For two decades, the politics of Tamil Nadu, which goes to polls today, has been dominated by one rivalry: that between J Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi. While the AIADMK under Jayalalithaa won the state assembly elections in 2011 with 203 out of 234 seats, the DMK is bogged down with a factional feud between Karunanidhi’s sons, Azhagiri and Stalin, which seems to have dimmed hopes of Karunanidhi reviving his fortunes before the assembly elections in 2016. In this extract from our April 2011 profile of the DMK patriarch, Vinod K Jose relates the dramatic episode in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly on 25 March 1989 that preceded Karunanidhi’s second fall from power, and Jayalalithaa’s return to prominence.
When DMK founder and sitting chief minister 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.”