Can the aging patriarch of India’s most fractious political dynasty hold his family together—and continue to cling to power in Tamil Nadu? Vinod K Jose in Caravan:
O n the scorching Friday afternoon of 11 May 2007, at Chennai’s Island Grounds, Muthuvel Karunanidhi had some important business to settle privately with Sonia Gandhi.
Gandhi, the Congress party president, had come to Chennai—along with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and two former prime ministers—to join the celebrations marking Karunanidhi’s 50th anniversary as a legislator, an unprecedented milestone in Indian politics. But on this humid summer day, as thousands of his followers from across the state converged on the burning sands to celebrate their leader’s longevity, the then 83-year-old chief minister of Tamil Nadu had something else on his mind.
“It was like a thorn for him, and he had to remove it with as little damage as possible,” said an associate of Karunanidhi who described the conversation to me.
Minutes before the golden jubilee celebrations began, Karunanidhi took Gandhi aside. “Daya has to be dropped,” Karunanidhi said, referring to his grand-nephew Dayanidhi Maran, then the Union minister for communications and information technology. “He’s failed us.”
“Don’t worry,” she assured him. “Your wish will be fulfilled.” The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government, then as now, required the support of Karunanidhi and his party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Gandhi, as chairperson of the ruling coalition in the Lok Sabha, was unlikely to take issue with his request.
Dayanidhi Maran, then 41 years old, had served three years as the communications minister, a plump portfolio in New Delhi that Karunanidhi had personally requested for him. Maran quickly became the sophisticated face of the DMK in the capital: he spoke in fluent English to the national press and wore designer shirts and trousers—a marked departure from the dhoti-clad DMK politicians who had preceded him.
But back home, tensions had been rising between Karunanidhi and his grand-nephews—Dayanidhi and his elder brother, Kalanithi, who had leveraged party connections to build a powerful media empire that included Sun TV, India’s largest television network. Karunanidhi was convinced that his own family had been shortchanged by Kalanithi Maran, who had aggressively bought back the family’s shares in Sun TV for well under the market value before taking the company public in 2006. And now, Karunanidhi believed, the Marans were intent on fomenting discord among his own children, his chosen political heirs. More: