K Klutch Klan

Illustrations: Saurabh Deb

IN THE summer of 1991, in a crowded political rally in Patna, thousands stirred impatiently as a portly Muthuvel Karunanidhi, in dark glasses, white shirt and dhoti, walked up to the podium. Expecting the chief minister of Tamil Nadu and leader of the Dravidian movement to speak in nothing but chaste Tamil, people settled down to catch a few winks before the good Hindi stuff would begin. Unfazed, Karunanidhi adjusted the mike down to his height, cleared his throat and said in perfect English: “Before I proceed with my speech I would like to introduce myself,” he said. “My name is Karunanidhi. I am anti-national… I am a dangerous person to this country.”

The shuffling stopped. Some people laughed nervously. Karunanidhi went on: “Dear brothers and sisters, these are the titles conferred on me by a great patriot… Who is that great patriot? He is none other than Rajiv Gandhi.” The rest of the speech was in Tamil, translated into Hindi by Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson Rajmohan. Still, the audience listened, stunned.

Just a month before, Karunanidhi was accused of supporting the separatist LTTE in Sri Lanka. His government was dismissed and President’s Rule imposed, but that didn’t stop him from using the situation to pull a public punch. When news of his speech reached TN, people were gobsmacked for another reason. Karunanidhi knew English?!

The first step to being a politician in Tamil Nadu, it is widely acknowledged, is to learn stagecraft — the ability to spin words that shock, rouse, or sweep you off your feet when you least expect it. And Karunanidhi — or Kalaignar (The Talented) as his sobriquet goes — is largely responsible for this. A Tamil film scribe, he learnt the art of argument from the early Dravidian leaders Periyar and C Annadurai. His speeches were witty, provocative and without fail, wellattended. The DMKwas known to sell tickets at his political rallies, which mobilised cadres from across the state for more than 60 years.

Now 87, Karunanidhi has not lost a single election in his lifetime. And his success has ensured that fiery rhetoric is a pre-requisite for any Tamil political aspirant, from any party. If you step on stage, you’re expected to wow. It was the most tangible test, sometimes more crucial than the elections themselves.

Today, however, the most influential leaders in the DMK — Karunanidhi’s children — do not pass that test. Sons MK Stalin and MK Azhagiri, daughter Kanimozhi and grandnephew Dayanidhi Maran are all, at best, lukewarm orators. They fumble and drawl, and their lines, even when written by salaried staff, are like a bland meal to an audience accustomed to better.

Yet, in the last decade, especially in the current term of the DMK government, members of the first family have graduated from legislators to ministers, party members to party strategists, and most visibly, local politicians to national-level netas. The rules that bind every other politician in TN do not apply to them. It is not a mere matter of privilege, but of the kind of personal and financial takeover of a party and a state that breaks the limits of politics, and becomes simply about absolute control. Today, every time a person in Tamil Nadu switches on his television, reads the paper, buys groceries, purchases land, or watches a film, he has in some way engaged with one of Karunanidhi’s relatives. The family is inescapable. And its influence does not even depend on whether or not it is in power.

‘My name is Karunanidhi. I am anti-national. I am dangerous for this country.’ With those words, the leader had the crowd gripped

As the family’s stranglehold deepens, its furious infighting has become difficult to conceal. Karunanidhi’s daughter and Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi says, “The leader always put the party before the family.” (She, like all of Karunanidhi’s children, refers to her father as ‘the leader’.) But this reassurance, repeated by every DMK member, has begun to ring hollow.

On 13 April, wheelchair-bound Karunanidhi will perhaps contest his last Assembly election. And he goes into it bearing several burdens, including the debilitating 2G spectrum scam, the scandal of half his family being caught on tape negotiating Cabinet positions with a telecom lobbyist, the bitterness of a loveless marriage with the Congress, and a formidable opponent in the new-and-improved J Jayalalithaa. But first, Karunanidhi has to stop his sons Stalin and Azhagiri from going at each other’s throats.

PERHAPS THE starkest example of a family member whose phenomenal growth started completely outside democratic space is Azhagiri, Karunanidhi’s second son, now the Union chemicals and fertilisers minister. The 62-year-old contested his first election only in 2009, from the Madurai constituency. What looked like a political debut, however, was only a legitimisation of his iron grip over the southern districts for more than 30 years. In the recently leaked phone taps that exposed the 2G spectrum scam, TN Information Technology Minister Poongothai Aladi Aruna, speaking to telecom lobbyist Niira Radia, referred to Azahagiri as “a cut-throat politician”.

It all started with a banishment. In the early 1980s, Karunanidhi had sent Azhagiri, then a bank employee, to Madurai, which was his wife Kanthi’s home town. He was to run the Madurai edition of the DMK mouthpieceMurasoli, but was given no say in editorial decisions. He soon lost interest and directed his energies to other profitable ventures. Visibly, Azhagiri now runs a TV channel, a cable service provider (Royal Video), a wedding hall and a huge showroom of silk textiles. But covertly, he also controls the muscle power and moneybags that run the city — the contractors, brokers and land mafia. “Do you know how many stories I’ve written about people who’ve been threatened, harassed or killed after going to the police or court to challenge Azhagiri and his associates?” asks Idaya, a Maduraibased Tamil journalist. “After a point, I realised that there is no point in criticising the king in his own court.”

As Azhagiri unleashed his kangaroo courts, extortion rackets and henchmen on Madurai, election after election, the city’s largely working class population kept voting CPM candidates to the Lok Sabha, and the AIADMK to the legislature. “Azhagiri used to say that Madurai was being run by the wrong parties,” says TKS Elangovan, senior DMK leader and Rajya Sabha MP. In 1996, when the DMK swept the state, Azhagiri didn’t waste any time. “He used this opportunity to strengthen the DMK cadre in the south,” says Elangovan. When asked to elaborate on Azhagiri’s modus operandi, Elangovan grins broadly. “Hard work and charisma,” he says.

A long list of Election Commission notices to the Madurai wing of the DMK is less circumspect. It has found Azhagiri’s men guilty of dropping sealed envelopes with Rs. 500 notes in voters’ letter boxes (four notes for four voters) and his cable operators offering six months free usage to subscribers. Cartons of saris were found stored in the house of Azhagiri’s right-hand man, to be distributed at a rally. Weekly biriyani feasts were being held in slums, and women were being given cash coupons or pamphlets that could be exchanged for Rs. 100 at DMK offices. Before every election, goons were making door-to-door visits with sickles hanging down their backs. If anyone dared to protest, their land was confiscated and their vehicles destroyed.

While his men lashed through Madurai, Azhagiri himself cultivated the manner of a benevolent regional don with the dangerous unpredictability of a Sonny Corleone. Several Madurai-based bureaucrats, all of whom requested anonymity, admitted to having received death threats directly from Azhagiri in his pre-ministerial days. “If I didn’t give the tenders to the men he wanted me to, he would smile softly, look at his henchmen, and leave the room,” says a senior PWD employee. “It was the scariest thing in the world.”

Even with his reputation for violence, Azhagiri is the closest the DMK has to an organisational force as compelling as the patriarch. In Parliament last year, when he was scolded by Speaker Meira Kumar for speaking in Tamil, Azhagiri used the humiliating incident to his advantage in Madurai, the legendary seat of Tamil maanam (honour). In a public rally, Azhagiri asked, “Do I have to speak English to be your leader?” The audience, packed with his supporters, thundered “NO!” Azhagiri touched his hand to his heart. “Thank you,” he said. “Remember, I will always serve you as a true Dravidian leader.”

Through a crafty blend of harassment and self-promotion, Azhagiri secured three important Assembly byelections from Madurai Central, Madurai West and Thirumangalam for the DMK, and finally, a Lok Sabha seat for himself in 2009. The stocky, soft-spoken son, who once drove a Lambretta scooter and lived in a rented house, had grown into a giant who couldn’t be ignored. Not least, by his father.

KARUNANIDHI WATCHED Azhagiri’s growing ambition with trepidation. In Chennai, 450 km away from Azhagiri’s citadel, the patriarch was grooming his chosen successor: curly-haired Stalin, born three years after Azhagiri, and named after the Soviet leader who died four days after his birth.

At 5 am on 1 March this year, members of the DMK youth wing opened the gates of the YMCA grounds in Chennai to find close to 500 people inside, sleeping soundly on the red carpets. They had arrived the previous night in buses, trains, bikes and tempos from across Tamil Nadu with ribboned gifts for birthday boy Stalin, just a year shy of 60.

At 8 am, Stalin arrived with his wife Durga in a screeching convoy. A hyperactive band played Rajnikanth’s hit song Oruvan Oruvan Mudalali (There’s Only One Boss). Stalin waved genially at the screaming, whistling crowd. For a moment, he seemed to adjust his walk just so, timing it stylishly to the background music. (Stalin had acted in two aptly named movies in the 1980s — Ore Ratham (Same Blood) and Makkal Aanayittal (When People Decide). On stage now, Stalin stood as if in a trance, surveying the sweating mass of people ranged before him in their best silk clothing, holding pressure cookers and non-stick pans for their Ilaya Dalapathi (Young Lieutenant). Intuitively, he must know the adulation surging around him is for the favoured prince, not merely the deputy chief minister.

Stalin was born into politics, teethed in its manipulations, and knows he owes much to its drama. His resumé brims with prodigious political milestones. He went on his first election campaign when he was 14 and joined the DMK student wing while studying history at Presidency College, Chennai. His supporters never fail to invoke Stalin’s valiant imprisonment under MISA during the Emergency, but few mention that he was also investigated and let off for the alleged rape of a Tamil actress. A classmate who once scaled the Presidency College walls with Stalin, says he was a “brat who knew the influence of a powerful father”. He’s amazed at Stalin’s “pretence of sainthood as soon as he joined politics”.

The magic of the often-told myth is that it erases inconsistencies from public memory. For instance, Stalin wasn’t always the ‘natural successor’. As a teenager, he had watched his father promote the first son MK Muthu (from Karunanidhi’s first wife Padmavathy who died young) in Tamil cinema and politics, in a desperate bid to displace the stardom of actor and AIADMK crowd-puller MG Ramachandran (MGR). As an actor, Muthu imitated MGR to a fault, and made some eminently forgettable films. As a politician, he pulled stunts like arriving at election rallies on a white horse, but he became an alcoholic over time, and was found rambling on the streets. An embarrassment, Muthu was soon plucked out of the limelight.

When the DMK was kept out of power from 1977 to 1989 by the hypnotic MGR, the party lost several senior leaders and more than half its cadre to him. Karunanidhi realised the party needed a fresh infusion. It needed new, impressionable minds. It was in this low phase that Stalin was inducted into the DMK. The 20-something third son was tasked with reviving the fallen party. It was a desperate Karunanidhi’s let’s-try-everything move.

AS Panneerselvan, veteran journalist and once Sun TV chief, says Stalin brought in youth with such zeal it earned him the reputation of being a brat, an image he still lives with. What mattered, however, was that Stalin’s youth mobilisation gave the party urban acceptance. Most importantly, Karunanidhi was pleased. Stalin’s destiny was sealed.

DRIVING THROUGH Tamil Nadu, it is impossible to miss posters with Stalin’s beaming face. Hair dyed black, fingers raised in a victory sign, Stalin is always portrayed among a pantheon of Dravidian deities, designed to look part of the continuum. The leader standing tall on the YMCA stage, in fact, was engineered by a propaganda machine, by 20 years of orchestrated road shows, and strategic appearances alongside his father. His kingdom was created for him: he was simply anointed the successor. Riding on the early hype, Stalin became an MLA from Chennai, and the only elected Mayor of Chennai (the post is usually filled by appointment) for two terms. After 40 years of what he calls “waiting in the wings”, Stalin is now the deputy chief minister. And, at age 59, he still remains the party’s youth wing president.

In a moment of introspection, Stalin had admitted in an interview to a Tamil magazine that being the leader’s son had in fact “slowed his pace” in politics. He may have had an easy entry, he said, but he had spent years winning acceptance in the DMK. “It’s the price for establishing one’s own identity,” he explained.

But, though he has practically grown up in the DMK’s Anna Arivalayam office, few DMK members seem to know what Stalin is really like, as a person or a politician. “He is an organisational man like his father,” says Power Minister and old DMK hand Arcot N Veerasamy. “He has fully absorbed Kalaignar’s ideals,” says Veerapandi S Arumugam, agriculture minister and Karunanidhi’s friend. Anbazhagan, who has known Stalin since his childhood, says, “Suffice to say he’s inherited his father’s leadership qualities.” It’s hard to know where the image ends and the man begins. But does Stalin believe in the image himself?

“I’m pleased that people hold me in such high regard, but it is also a heavy responsibility,” is all Stalin would say, as I used the YMCA birthday celebration as a rare opportunity to speak to him. Despite eight attempts, he had refused to meet me for an interview. So when I wished him after standing for three hours in the queue with his supporters, I also asked him why he was avoiding the media. He smiled tiredly and waved me along, but only after replying: “Because you all ask me only one thing.”

The question that plagues Stalin, that makes him dodge the press, hasten through his appearances at family functions, and forces him into an ivory tower, has become louder as Karunanidhi ages: Who will win the succession war in the DMK?

Azhagiri and Stalin are both sons of Dayalu Ammal, whom Karunanidhi married after his first wife Padmavathy died of tuberculosis. Their rivalry is the stuff of folklore in Tamil Nadu. But Karunanidhi denies choosing a successor. In 1997, in a twohour- long speech, he said, “I am neither a king nor Stalin a prince. The DMK is not a ‘mutt’ for me to determine a successor.”

Every time Stalin is asked who will be the next DMK chief, he sticks to his father’s line: “The party will decide.” Azhagiri is less tactful. When a television reporter outside Parliament asked if he would be the next DMK head, he is known to have retorted: “Why not? Why can’t I!” It is the difference between the security of an heir and the indignation of a challenger.

Even apart from the leader’s approval, Stalin knows he has a headstart. He has more political experience, doesn’t have a violent past, and most senior DMK leaders have accepted his succession. When a 20-year-old Stalin was campaigning across TN, Azhagiri worked at a bank. It was only in the 1990s that he proved his political mettle by reinventing the DMK in the southern districts. Conscious of his newfound indispensability and miffed at being passed over for the top post, he began to kick up a storm. He hinted in Madurai that he might be the next thalaivar.

Annoyed by his son’s brazenness, in September 2000, Karunanidhi used his Murasoli column to direct the cadre to stay away from Azhagiri. In response, the latter’s rowdy supporters went on a rampage in Madurai, burning buses and breaking into government offices. A year later, Azhagiri threatened to resign with his followers if the DMK didn’t nominate his supporter Kaverimanian (instead of Stalin’s choice Trichy Siva) to the Rajya Sabha.

The sibling rivalry began to cost the DMK electoral seats. In the 2001 Assembly election, Azhagiri’s men allegedly worked against the DMK candidates, defaming them and harassing their supporters to abstain from voting. Two candidates lost to the AIADMK. Azhagiri was also arrested for the murder of former minister and DMK leader T Kiruttinan, who was close to Stalin.

“The natural successor propaganda has been going on for 20 years, and the cadres are set to receive Stalin as their leader,” says Elangovan. “When someone challenges what has become common sense, there are horrible consequences.”

IN A state where you can identify the party a man belongs to by the border of his dhoti, cadre loyalty is precious. In the last decade, the electorate has been split largely in three ways — between the DMK+, AIADMK+, and to a smaller but significant extent, the Congress. If the familial discontent within the DMK is allowed free expression, it will tear the DMK’s vote-base asunder. “Different leaders will start creating their own sub-DMKs,” says Elangovan. “That’s no way to go into an election. That’s no way to run a party.”

A single deified leader is central to both TN politics and its social psyche. The formula is as old as the Dravidian parties themselves. “To combat another party, one leader has to be glorified to sustain the cadres’ motivation,” explains writer and dramatist Gnani. “You build an aura around the leader, and build a chasm between him and the cadre, so that they are not loyalists, but devotees.”

The DMK has formidable rivals at this game. MGR was the master of the larger-than-life image. His films evoked a powerful idea: MGR as the moral hero who protected women, demolished upper-caste villains, and was committed to the Dravidian ideals of love for Tamil and unity of the downtrodden. In real life too, he was considerate with party members and made sure he was seen giving away wads of money to a driver for a daughter’s wedding, or an old woman who needed an operation. Most people voted for — and still vote for — MGR, not the AIADMK.

Jayalalithaa was quick to understand this. She too is called Amma(Mother), Thanga Thalaivi (golden leader), and Puratchi Thalaivi(revolutionary leader). Ridiculed after MGR’s death for being his Brahmin mistress and a lowly actress, the soft-spoken young woman trained herself to become an inaccessible autocrat. She encouraged even elderly party members to fall at her feet, and beat her auditor with slippers when she was charged with corruption. She is infamous for her mistrust and insecurity — for the longest time, she was rumoured to wear a bullet-proof jacket. She also wears a cape, an unsubtle cue for how she wishes to be seen: a super-heroine in politics.

Karunanidhi has played leader to the hilt too, but he does not play hero. “He has cast himself as a family head, a wise patriarch who is a symbol of everything the party is,” says Gnani. In that sense, he has won a more complex commitment from his supporters than MGR had or Jayalalithaa.

The transformative energy of the Dravidian movement has long been frittered away, but Karunanidhi was bred in it. The idea of a welfare state, gender sensitivity, a peoplecentric government, the questioning of oppressive religion and caste hierarchies survive in his soaring verse and electoral rhetoric. It’s no surprise then that Karunanidhi is still the biggest vote catcher the DMK has. Neither Stalin nor Azhagiri manage to draw the thousands that the ageing leader, now permanently on a mechanised wheelchair, still can. Today, despite the show of party democracy, Karunanidhi is the party. It follows that if he chooses to nominate an heir, at least until he’s alive, the party will stick with the decision.

“If he could remain CM in his next life, Karunanidhi would choose that over everything else,” jokes political commentator Cho Ramasamy. “But since he is an atheist, he has no choice but to pick a successor.”

The revolutionary founder of the Dravidian movement, EV Ramasamy or Periyar, often said that children make a politician selfish. “The most influential and feted leaders in Tamil Nadu, or the erstwhile Madras Presidency, did not have children,” says Cho referring to Periyar, DMK’s C Annadurai, Congress’ K Kamaraj and AIADMK’s MGR. Today, Karunanidhi’s rival Jayalalithaa too is unmarried and issueless. “It can’t be a coincidence that the only politician with three wives and children is the one who has monopolised the state for personal profit,” he says.

Cho might be exaggerating the moral force of childlessness, especially when Jayalalithaa has been investigated for over six cases of massive corruption. Still, there’s no denying that Karunanidhi today presides over the most cacophonous power battles Tamil Nadu has ever seen. A few years ago, this started pushing the otherwise astute patriarch to make some astoundingly bad decisions. And every time he has allowed personal relationships to subsume the ideology he represents, he has lost personal credibility. The rebel has morphed merely into the father.

IN A smallish room in a house in Gopalapuram, Chennai, reporters from Tamil and English dailies milled around, speculating why former Union telecom minister Dayanidhi Maran had hurriedly called a press meet. Was he going to quit the DMK? Was he going to admit he was angry at being forced to resign? Was he going to launch his own party?

As he sat morosely in the front of the room, Dayanidhi seemed vastly different from the self-assured Englishspeaking young minister who had been the voice of the DMK in New Delhi, had invigorated the telecom industry, and, in a short time, become the constant companion of his grand-uncle Karunanidhi. On that humid day in November 2008, however, sitting in his late father and former Union commerce minister Murasoli Maran’s house, Dayanidhi was the picture of a broken man. His usually crisp linen shirt was crumpled; his cherubic face glistened with sweat. Unsmilingly, Dayanidhi asked the reporters to sit down, and cleared his throat into the microphone. He was speaking to the press after a silence of one-and-a-half years. “I will be eternally loyal to the party and to my leader, my thatha (grandfather),” he said. “A misunderstanding cannot split up a family like this.”

‘The cadres see Stalin as the next leader,’ says Elangovan. ‘Challenging what has become common sense can have consequences’

A year prior to this press conference, Dayanidhi and his elder brother, Sun Network founder Kalanidhi Maran, had incurred their grand-uncle Karunanidhi’s wrath and were still reeling from its effects. The Marans’ Tamil daily Dinakaran had published an opinion poll on who TN wanted as the next CM from the DMK. The results showed 70 percent in favour of Stalin, two percent in favour of Azhagiri, another two percent for daughter Kanimozhi and the rest for ‘others’, which implicitly included Dayanidhi.

The article had simply quantified what the DMK has already come to terms with, what senior MP Elangovan calls “common sense”: Stalin over Azhagiri. But Azhagiri’s men bristled at the humiliation of the measly two percent vote. They went on a rampage in Madurai and set fire to the Dinakaran office. Three employees were burned to death. Sun TV beamed these images with the headline: ‘Attack on press freedom!’ Not too many journalists came to their support, however. “Neither was this survey objective journalism, nor is the Dinakaran about free press,” says Gnani. “As a journalist, I only mourned the three men who died unnecessarily in the selfish family feud. Freedom of the press was dead long before that anyway.”

Karunanidhi’s reaction was baffling. He didn’t censure Azhagiri or his hot-tempered Madurai cadre. Instead, he wrote an emotional column in the party organ Murasoli accusing his grandnephews of turning against him and creating a wedge in the family. The 41-year-old Dayanidhi was being grounded.

Dayanidhi owes his political career to the man he calls thatha. From the start, the Harvard-returned businessman was expected to fill in for his father, so dear and indispensable a strategist and friend to Karunanidhi that he often referred to Murasoli Maran as his ‘conscience’. Since the first DMK government in 1967, which ousted the Congress and began the reign of the Dravidian parties in the state, Murasoli had been an MP — the party’s voice at the Centre for 40 years. Although he was the first family member who rose meteorically within the party, few questioned it. “He had an unmatched sense of national politics, so not many felt he was unduly favoured,” says lawyer and political commentator Krishna Ananth. “The DMK fulfilled its Delhi dreams through Murasoli.”

When Murasoli died in 2003 and his second son Dayanidhi was asked to contest from his Chennai constituency, senior party members were irritated, but could do nothing but watch. Immediately after he won his first MP seat, he became minister: Karunanidhi wrested the IT portfolio from ally Congress and bestowed it on his favoured grandnephew, who didn’t disappoint. The telecom revolution was cresting. Dayanidhi attracted millions of dollars of FDI to India in his term, and most of it went to TN.

In TN though, Dayanidhi was less minister, more grandson. He was always by Karunanidhi, helping him in and out of cars and up and down stairs, listening sincerely to whispered instructions on stage. “Dayanidhi started to corner our leader. When he came to meet him in Chennai, he would arrogantly expect us elderly partymen to leave the room,” says a senior DMK member. “But after the Dinakaran incident, he was treated worse than a lowly cadre.”

In mid-2007, full of guilt and remorse, Dayanidhi went to meet Karunanidhi and tender his resignation. He was kept waiting for hours, and when he was finally called in, he was kept standing. When he tried to give his resignation letter to Karunanidhi, the old man snapped, “Do I look like a postman?! Send it to Delhi.” Later, Karunanidhi sent Power Minister Veerasamy with a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in which he asked for the removal of Dayanidhi, and included a list of seven DMK parliamentarians as his replacement, with A Raja right on top.

Then too, Dayanidhi had convened a quick press conference. He said Congress President Sonia Gandhi and the PMwere “a little upset” at his ouster. But he quickly added, “I will do whatever my leader wants. If he wants me to leave the ministry, I will. If he wants me to quit the party, I will. If he does not want me to contest an election ever again, I won’t.” The man Tamil Nadu thought of as being personally responsible for bringing Bill Gates and Nokia to India was apologising like a schoolboy.

WHILE DAYANIDHI had accepted his role as fall guy, elder brother Kalanidhi Maran, who actually ownedDinakaran, seemed to be taking the family on. On Stalin’s 55th birthday, the paper carried a picture of a chimpanzee in a San Diego zoo with a headline that said ‘A Monkey’s Birthday’. The cheeky article alongside said the monkey, which shared a birthday with Stalin, had grandchildren but was still youthful. “They were hitting out at Stalin, who is also a grandfather but still heads the youth wing of the party,” says a DMK member from Chennai.

In May, while his brother was pleading innocence, Kalanidhi had Dinakaran run a 20-page advertisement for Jayalalithaa’s birthday and carried her rant against Azhagiri’s “rowdyism” on Sun TV. Asked by reporters why he was antagonising his already livid granduncle, Kalanidhi simply said, “It’s business, not politics.”

MK Kanimozhi
MK Kanimozhi, 43
The poet and social activist in the family, she is seen as having inherited Karunanidhi’s literary talent. She became a Rajya Sabha MP at the insistence of her mother. Her role in l’affaire Radia has crippled the party

If there is anyone who wields close to as much power as Karunanidhi does in Tamil Nadu today, it is Kalanidhi Maran. Half his granduncle’s age, he defies everything the DMK patriarch stands for. He is aggressively apolitical and often says he has modelled himself after the capitalist rightwing media mogul Rupert Murdoch. He is married to a non-Tamil, Kaveri, who belongs to Karnataka. And unlike his family, including his brother, who cannot live outside the arc-light, Kalanidhi stays away from the public eye with a vengeance.

“It is not despite his priorities, but because of it that Kalanidhi is so insanely successful,” says AS Panneerselvan, a senior journalist who was once Sun TV’s chief editor and worked closely with Kalanidhi. “Kalanidhi knew back in the 1990s that he wanted to be a businessman.” Astutely, he chose to control TN’s greatest obsession — the screen.

When Kalanidhi, then 28, came back from the US with an MBA from the University of Scranton in 1988, he did an internship with the family-run Tamil magazine Kungumam, after which he worked with Apple and produced a lipi (Indian script) keyboard for Tamil. Till today, the most popularly used fonts in Tamil are the two he created, aptly named Anna and Kalaignar. In 1991, he started a video magazine calledPoomaalai (Flower Garland).

All of this was mere apprenticeship for his mega venture. In 1993, when Jayalalithaa was in power, he launched Sun TV. From the three-hour daily programming he started with, Kalanidhi has created a media empire that spans south India: 20 television channels in the four southern languages, seven FM radio stations, two Tamil newspapers, four magazines and an English daily. In addition, he sits atop a cable network called Sumangali Cable Vision (SCV), a film production and distribution company called Sun Pictures, and low-cost airline SpiceJet. “Whether you’re literate or illiterate, blind, deaf, poor, rich, hate cinema, love cinema, Tamil or non-Tamil, if you’re in the south, especially Tamil Nadu, you have bought something that Kalanidhi is selling,” says Panneerselvan.

Out of every 10 people in TN, eight have a television — it’s the highest TV penetration in the country. Of every 10 TVs, about seven have cable connections, six of which subscribe to Kalanidhi’s SCV. Before the 2006 Assembly election, Karunanidhi had promised 90 lakh free colour television sets as a sop: in one sweep, he had expanded the market for his grandnewphew’s SCV and Sun TV.

In an interview to Panneerselvan in 1999 for Outlook magazine, Kalanidhi said, “Sun has only ethics, no ideology. People don’t like propaganda. The death of Jaya TV (Jayalalithaa’s channel) is a lesson for anyone trying to reduce television to mere propaganda.” True to that learning, Sun TV focusses on soaps and filmbased programmes, which has helped it corner 70 percent of the viewership and assured him permanence. Whoever is in power — the DMK or the AIADMK — the Sun Group maintains its financial hold. Panneerselvan says Kalanidhi does not see the people of Tamil Nadu as voters or even citizens, like the rest of the family does. He sees them as consumers. “To me, that is scary, because you can’t overthrow a business tycoon once you let him grow. Plus, you’re deluded into believing that he’s giving you what you want, when in fact you’re just taking what he’s giving you.”

Both Karunanidhi and Kalanidhi insist they’re independent of each other. While Sun does not debase itself with pure propaganda — a face-to-face interview show called Nerukkuner on Sun TV used to grill DMK leaders all the time — there is enough proof to say it is neck-deep in power games.

Nothing demonstrated this more than the image of Karunanidhi’s infamous arrest under Jayalalithaa. At 9 pm on 29 June 2001, an FIRwas filed by the then Chennai corporation commissioner, alleging a 12 crore loss in the construction of mini-flyovers in the city. Stalin was the mayor. At Jayalalithaa’s insistence, the police barged into Karunanidhi’s residence without a warrant at 1 am. They first cut the phone lines, then dragged Karunanidhi all the way down from his upstairs bedroom, shoving and kicking the yelping 78-year-old. A Sun TV cameraman, permanently stationed near the leader’s house, managed to film about 90 seconds of footage before he was ejected.

The next day, Sun TV started to run the shocking footage on loop from 6 am. They ran it for just six hours but it had the desired effect. Phones rang continuously. Thousands of people called in to trash Jayalalithaa’s “monstrous act”. Several people broke down on air. Jaya TV was simultaneously carrying evidence of the flyover scam. But Sun’s viewership far outstripped Jaya TV’s and Karunanidhi’s corruption was forgotten in the massive sympathy wave.

“Kalanidhi uses politics for commerce, unlike the rest of the family that uses commerce for politics,” says Gnani. For his initial investment in Sun TV in 1993, Kalanidhi was able to take an overdraft of Rs. 50 lakh from Indian Bank only because the DMK had an account there. It is alleged that Central and state government departments are forced to spend on advertising in the Marans’ channels and papers. Telecom and automobiles companies — cajoled into investing in TN by telecom minister Dayanidhi — also have to release advertisements to the network. SCV is a virtual monopoly, with the DMK government ensuring that no other private player gets a licence to enter the market. Jayalalithaa had once tried to rein in SCV by asking the Centre to nationalise cable service providers, but the initiative went nowhere.

It is difficult to comprehend the political landscape of Tamil Nadu without understanding in full measure the tight braiding of politics, film, media, finance and personal relationships that governs it. Usually this is so seamless it is difficult to see the pattern. Occasionally, however, the fabric unravels slightly over some conflict of interest and the threads become visible. In November 2004, for instance, annoyed over the lack of coverage for Stalin on Sun News, Karunanidhi asked his wife Dayaluammal to divest her 20 percent stake in Sun Network and Sumangali Publications. (Murasoli had insisted the patriarch’s family have a stake in the venture 18 years earlier.) Unfortunately for Karunanidhi, this move backfired. Dayalu Ammal received Rs. 30 crore, of which she gave Rs. 10 crore to Karunanidhi and divided the rest among 21 members of the family. Today, the Sun Group’s valuation is over Rs. 20,000 crore.

Another sector muted by the vicious stranglehold of the family is TN’s robust, crazy, colourful film industry: Kollywood

The tight-knit empire was threatened once again when Dinakaran published the opinion poll on succession. Driven by the momentum of his temper, Karunanidhi spent hundreds of crores setting up a new channel and cable network to crush the monopoly of Sun TV and Sumangali Cable Vision, which he himself had nurtured. He threw Sun TV’s headquarters out of the DMK office premises. He started Kalaignar TV with 250 employees and poached its managing director Sharad Kumar from Sun TV. Arasu Cable was created overnight as a government-run cable network with an initial investment of Rs. 50 crore.

Such family wars have an operatic quality that observers of Tamil Nadu politics thrill to, but as writer Gnani says, “It’s out of control now. The family fights have begun to affect the everyday lives of regular men and women.”

ONE SUCH regular man sits in the well-upholstered office of the small scale industries state cooperative, in the dusty Guindy Industrial Estate in Chennai. After offering tea-coffee-juice, without preamble, C Umashankar makes a chilling pronouncement: “It is the endgame for Karunanidhi’s family. They will all drag each other down. They will pay for playing with honest people’s lives, for playing with my life.”

Umashankar is a Dalit IAS officer serving in Tamil Nadu for 20 years. He’s made headlines for cracking down on corruption in every district he’s been posted to. Under the Jayalalithaa government, he blew the whistle on a scam in Madurai by refusing to award a Jawahar Rozgar Yojana project to a private contractor. “Jayalalithaa gunned for me,” says Umashankar. But by taking her on, he won the DMK’s blessings.

UNDER THE DMK government in 1996, Umashankar was posted as District Collector in Karunanidhi’s home town Thiruvarur. He made it the first ‘e-governance district’ in the state. When the DMK lost the 2001 election, he was sidelined by the AIADMK, only to swing back along with the DMK in 2006 as managing director of ELCOT (Electronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu), a state promotional agency for information technology companies.

“I slowly began to realise the DMK was no better than the AIADMK in terms of corruption,” says Umashankar. In 2006, he says he was called twice by Rajathi Ammal, the third wife of Karunanidhi, to her office in Alwarpet. “When the CM’s wife calls, you don’t say no,” explains Umashankar. “But there, she asked me to simply award a contract for 45,000 wireless sets for fishermen to a person she pointed to. She didn’t even beat around the bush.” ELCOT was inviting e-tenders for the project then and Umashankar refused to disrupt the process. “Rajathi Ammal is known to run her own parallel government and lobby for the Nadar caste, but I was a government servant, not her servant,” says Umashankar, shaking with anger.

Soon after, ELCOT set up ETL Infrastructure Pvt Ltd to build an IT park and SEZ worth 700 crore. A month later, Umashankar noticed the company had “mysteriously disappeared from ELCOT’s records”. When he flagged this, he was suspended for 43 days under a false case of amassing assets disproportionate to his income. Umashankar’s friend questioned Azhagiri if this was his doing, since he is close to Rajathi Ammal and Kanimozhi. “Azhagiri told my friend, ‘What was the benefit of keeping Umashankar in ELCOT?’”

Dayanidhi Maran
Dayanidhi Maran, 44
The Harvard graduate was DMK’s face in Delhi as the telecom minister. In 2007, he fell out of favour and quit his post following the Dinakaran incident. Now back in the good books and serves as textile minister

The worst harassment began when he was appointed managing director of Arasu Cable TV Corporation, the cable provider started by Karunanidhi to cut the Marans to size. “I felt like I was part of some killer company, started with such a negative purpose,” says Umashankar. Moreover, SCV was a ruthless competitor. “When Hathway and Airtel tried to make a foray into the direct-to-home (DTH) market, Dayanidhi Maran put dozens of obstacles in their way and SCV goons forced cable operators to protest.”

Nevertheless, Umashankar joined Arasu on 3 November 2008, about eight months after it had been operationalised. As soon as he took charge, he found evidence of graft. Set-top boxes ordered for Rs. 5 crore at inflated rates; digital head-ends worth 46 crore fraudulently purchased in a single tender; digital equipment bought for non- Chennai cities that needed only analogue. As Umashankar started to cleanse the rot, the Marans and Karunanidhi resolved their issues.

The DMK chief’s daughter Selvi who is married to Selvam, Murasoli’s brother, is said to have brokered the settlement. What’s more likely is that Karunanidhi was forced to square with the Sun Group’s clout. Kalaignar TV had terrible viewership and Arasu was unable to even make a dent in the market. Either way, Umashankar sensed that Arasu Cable, born of vengeance, might not survive after the leader’s rage had dissipated.

Before the family had made peace, SCV goons had destroyed Arasu’s optic fibre cables in 26 locations and Azhagiri’s new cable network Royal Cable Vision was threatening operators. With each cable cut, thousands of homes stood to lose their connection. “It was impossible to operate but the police refused to file an FIR even though this was destruction of public property,” says Umashankar. Fed up, he sent a proposal to Dayanidhi Maran on 7 January 2009 to nationalise SCV. “On 23 January, this was published in some newspapers,” says Umashankar. “The same afternoon, I was transferred out to the Tamil Nadu Small Savings Industry Corporation, an ex-cadre posting, as punishment.”

In May 2010, Umashankar was interrogated for corruption and in July, for filing a false caste certificate. Somewhere along this tumultuous way, he converted to Christianity. “Only when I found Jesus did I feel like I could deal with this evil empire throttling me,” says Umashankar. He decided to file corruption charges against Karunanidhi, Dayalu Ammal, the Marans and Azhagiri in the Madras High Court.

Today, Umashankar religiously believes in the imminent implosion of the DMK. As a victim of its excesses, perhaps he needs that prop. He opens the Tamil Bible in the centre of his desk. “It is written,” he says, reading from the Bible. “The Lord will destroy the strength of kingdoms and those that ride in them. The horses and riders will come down, every one by the sword of his brother.”

Umashankar’s is a cautionary tale. Many like him have been dragged through hell, caught in the upheavals of Tamil Nadu’s first family. But unlike Umashankar, very few have the courage to speak up. A deadly mixture of sycophancy and harassment has stamped out every flicker of democratic engagement both within the party and the state administration. Sadly, another sector muted by the stranglehold of the family is Tamil Nadu’s robust, crazy, colourful film industry: Kollywood.

ON FEBRUARY 6 last year, the Nehru Indoor Stadium in Chennai was packed with film stars. The event: Pasa Thalaivar Parattu Vizha (a function to praise our loving leader). Actors and directors flowed through the stage, each thanking chief minister Karunanidhi for his largesse towards the film industry with high literary flourish. The leader looked on, beaming.

Then it was Ajith’s turn. The popular actor (also called Thalaivar by his fans) started on a deferential note. But midway, looking at Karunanidhi, he burst into an unusually frank appeal: “I request you to kindly do something so that film industry members do not have to get embroiled in sensitive political issues. If we don’t get involved, our loyalty and integrity as Tamils is questioned! We are tired of this. We don’t want politics. We just want to do our work. Today we have come because we love and respect you. Please help us.” The stadium broke into loud applause. Superstar Rajnikanth gave Ajith a standing ovation.

Ajith had touched a raw nerve. Every film-related organisation— and there are several in Tamil Nadu — is run by people close to the DMK. They hold events in which actors have to participate for free, failing which, as Ajith put it, their Tamil integrity comes into question. After his appeal, Ajith was reportedly hounded but he has refused to talk about this to the media ever since.

Kollywood dominates popular imagination in Tamil Nadu to a degree that perhaps far exceeds the influence of Bollywood. Yet, the industry is gripped by a fear so intense, every single actor, director, producer or film journalist approached for this story begged anonymity. “The atrocities should come out, people should know we’re virtually under mafia rule here,” says a prominent young actor who burnt his fingers recently. “But if my name comes out, my career is over.”

An event such as the Parattu Vizha would be unheard of in any other state, but in Tamil Nadu, it’s par for the course. The film industry has always been a coveted fiefdom, but in the last five years, there’s been an almost absolute takeover by the family. Today, if there is a Tamil film you’ve heard of, nine out of 10 times, it would have been produced by Kalanidhi Maran’s Sun Pictures, Stalin’s Red Giant Entertainment or Azhagiri’s Cloud Nine Pictures. By and large, the triumvirate controls Tamil cinema today. And they do it by controlling its consumption — via marketing, theatres and media rights.

Monopolising distribution is a key component of the game. “Kalanidhi distributed more than 12 films last year, while he made two big ones,” explains a well-known Tamil director, referring to the Rs. 100-crore-plus Enthiranand Aadukalam. “Often, they buy films off smaller producers and throw their massive marketing and distributing infrastructure behind it.”

A TV anchor, who has been hosting a Tamil film TRP countdown show for close to 15 years, admits noticing that almost all top 10 movies in recent years have been produced and distributed by Red Giant, Cloud Nine or Sun. On a fourhour car drive, this anchor counted Yathe yathe — a love song from Sun Pictures’ recent releaseAadukalam — playing four times every hour on Suryan FM, Sun’s radio channel. This kind of promotion is of course free of charge in one’s own channel but Sun TV charges exorbitant rates for trailers of fresh releases by directors or producers not part of its stable. “The only option for mass marketing is television and radio and both are controlled by the family,” says a veteran actor, director and producer. “Like small-time businessmen, we now depend on the Internet and word-of-mouth for marketing.”

Recently, Kollywood saw a wave of small-budget films set in B-towns. The treatment was raw, violent, realistic, and they turned into sleeper hits. Today, the so called ‘Madurai wave’ has also been monopolised by the family. Any first-time producer who refuse to give in run the risk of their films never seeing the light of day.

Theatre-owners are terrorised to fall in with the family’s business interests. A record 145 Tamil films were released last year, but around 45 films, complete with clearances and censor certificates, could not find a single theatre willing to run them because they did not have the blessing of the family. New-generation star Vijay, who has expressed an interest in joining AIADMK, is among a minority willing to speak up. In an interview to a Tamil magazine, he criticised the DMK for stalling the release of his film last year. “They prevented the release ofKaavalan to facilitate the success of films produced by their men,” he said.

Kalanidhi Maran
Kalanidhi Maran, 47
The other grandnephew, who modelled himself after Rupert Murdoch, is perhaps the only man as powerful as Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu. He uses politics for commerce, unlike others who use commerce for politics

Only producers registered with the Tamil Nadu Producers Council are allowed to make Tamil movies. The council’s president Ramanarayanan of Sri Thenandal Movies, who was elected in a violent polling last year, is known to be close to the family. He explains the eligibility criteria: “You need to be an Indian citizen, pay Rs. 1 lakh and be recommended by an existing member.” This last requirement — the recommendation — is the most potent tool of political patronage. Through this, the council has not only kept away international production houses like Sony, Columbia Pictures and 21st Century Fox, but also producers from the Hindi or Telugu film industries. Under the pretext of protecting local producers, it has secured disproportionate space for Giant, Cloud and Sun.

The triumvirate has even squeezed out AVM, once the Tamil film industry’s biggest production house, which gave birth to legendary stars like MGR, Sivaji Ganesan, Rajnikanth and Kamal Hassan. In 2008, after its Rajnikanthstarring blockbuster Sivaji hit the screens and it was forced to sell the media rights for a pittance to Kalaignar TV, AVM decided to stop producing films. “We’re making one small budget film now,” says S Babu, AVM CEO. “But that’s it.”

Its silver screen ventures too are barely breaking even. When it soldSivaji’s media rights to Kalaignar TV, two of its soaps were kicked off Sun TV. AVM now runs its soaps on Kalaignar TV, whose viewership is around eight percent, while Sun’s is 70-80 percent.

THIS ELECTION, the collective rot of these years is likely to show without any protective sheen. The deepening hegemony of Karunanidhi’s family has changed the core values of the DMK. For the 13 years that MGR reigned supreme and the DMKwas out of power at a stretch, it was robust party structures that kept the DMK from falling apart. But now, from a cadre-based party tied to clear political ideals, the DMK has morphed into a collection of family power centres, owing uneasy allegiance to a king.

Every district has a satrap — usually the longest standing MLA — who consolidates a caste or class vote. Today, the family culture has seeped into this second line. For instance, the 74-year-old Veerapandi S Arumugam, agriculture minister and a six-time MLA, was the party stalwart in Salem. Now his son Raja is also a politician. In Coimbatore, it is Karunanidhi’s own son Tamizharasu. In Trichy, it is late Anbil P Dharmalingam’s sons Periasamy and Poyyamozhi.

“If the party splits after Karunanidhi, these men will need to be won over by the successors,” says Gnani. “The cadre is not there for loyalty. They’re just paid workers who come for their daily wage of Rs. 300-400, food packets and a quarter bottle of brandy.”

To manage all this, to retain absolute control — or the illusion of absolute control — requires deep pockets. “It’s easy for the family to tap into its own business empire,” says sociologist S Anandhi from the Madras Institute of Development Studies. “But, for the most part, the expenses are really met through institutionalised corruption.”

When the mega telecom scam around A Raja, Karunanidhi’s replacement for Dayanidhi, blew up last year, the DMK chief maintained an unnatural silence. As the story snowballed over the months and the Niira Radia tapes went public, it became clear that Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi, daughter of the leader’s third wife Rajathi Ammal, had been filtering information flowing to her father, thereby tipping the scales in favour of Raja. Azhagiri and Stalin, sons of his other wife Dayalu Ammal, reportedly wanted Raja out. At first, the patriarch stood by Raja. He wasn’t family but his friendship with Kanimozhi was powerful ballast. Raja was finally arrested last month. But he remains a DMK member.

For a party that’s always been predominantly male, it’s ironical that its most crippling slip has come through a woman. Kanimozhi says she never thought of herself as a politician. She was the poet and social activist in the family. “For a long time, I didn’t know if I wanted to be part of electoral politics,” says the 43-year-old. “But, in a way, it was natural when I finally decided. So many things become possible if you are part of the process.” The first thing she learnt, however, was that “a lot of things are different from the outside and the inside.”

Jegath Gaspar Raj, a priest and Kanimozhi’s collaborator in the NGO Tamizh Maiyyam, which was raided by the CBI recently, says Kanimozhi often bemoaned how “even art had become politics after she became MP and how that had sucked all the joy out of it.”

The ironies multiply because Kanimozhi was meant to be the new hopeful note in the otherwise patriarchal DMK. The Dravidian legacy of empowerment and 69 percent job and education reservations has transformed Tamil Nadu into a state with one of the largest middle-class populations. In response, the DMK has evolved, and learned to transcend parochial or provincial interests. Kanimozhi, educated, mild-mannered and English-speaking, was one of the faces of this transformation. But why does the new politics of the DMK too reside in a family member? “The growing disinterest of the middle-class in mainstream politics has left a space for politically groomed families to occupy,” says Anandhi. Moreover, she says, the middle-class attach great importance to two things: family values, and the accumulation of wealth through hardwork. “It could be the reason we are increasingly comfortable with political families,” adds Anandhi.

But there are other factors that explain what went into Kanimozhi’s prominence in the party. Primary among them is the power struggle between the matriarchs: Dayalu Ammal and Rajathi Ammal. Kanimozhi was inordinately close to her father (she is seen to have inherited his literary talent), but more importantly, her mother Rajathi Ammal is said to fiercely defend her daughter’s claim to the Karunanidhi empire.

In 1948, Karunanidhi had married Dayalu, chosen by his parents. In the mid-sixties, he married again, this time to Rajathi, a member of the drama troupe run by poet Kannadasan. Tamil newspapers have found a tonguein- cheek way of describing the two women: Dayalu is Karunanidhi’s manaivi (wife), while Rajathi is his thunaivi(companion).

Kanimozhi was not always such an integral part of the family. Her mother had to work her way into legitimacy through years of political and personal machination. Kanimozhi, in fact, was through with graduation before Karunanidhi finally came out in the open about his relationship with Rajathi. (Karunanidhi was asked in the Assembly about who was living with him in the house on Oliver Road, for which he was collecting official rent. Karunanidhi replied with characteristically evasive wit: “She is my daughter Kanimozhi’s mother.”)

After this, with the DMK’s return to power in 1989, Rajathi, a member of the powerful mercantile community Nadars, emerged as an influential power centre with some ministers directly reporting to her. Even now, Karunanidhi spends half the day at his official Gopalapuram residence and the rest at Rajathi’s house across the road in CIT Colony. It is Rajathi who ensured that Kanimozhi got a Rajya Sabha seat; she who insulated Kanimozhi from some of the sting of the 2G scam. And it is probably to shield his daughter from the full weight of the CBI inquiry that Karunanidhi continues to linger with the Congress, long after it looks politically suicidal to do so.

WHY DID family become so important to a man seeped in a movement that preached exactly the opposite? Sometime in the 1970s, Karunanidhi began to take politics personally. DMK founder C Annadurai had expressed disgust for filmstars. Despite this, Karunanidhi was at the forefront of a group of DMK leaders who engineered matinee idol MGR into the party’s greatest propaganda tool. MGR’s films began to peddle DMK ideology, and his five-minute appearances at public meetings caused stampedes. The DMK was already sweeping Tamil Nadu, but MGR made it invincible. He wasn’t much of an actor and more an emotional dogooder than a politician. But when the two worlds coalesced, it was the stuff of legend.

In 1972, MGR was expelled from the DMK by the increasingly insecure Karunanidhi. In two months, MGR had formed the AIADMK, taking several DMK leaders and his adoring electorate with him. For 13 years — in fact, till his dying breath — he kept the DMK out of power. All this time, Karunanidhi burned with humiliation. “Every morning, he awoke in a rage that he was not the leader,” says an old friend and a current DMK minister. “I don’t think he had ever hungered for power like that ever before. It changed Kalaignar forever.”

There were attempts to bring the embittered friends together and, more importantly, to consolidate their votes. In 1976, veterans of the DMK wrote to Karunanidhi asking him to step down as president, the condition under which MGR had agreed to merge his party back with the DMK. Karunanidhi’s reply was a sign of things to come. “Instead of asking me to resign,” he said, “You can as well give me 24 sleeping pills to swallow and die.”

A single deified leader is central to both TN politics and its social psyche. The formula is as old as Dravidian parties themselves

With the lessons from that epic fight, Karunanidhi turned the party into a personality cult. He ruthlessly eliminated all of DMK’s fledgling stars, denouncing them as threats to the unity of the party or accusing them of diluting its ideals. V Gopalaswamy — or Vaiko — was defamed and shunted out in 1993, when an incensed Karunanidhi intuited that this fierce orator, wielding the same metaphors of Tamil pride and anti-Brahminism, was growing out of the leader’s shadow.

“Karunanidhi wasn’t always so dictatorial,” says Panruti Ramachandran, a respected MP and a former DMK member- turned-MGR loyalist who now advises Vijaykanth in the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam. “Initially, he did believe in the Dravidian ideals of democracy and justice, and used to listen to his seniors. But after MGR, he stopped trusting anyone.”

Party decisions are still made in a general council of senior leaders, but there’s no dissenting voice to question the Kalaignar’s word. An emergency meeting was called to decide the DMK’s course of action in the 2G scam, but all senior leaders knew this was just a smokescreen. “There were far too many family considerations for us to even hazard a suggestion,” admits one of the council members.

Subservient DMK members today spend more time figuring out which family member is safest to stand by than on any other political calculation. “After Nehru, it took five years for the Congress to decide on Indira; after MGR died, his protégé Jayalalithaa and his wife Janaki battled it out for 16 months; the old Congress regime in Tamil Nadu split into two after Kamaraj died. It’s a natural political process,” says Paneerselvan. “Morbid as it may sound, this succession battle will only be resolved after Karunanidhi’s death.”

While DMK governments have made attempts to keep its electorate happy with opportune welfare policies, the people’s disheartenment in the recent years is palpable. They shower praise — through words, tears and courtesies — in expectation that this will yield smooth roads, good schools and uninterrupted power supply. But each time, they run up against an insular family principality instead of a democratic state. The tragedy of Karunanidhi then is not that there is no equal successor, but that in losing his way, he has buried everything he stood for.

Mohan is Special Correspondent with Tehelka
[email protected]




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