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.”
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.
An extract from ‘The Last Lear,’ published in The Caravan’s April 2011 issue. Read the story in full here.
From our election special, Vaasanthi on how JJ lost everything, and then clawed her way back to supremacy: http://caravanmagazine.in/perspectives/madras-check
Vinod K. Jose is the Executive Editor of The Caravan and an award-winning journalist. He has previously worked as a producer from South Asia for public radio stations in the US and Europe. Jose has an MA in Journalism from Columbia Journalism School, where he was a Bollinger Presidential Fellow. He also has graduate degrees in Communication and English, and a PhD in Sociology.