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Karunanidhi shaped national politics, he was the true kingmaker behind 6 Indian Prime Ministers

Karunanidhi is also probably the only leader who has allied with the Congress, BJP, Third Front and the Left.

Updated: Aug 09, 2018, 08:48 AM IST

I have only one personal recollection of a close look at Muthuvel Karunanidhi, and that was at the residence of former Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh in 1996. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader had turned up at Motilal Nehru Marg to urge VP to become the Prime Minister of India as the consensus candidate of the freshly minted United Front. We the reporters were chasing them all to figure out who would rule India next.

Singh turned the request down in a morning of few words and embarrassing silences. The new Lok Sabha was a hung one, and a minority government supported by the Congress was the only way to keep out the BJP.

Mobile phones had arrived only a few months earlier in India. As the story I have heard from a journalistic colleague goes, VP switched off his mobile phone in the afternoon, crossed the Yamuna to the other side of Delhi and switched on his handset again to tell those putting pressure on him to elect HD Deve Gowda instead - and switched off his handset again. Karunanidhi and Co obliged, and Deve Gowda became an unlikely Prime Minister of India.

What is not easily realised, known or celebrated is the fact that Karunanidhi, who died on Tuesday at the age of 94, was more than a leader of Tamilians or Tamil Nadu. He contributed to the shaping of national politics in many ways, not the least of which was the fact that six prime ministers came to occupy their thrones because of him or owe their power to the support he provided at a crucial juncture in coalition or parliamentary support. These were HD Deve Gowda, Inder Kumar Gujral, VP Singh, Manmohan Singh, Atal Behari Vajpayee and above all, Indira Gandhi. 

Notably, Karunanidhi has been probably the only Indian leader who has bridged the gap between India's warring political fronts - one led by Congress, the other by the BJP and the one struggling to beat them both, the Third Front with a Left component.

In that sense, you could call Karunanidhi as a serial kingmaker on the lines of serial entrepreneurs, though the tag of a kingmaker is usually applied to the other big Tamil Nadu later, Kumaraswamy Kamaraj, who played a key role in the installation of Indira Gandhi as India's Prime Minister by manipulating the dynamics of the Congress Party in 1966.

What is less known is that Karunanidhi's DMK played a crucial role in the long and powerful political life of Indira Gandhi. DMK was a supporter of her minority government following a split in the Congress party. Karunanidhi later went on record a decade ago to say that it was he who suggested to Mrs Gandhi in 1969 that banks should be nationalised resulting in 14 banks being turned into the public sector, resulting in huge political gains for Mrs Gandhi over the next year and a landslide majority in the general elections that took place in 1971.

The DMK and the Congress fell out later and the split in the Dravidian party with the formation of the AIADMK under the late MG Ramachandran kicked off a new era in Tamil Nadu politics. The DMK re-emerged in national politics as part of the anti-Congress National Front under VP Singh in 1989-90. The DMK did not win any seats in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections but was a component of the winning alliance. Later, the DMK was part of the United Front under Deve Gowda and Gujral in the 1996-98 period.

Things took a strange turn again in 1999 when the DMK crossed sides and aligned with the BJP under Atal Behari Vajpayee. Though known to be a secularist and an atheist, Karunanidhi chose to align with the party associated with Hindutva. In his own words "It is not the BJP that matters but the leader who is heading it.".

The BJP and the DMK fell out again and the Congress under Dr Manmohan Singh led the United Progressive Alliance that ruled India from 2004 to 2014 with DMK as a key component . DMK was powerful enough to be at the centre of the 2G spectrum scandal that played a role in the electoral defeat of the Congress to the BJP led by Narendra Modi.

Karunanidhi's flexible attitude and his way with words helped him straddle ideological differences while holding his own in Tamil Nadu. There were many ups and downs and several grey areas in his long political life, but this much can be said: he integrated sectarian Tamil politics into the national mainstream, choosing to be an opponent and a supporter at will, using his characteristically shrewd mix of pragmatism and creativity.

(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)