“Jakkirathaiya irunga,” he said in Tamil, over which his command was legendary. “Take care” is how the phrase would translate. But in the way he said it, laying stress on the double ‘kk’, I could see he meant to say, “Take every care.” This was on August 13, 2000. I was on my way to Colombo to join duty as High Commissioner.
Calling on Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi would have been on the wish list and task list of any Indian envoy on her or his way to Sri Lanka. But, for me, this was not just about protocol. Nor was it about politics, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) then being a crucial presence in the National Democratic Alliance government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It was about plain common sense, sheer self-interest. There was no way I would present letters of credence in Colombo without finding out what Tamil Nadu’s senior-most and completely wide-awake leader thought about the island nation’s travails, the present and future state of its Tamil population and that of the Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelam’s supremo, Velupillai Prabhakaran. To go to Colombo without the ‘input’ — to use a crassly opportunistic expression — of a veteran of Tamil Nadu’s political chemistry would be absurd. What I needed and was to get from him was the insight, as knowledgeable as it was detached, of ‘one who knew’. The hinterland of any foreign policy is ground knowledge of the roots of that policy in the soil of its origin.
It was not easy, even for one on ‘relevant’ official duty, to get an appointment with the Chief Minister. He had his hands more than full with the complexities of Tamil Nadu’s polity, where facing the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and its charismatic leader J. Jayalalithaa meant being alert 24×7; where running a government of which he was the alpha and the omega meant working harder than the mind and body could take. And where, to make matters more complex for him, explaining to the people of Tamil Nadu how and why India-Sri Lankan relations were a foreign policy matter and foreign policy was the prerogative of the Union government was just about impossible. He was on the cusp of India’s federal dilemmas.
A lesser politician could have played politics on that fluid crest, just to remain ‘on top’. But, as the direct successor-in-office to C.N. Annadurai (CNA) who had given up secession as the DMK’s policy goal, he was going to do nothing of the kind.
The Chief Minister was seated in the sitting room on the first floor of his Gopalapuram residence in Chennai. He half-rose to greet me, a gesture that neither his age — he was 76 at the time — nor his high office necessitated. “Sir… sir… Please do not get up,” I protested. Sitting back, he commenced what was for me a lesson on the limitations of diplomacy and of politics. He said I was going to a highly troubled land at a highly incendiary time. “Ranil Wickremesinghe [now Prime Minister of Sri Lanka] met me the other day,” he said, “and we spoke for more than an hour. He is a visionary… He wants to build a physical bridge from Rameswaram to Talai Mannar… I welcomed the idea and told him that our own Bharathiar [Subramania Bharati] had envisioned the very thing…palamaippom… But today who is going to be crossing that bridge and in which direction?” Then followed an analysis of the ethnic problem on the island which for its crisp pragmatism could not have been equalled, let alone bettered.
“Nobody knows Prabhakaran’s mind,” he said. “Nobody from our side is in touch with him… Nobody can be… We used to know his deputies… Amirthalingam… Now they are all dead… assassinated. But militancy is no solution… Secession will never be countenanced by Sri Lanka… And it will never be given up by Prabhakaran… We grope in the dark.” And then doing a fast-forward: “Yet, we have to keep trying for our Tamil kin’s urimai (rights) there.” The insights continued for some 10 more minutes and then he rose to conclude the call, saying, as if in a summing-up: “Prabhakaran will never have a change of heart.” As I thanked him and prepared to leave, he gave the advice I started this tribute with, very softly, “Jakkirathaiya irunga.”
I had received briefings, each very helpful, very skilled, from officials, ministers, politicians, military leaders, strategists. But the one I got at Gopalapuram that afternoon covered every facet of the Sri Lankan scene in brief sentences, replete with historical, geopolitical and diplomatic nuances, topped with an intuitive sense of urimai being the long-shot aim and jakkirithai an immediate concern.
Seventeen years later, last year, I was to see him again, in the same room. He was seated on a wheelchair. And this time he did not — could not — get up. His son, M.K. Stalin, and his daughter, Kanimozhi, who were beside him, gave him the caller’s name. The 93-year-old looked long and steadily at me. No sign of recognition appeared on his face. There was no immediate response, but a few seconds later, when everyone present was waiting for a response, a wisp of a half-smile played across his face for but a fleeting moment. I will not presume to imagine he recognised me. But that was not really necessary.
Kalaignar Karunanidhi was now a legend, an icon of the old mould, but without the patina of obsolescence on its form or features. He was a living legend, an icon of the here and now as a symbol of aspirational politics negotiating electoral quicksands. In his case the aspirational politics was Dravida self-esteem combined with social radicalism, derived from Periyar and C.N. Annadurai (CNA). And the quicksands were Tamil Nadu’s political uncertainties, with his mentors having become history and rivals from a different ‘stage’ scripting a very new, very glitzy theatre. Here was an idealism being taunted by reality to be pragmatic, a pragmatism being haunted by history to be idealistic. Some predicaments are cruel.
And yet, he emerged from it, un-bowed, the see-saw of electoral results being another matter.
He will be long remembered for three outstanding accomplishments — his passion for Tamil as a language and a metaphor for the dignity of its users; his refusal to be bullied by political hubris during the national emergency; and his uncompromising secularism.
CNA was in office for far too little for the dust of any controversy to settle on him. The Kalaignar was in office for far too long for that dust to stay away. Did he shake it off?
Did the flatterer and the tale-carrier manage to reach ear-distance? Was the sponger spurned, the money-spinner, the corrupter, family-splitter, the party-breaker turned away? Was the fear-instiller, the superstition-planter, the suspicion-sower shown the door? Equally, was the caring critic, the daring dissenter, the worried warner given welcome? Was the frank friend, the bold biographer shown in, given time, consideration?
Only his family would know.
On it — all generations of it — falls the privilege and the challenge now to stay and work together, to take the legacy of this extraordinary statesman further afield and make it a force for Tamil Nadu’s redemption from localism, myopia and the power of floating cash. And beyond that, a force for India’s federal intelligence, her plural wisdom and, above all, her Constitution-enshrined mandate for justice — social, economic and political.