Muthuvel Karunanidhi was the last of Tamil Nadu’s politicians with a colossal mass following. For decades, the state’s politics was dominated by the rivalry between its two towering figures – Jayaram Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi.
Jayalalithaa died at 68 in 2016. 90-plus Karunanidhi, a five-time chief minister, had a health scare at the time but was discharged from hospital.
They both had in common great charisma, oratorical skills, and a history in films.
Karunanidhi, or “Kalaignar”- artiste – was famous for his script-writing. The skill greatly helped him in his six-decade-long political career.
Born in Thirukkuvalai on June 3, 1924, a small village in Thanjavur District (now Nagapattinam), he was drawn to the Dravidian movement led by reformist leader Periyar EVR as a teen.
A young Karunanidhi was noticed for first time when he led the famous “Kallakudi agitation” in 1953, lying over railway tracks.
He became an ardent follower of Dravidian ideologue CN Annadurai. When Annadurai founded the DMK in 1949, Karunanidhi joined the party that was born out of the Dravidian movement – a social churn that saw the consolidation of lower castes.
“Kalaignar” rose as a star in both films and politics.
His screenplay in the 1952 film “Parasakthi,” a hit Tamil movie was an example of how the DMK used the silver screen to reach out to the masses.
The DMK wrested power from the Congress in 1967 and never looked back.
When Annadurai died of cancer in 1969, Mr Karunanidhi became chief minister.
On his watch, the DMK became the family enterprise that it is today. The ambitions of an extended family led to political power struggles like between his two sons MK Stalin and MK Azhagiri. The appointment of Stalin, his younger son, as his heir, pushed Azhagiri into a revolt.
Azhargiri was expelled in 2014 after he spoke out too many times against his father and brother.
The DMK patriarch’s second undoing was a massive telecom corruption scandal engulfing party leaders like A Raja, his own daughter Kanimozhi and grand-nephews Dayanidhi Maran and Kalanithi Maran.
The party found it hard to live down the 2G spectrum case, widely believed to be one of the biggest scandals in the country, a blow from which the Congress-led UPA never really recovered.
Mr Karunanidhi was chief minister of Tamil Nadu when the scandal broke and at first, denied any public backlash against his party. The DMK was decimated in the next state election in 2011. “The people of Tamil Nadu have given me rest,” he said.
But Karunanidhi, a 13-time lawmaker, never lost an election personally since 1957.
Mr Karunanidhi was 48 when he became chief minister for the first time. Around that time, he fell out with MG Ramachandran or MGR, a popular actor who had helped propel him to the state’s top job after the death of Annadurai. In 1972, he expelled MGR, a mistake that would haunt him for many years.
MGR would go on to form the AIADMK, the DMK’s lifelong rival in Tamil Nadu politics.
The AIADMK or All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam came to power in 1977 and MGR made sure the DMK didn’t take power while he was alive.
Karunanidhi returned to power in 1989 after MGR’s death. When the Tamil Tigers assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, Karunanidhi – seen as close to the Lankan outfit – was again defeated in the 1991 state elections. Actor politician J Jayalalithaa, a protégé of MGR, came to power.
In 1996, it was Jayalalithaa facing corruption charges and the DMK returned to power. Since then, the two parties have ruled every alternate term. Except in 2016, when Jayalalithaa was elected for a historic second straight term.
Over the past few years, the DMK chief was seen to have retreated more and more from public life. He was largely seen in a wheelchair if at all, barely speaking.