatest irony of Karunanidhi’s long reign: that a man who believed—and continues to believe—with all sincerity, in the ideology of Periyar and Annadurai is the same man who willfully presided over its debasement and decline. Karunanidhi still knows how to pay lip service to Tamil nationalism, and does so with verve and gusto when the situation demands it. But his political descendants, whose utter lack of ideology he finds distasteful, learnt their ways under his tutelage.

Kalanithi and Dayanidhi’s father, Murasoli Maran, who served as the DMK’s face in Delhi as an MP for more than three decades, possessed a blend of ideological zeal and cosmopolitian polish, with his graduate degree and fluent English. Until his death from multiple-organ failure in 2003, Murasoli and his uncle Karunanidhi controlled the party together. After Murasoli’s death, Karunanidhi passed the parliamentary seat on to Dayanidhi and had him installed as Union communications minister, expecting he would follow in his father’s footsteps. Kalanithi, the elder son, stayed away from active politics and concentrated on building his business. But Karunanidhi soon realised that he had badly misjudged both the Maran brothers.

The Christian school-educated, English-speaking Marans had degrees from business schools abroad and a natural knack for amassing wealth, but they had little time and less regard for the party cadres and their unsophisticated ways, or for impassioned recitations of Tamil poetry. If Karunanidhi hadn’t yet come to terms with the hollowing out of the DMK’s ideology that transpired under his watch, the rise of the Marans made it impossible for him to ignore.

In the end, however, what pushed Karunanidhi to turn on the Marans had nothing to do with ideology or politics: he thought they had cheated him of his money.

When Kalanithi launched Sun TV in 1993, not long after returning from the US with an MBA, he sought Karunanidhi’s help to get the fledgling channel off the ground. Karunanidhi gave his grand-nephew cash and office space in the DMK headquarters, Anna Arivalayam. He also lent him use of his name to help Kalanithi secure mortgages, and the DMK cadres in towns and villages, who saw Sun TV as the party channel, helped build its vast cable infrastructure.

Kalanithi Maran with the Tamil superstar Rajnikanth, whose blockbuster Endhiran, produced by Maran’s Sun Pictures, was the most expensive movie ever made in Asia. MOHD RASFAN/AFP PHOTO

According to the party insider, Kalanithi told his father and grand-uncle, “I’m not interested in politics. I’ll give you 10 percent of the air time, and you do whatever you want with it. But the remaining 90 percent is mine.” He assembled a package of soaps, serials and films that he ran round-the-clock, and quickly won a commanding share of the market, paying little to no attention to the news bulletins that Sun TV broadcast three times a day.

But even that small fraction of news programming had a revolutionary effect: the AIADMK’s Jayalalithaa was then the chief minister, and Sun’s news coverage pulled no punches to hammer home the DMK party line. Videos of Jayalalithaa’s blindingly ostentatious display of wealth during the wedding of her foster son were beamed insistently into Tamil homes, while stringers allied to the DMK poured in reports and visuals with a pro-DMK slant from all over the state. Karunanidhi clobbered Jayalalithaa in the 1996 election, and went on to complete a full five-year term for the first time in 20 years.

Since then, Sun has grown by leaps and bounds: it is now Asia’s most profitable broadcaster, consistently reporting profit margins in excess of 70 percent—twice the industry average. Today, the Sun empire includes 20 television channels, 45 FM stations, two daily newspapers, four weekly magazines, one Direct to Home (DTH) service and an airline.

It was under Karunanidhi that the DMK embraced power for its own sake, and the younger members of his dynasty naturally came to regard power and money as the only worthwhile pursuits.

Kalanithi has undoubtedly reaped immeasurable benefit from his affiliation with Karunanidhi and the DMK, but those who know him well insist that his business acumen should not be underestimated. “Kalanithi understood the media business,” the party insider told me. “When every media company in India was bidding for FM licenses 12 years ago, and everyone was still clueless about the FM market, he predicted, ‘Only Times will succeed. And then I’ll succeed. India Today will fail. StarTV will fail. All other media groups will fail. Because only Times and I know the most valuable lesson in media: not to bring your experience in one medium to another.’”

In April 2006, three years after Murasoli Maran died, and two years into Dayanidhi’s tenure as Union telecom minister, Kalanithi entered the capital market to raise funds for the 41 FM radio licences he had bought at auction. But before floating the public offering, he wanted to consolidate his control of the company by buying back family-held shares. In October 2005, in fact, he had approached Karunanidhi hoping to repurchase the 20-percent stake the family held in the name of Dayalu Ammal.

At that time, the company was not yet the behemoth it would soon become. (This was before the 41 new FM radio licenses, before Sun won the DTH license, and before Kalanithi acquired SpiceJet, then the most profitable airline in India.) Azhagiri, two sources informed me, objected strenuously to the buyback. “But Kalaignar went ahead, and pacified both Azhagiri and Dayalu,” a prominent businessman said. “He told them, ‘If they ask, we must sell.’”

Karunanidhi and his family took Kalanithi at his word regarding the value of the shares. The price, Karunanidhi later admitted while delivering a public admonishment to the Marans after their falling out, was `1 billion.

Strangely, in the Red Herring Prospectus that companies are required to file with the Securities and Exchange Board of India when they go public, Kalanithi stated that Dayalu held 115,000—5.75 percent—of Sun’s shares, which he bought for `3,173.04 per share, for a total price of only `365 million. But if Karunanidhi received `1 billion from the Marans, why did Kalanithi declare he had only paid `365 million? And why did Karunanidhi, when he disclosed the sale to the press, claim a 20-percent stake when Kalanithi listed it at 5.75 percent?

After issuing 10 percent of the Sun’s shares in the initial public offering, Kalanithi Maran reportedly raised some 6 billion rupees. If Karunanidhi’s stake had indeed been 20 percent, his investment was worth about `12 billion at the time of the sale, which preceded Sun’s subsequent meteoric growth.

Karunanidhi’s son MK Stalin, the deputy chief minister of Tamil Nadu, poses with the DMK’s Union Cabinet ministers in May 2009. MANISH SWARUP/AP PHOTO

“Azhagiri raised hell,” said the party insider. “He would go to Dayalu every time Karunanidhi was not at home and fume over how they were cheated.” Around the same time, one of Kalanithi’s right-hand men, an old school friend named Sharad Kumar, fell out with him. “Sharad was brought before Karunanidhi,” the party insider explained, “and exposed the truth”—which was that Kalanithi had deliberately undervalued the shares. “That convinced Karunanidhi of the Maran treachery.”

When the party voted to remove Dayanidhi from the Union Cabinet a few months later following the Dinakaran poll debacle, Karunanidhi aired his hurt and anger in public, writing a sentimental poem for the front page of the DMK paper, Murasoli. The poem was titled Ninaivugalin Popaatu (‘War Song of Memories’). One stanza read:

Throgathaal ennai thulaithu chendra thozhargal silarum

Thol meethu kai potu thunaikku vanthu vittom enbathum kanavuthaney

Palikkaatha kanavugalaal manam valikkaathu

Jolikkaathu koozhangkarkal kuppaikkey pogum

Pattai theeti paarthalum payanillai

Some friends who pierced me through betrayal

Wasn’t it a dream, people putting their hands on my shoulders to support me

Unfulfilled dreams don’t hurt the mind

Stones that don’t shine are thrown away as worthless

It is useless even to polish it

WHEN KARUNANIDHI finally went to war with the Marans, he knew he had to cripple their most powerful weapon, Sun TV. So, in October 2007, he booted out Sun’s setup at the DMK party headquarters, where it had been a fixture since 1992, and launched a new channel named Kalaignar TV with Kalanithi’s estranged Sun colleague Sharad Kumar at the helm.

Karunanidhi didn’t stop there. He soon set his sights on ending Sun TV’s monopoly of cable distribution in Tamil Nadu. To challenge Kalanithi’s distribution arm, Sumangali Cable Vision (SCV), which had locked up 90 percent of the market, Karunanidhi took the unprecedented step of establishing a public-sector company, Arasu Cable Corporation. If you were to look for an illustration of the unusual nexus of politics, familial rivalry and telecast power that characterises Karunanidhi’s DMK, you’d be hard-pressed to improve on the example of a sitting chief minister using public funds to undermine his grand-nephew’s cable TV operation.

Cable distribution in India is a notoriously murky business; Tamil Nadu, unsurprisingly, is worse than the national norm. As the head of a national television network told me, “It’s the only state in the country where one distributor has an absolute monopoly. All of us will have to pay any price they demand. If they charge `20 million this year to carry our signal in Chennai, next year it will be arbitrarily raised to `40 million. No questions asked, no answers given. It is Sun country.”

The dirty tricks of the trade include underreporting the subscriber base to minimise payment to broadcasters, manipulating viewership surveys to skew advertising tariffs and fudge revenue figures, and attempting to eliminate rival distributors by all means necessary.

“Cable is a business built from the street,” said Sashi Kumar, chairman of the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai and founder of Asianet TV. “You have to erect posts, tie the cables on the trees, and protect them from destruction. So there is always a street character to the cable distribution business.”

To fight—and win—his street war with the Marans, in November 2008, Karunanidhi brought in C Umashankar, a bright, superefficient IAS officer and no-nonsense administrator who had gained repute in Tamil Nadu for his strong stand against corruption and meticulous implementation of government projects.

The Arasu Cable Corporation laid down optical fibre cable at blistering speed and offered subscribers a package with more channels and lower rates than SCV. According to documents that I obtained from a government records office, Arasu Cable proceeded to put a serious dent in SCV’s market share: in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu’s third largest city, with a subscriber base of 800,000 homes, 90 percent of the operators migrated to Arasu Cable.

But when the divided family eventually decided to establish peace among its combatants, Umashankar worried that Arasu Cable would be unlikely to survive, and he went to Karunanidhi to tell him as much.

“I told him,” he said, “‘now that you’ve both come together, what is the necessity of keeping me? Transfer me out, sir.’”

“No, no,” Karunanidhi said. “Arasu Cable is different. Sun TV is different. You continue. You know I’m a socialist and I like public sector. Arasu Cable is a public entity. So you go and work double the speed.”

Umashankar was elated. “The CM has asked me to continue double the speed,” he told local reporters. “Arasu is a business entity floated with taxpayers’ money, and it means business.”

At about the same time, however, 500 km away in Coimbatore, SCV employees began to destroy Arasu’s cables.

“Dozens of SCV goons would come in the night, methodically destroying the Arasu cable infrastructure in different parts of the city,” Umashankar told me. “In fact, they would leave holes in the cable with iron punchers, cutting the optical fibre inside. From outside, the cable would still be looking alright, but the signals would be gone.”

In early December 2008, Arasu’s optical fibre cables were slashed at more than 60 locations. One area after another dropped out of Arasu Cable’s footprint. Umashankar wrote letters asking for police protection, but none came. He went on night patrols with his officers and even caught a few SCV workers in the act. “But the police wouldn’t handle the case,” he said. “They were under political pressure.”

Umashankar wrote several letters to Karunanidhi, the chief secretary and the police chief asking that the offenders be immediately prosecuted. But he received no response. In Coimbatore alone, Arasu Cable’s market share dwindled to 10 percent in days.

Finally, Umashankar wrote a proposal for the nationalisation of SCV—a nightmarish proposition for any private company—and sent it to Karunanidhi and the chief secretary. It said:

The rationale behind this proposal to nationalise SCV is based on the premise that this Company has become a (jungle) law unto itself. In other words, this Company has achieved a notorious distinction of being a rogue entity by illegally cutting cables of a Government owned Company. The logic is, if SCV could successfully terrorise a Government owned company, one can imagine the plight of the other competing MSOs [multiple service operators] in Tamil Nadu. One can reasonably infer that SCV has been successfully doing this illegal and rogue practice for years together and this had probably not come to light in view of the private sector vs. private sector conflict so far.

The next thing he knew, Umashankar had received a transfer order relieving him of his duties as the managing director of Arasu Cable and making him the commissioner of Small Savings, an ex cadre post. Today, Arasu Cable exists only on paper. And last year, unable to stand up to SCV’s muscle, Hathaway, a national cable operator, shut down its operations in Tamil Nadu.

When I asked Umashankar for his impressions of Karunanidhi, he made no attempt to conceal his frustration. “You can’t expect a rational reaction from him,” Umashankar said. “If money is involved, his family interest is involved, he will take only wrong decisions, decisions favouring only his family. No public interest, nothing.”


ON A SUNNY AFTERNOON in early February, I set out from Madurai to the village of Uthapuram, about an hour’s drive away. As the car approached our destination, the green serenity of the landscape gave way to an ambient tension; on the roadside, armed policemen in groups of 10 or 15 stood sentry every few hundred meters. They wore the badges of the specialised riot personnel of the Armed Reserve Police, and Tamil Nadu’s Swift Action Force. A week before my visit, hundreds of Dalits had been arrested while attempting to enter Uthapuram’s Muthalamman temple—where they have been banned for more than 150 years—and the local authorities had imposed a curfew.

The issue of temple entry is of particular significance in the history of the DMK. One of the first major milestones in the genesis of Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement came in 1924, when he travelled to Vaikom, in what is now Kerala, to join an agitation by low-caste Hindus who had been banned from a Shiva temple. Periyar was jailed thrice for his prominent role in the historic ‘Vaikom Satyagraha’, and the Congress party hailed him as “Vaikom Veerar (Vaikom Hero)”. He retold the story of Vaikom again and again in the decades that followed.

Eighty years ago, temple entry was a rallying point among low-caste Hindus protesting their treatment by Brahmins, and anti-caste sentiment became one of the tenets of the Dravidian awakening movement that in time gave birth to the DMK. Uthaparam is now the Vaikom of the Dalits in Tamil Nadu, a state governed by Dravidian parties for the past 44 years. Today the low-caste Hindus of Uthaparam, whose local leaders are DMK followers, are ranged against Dalits: the oppressed of a century ago have become the oppressors.

I was pulled into a police barracks across the temple as soon as I stepped out of the car, and made to wait for more than an hour while the officer in charge phoned his superiors to determine if I should be allowed into the square. For the past few years, the police have imposed frequent curfews aimed at blocking attempts to enter the temple. The village shops along the narrow roads leading into Uthaparam are shuttered for days at a time, and the upper-caste Pillaimar have assembled a group of 30 young men to keep a round-the-clock watch on the temple. If they see any sign of movement in the village, they storm out in full force, ready to fight, as they did when I first arrived.

“There is no need for journalists to come here,” one of them said. “We will bury you here if you hang around.” The police, who are blamed by the Dalits for enforcing the writ of the upper castes, signalled their agreement with the temple guards, and told me to leave immediately.

The Pillaimar comprise only about 20 percent of the approximately 1,000 familes in Uthapuram. The Pallar, Parayar and Arunthathiyar—all Dalit groups—comprise the majority, roughly 75 percent, and mostly work as agricultural labourers on Pillaimar-owned land. The village has a long history of intercaste clashes, the most recent being in 1989 and 2008; in both instances, the casualties were Dalits.

“The temple ban is only a part of the issue,” said M Thangaraj, a villager involved in the recently formed Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front. “We face untouchability on a daily basis. We are not allowed to wear slippers, we are not allowed to buy a motorcycle or a three wheeler, we are not allowed to wait next to the Pillaimar for a bus.”

Last year, TK Rangarajan, a CPI (M) Rajya Sabya MP, offered `350,000 from the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme funds for the construction of a bus shelter in Uthaparam, but the Pillaimar wrote to him declining his offer. “We do not want to stand in the same bus stand with these scheduled caste men,” I was told by the local Pillaimar leader SP Murugesan.

As Karunanidhi addressed the party faithful, it became clear that even Raja’s rest had not convinced him to heed advice from Stalin, Azhagiri and the Marans to distance himself from the corrupt minister.

“The DMK has never been a pro-Dalit party,” the editor-in-chief of The Hindu, N Ram, told me. “When caste clashes take place, they either stay neutral, or align with the caste Hindus.”

There was certainly a time when Karunanidhi and the DMK took affirmative action seriously, as can be seen from the fact that Tamil Nadu has 69 percent reservation for the Backward Castes (BCs), Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in education and government jobs, the highest among any Indian state. But the DMK, which draws its votes largely from the educated middle class of the BCs, quickly lost interest in caste agitations once the BCs had attained a measure of upward mobility.

ON 3 FEBRUARY, a day after Raja’s arrest, the DMK organised an evening rally at a ground in Saidapet. It was timed for after a crucial election-strategy meeting of the party’s general council that started that morning. For months, people had been asking whether Karunanidhi would speak out against Raja and at least try to cleanse the party of the inescapable taint of the 2G scam. But as Karunanidhi addressed the evening throng of the party faithful, it became clear that even Raja’s arrest had not convinced him to heed advice from Stalin, Azhagiri and the Marans to distance himself from the corrupt minister.

“It’s quite remarkable for an important politician to go and defend a follower who’s completely indefensible,” N Ram said. “And Karunanidhi did that.”

I stood in the front row of the Saidapet ground, which was filled with more than 10,000 party workers. After Stalin gave his own speech—listing government schemes that he had successfully implemented—the microphone was repositioned in front of Karunanidhi’s wheelchair. The massed workers fell silent.

Karunanidhi spoke, slowly and carefully, in his trademark gravelly baritone. His speech lasted 45 minutes, 30 of which were devoted to retelling a mythological tale intended to rally his audience in Raja’s defence.

“Today, I’m going to tell you the story of an old Dravida king, Maveli,” Karunanidhi began. “He was the nicest king on earth, and there was no cheating, poverty and deceit in his kingdom.”

The storyteller in Karunanidhi narrated the myth in great detail. Over the years, he told the assembled crowd, the king Maveli became so famous for his goodness that even the gods and goddesses in the celestial world became jealous. Conspiring to eliminate Maveli, they sent Vishnu, disguised as a poor Brahmin boy, to deceive the king and banish him to the nether.

“Our Raja,” Karunanidhi concluded, “is like Maveli. Because of his Dravida origins, he has been victimised in -Delhi.”

It was a vintage Karunanidhi performance, sincere and disingenuous at the same time—stubbornly refusing to abandon a loyal if questionable comrade, summoning his skills as a storyteller, employing the narrative of Tamil-Dravida victimhood central to the ideology of a movement whose ethical tenets he long since set aside. But would Dravidian myths and denunciations of northern aggression be enough to save the DMK from defeat?

Karunanidhi, flanked by family members at a celebration of his 87th birthday in Chennai in 2010. PTI PHOTO

I asked Thamizharuvi Maniyan, a Gandhian who was appointed to a position on the State Planning Commission by Karunanidhi but resigned in frustration before the end of his term, if Karunanidhi could mount an electoral defence by borrowing from mythology. Maniyan paused before giving a scathing reply. Karunanidhi had chosen the wrong myth, he said: “I would call him Ettappan!” A landlord in the 18th century who eliminated the Madurai chieftain and folk hero Veerapandiya Kattabomman on behalf of the British, Ettappan’s name has become synonymous with treason. “That is how he will be remembered by history,” Maniyan continued. “He cheated the people with grand ideological promises, and he still thinks he is very clever.”

When I asked Cho Ramaswamy, a veteran Tamil comic actor and an editor of the political magazine Thuglak how Karunanidhi would be remembered in Tamil Nadu, his response was equally blunt: “As someone who looked after his family very well!”

“Karunanidhi will be remembered for the three to four institutions that are working decently in Tamil Nadu— the public distribution system, healthcare and a few social welfare programmes,” N Ram concluded. “But he will be mostly remembered for institutionalising corruption in all spheres of the state.”