It happens every 30 January. Traffic in Madurai is thrown out of gear, and about 700 hoardings spring up, some of them in vain competition with the city’s temple shikhars for skyline domination. Nobody can miss the birthday of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi’s elder son Azhagiri. The comparisons range from melodious to odious. This year, he was variously depicted as US President Obama, legendary Tamil kings Raja Raja Cholan and Pandya Nedumchezhiyan, the Dravidian reformer Periyar and Adolf Hitler ‘who overcomes challenges’ in some supporter’s fervid mind.
Voters, going by past experience, are preparing for a feast of money, muscle power and chicken biryani. The Election Commission has already had to step in to put a halt to attempts by his followers to enroll 90,000 new names onto the voters’ list. The EC has also got complaints that Azhagiri forced a local TV channel to scroll his appeal for votes over the live telecast of the annual Kumbabishekam festival at Meenakshi temple, and is distributing cash coupons directly among women voters of the constituency, scraps of paper that can be exchanged for Rs 100 at any local DMK office later. CPM candidate P Mohan has submitted a petition along with these coupons and a video clip to substantiate the charge.
Such tactics have helped the DMK leader’s son ensure victories for the party in three successive assembly by-elections from Madurai Central, Madurai West and Thirumangalam—marginal seats once for the ruling party. “Those were not by-elections but ‘buy elections’,” alleges AIADMK leader O Panneerselvam, “Voters were lured with money and biryani. The state machinery was misused and poll officials remained helpless in the face of intimidation and false voting.”
Azhagiri’s backing by way of money and muscle is so strong that the CPM had even tried to slip away, asking its alliance partner Jayalalithaa (of the AIADMK) to allot it a safer seat to contest instead. Neither partner was keen to represent Madurai in the Lok Sabha, and not only because of shortcomings in appealing to the electorate’s culinary tastes.
It is hard to believe it now, but Azhagiri began his political career as a man noted for simple living. This was in the early 1980s, when he was deputed to look after the DMK mouthpiece Murasoli. “He was never allowed by the party to interfere in editorial matters of the publication,” recalls K Muthuramalingam, a former associate who’s now with the AIADMK, adding that his lifestyle was indeed Spartan, with a Lambretta scooter and a rented house.
That changed soon enough. By the end of the decade, he was a cash-rich Madurai entrepreneur, dishing out entertainment through Royal Video. Now, his business empire includes a TV channel, cable service provider, big wedding hall and huge showroom of silk textiles. Through all this, Karunanidhi kept his elder son at a distance.
It was in 1996, when the DMK came to power in Tamil Nadu with a huge majority, that Azhagiri gave in to the temptation of throwing his father’s name around. This caught Karunanidhi unawares, and caused friction with Stalin, the favoured son and presumptive heir (both sons, though, are of Karunanidhi’s first wife Dayalu Ammal). The sibling rivalry began to spill on to the streets, with occasional clashes between their supporters. In 2000, an article by Karunanidhi in Murasoli urging party workers to stay away from Azhagiri provoked a fierce response from the latter’s followers, who vandalised government offices and set transport buses on fire. In 2001, Madurai was thrown into violent disorder when the DMK denied Azhagiri’s nominee C Kaverimanian a Rajya Sabha ticket, giving it to Stalin nominee Tiruchi Siva instead. In the Assembly election that followed, the slighted son’s forces worked against DMK candidates in a swathe large enough to give the AIADMK an edge. Prominent DMK leaders like Palanivelrajan and Velu Swamy lost, and Kiruttinan was allegedly murdered by his loyalists though a trial court exonerated the accused later.
By 2003, Azhagiri had his father’s attention. In a reconciliatory move, he organised a grand function to release Karunanidhi’s book Tholkappia Poonga (a critical study on the Tamil classic Tholkappiyam). Copies worth Rs 28 lakh were sold at the function. The father was pleased.
According to party insiders, it was Azhagiri’s mother who finally brokered peace between the father and prodigal son. But Stalin was a cabinet minister and DMK treasurer by then, and seen clearly as the successor. “Now, an aged Karunanidhi wants to see his family united. He is also ready to do anything to please his children,” says a top DMK leader, talking of Azhagiri’s candidature. There are rumours doing the rounds that the elder son had threatened suicide if he wasn’t allowed to contest at least a single election.
But within the DMK, the ticket is also an acknowledgement of Azhagiri’s ability to ‘inspire’ the cadres and ensure victory even in difficult terrains. After 40 years of shunting him around, the party finally had to make him its South Zone Organising Secretary after the series of by-election wins he pulled off. Ecstatic crowds now assemble outside his TVR Nagar house these days, where he lives with his wife Kanthi Azahagiri.
“There is no challenge to his hegemony over southern districts. Leaders like PTR Palanivel who can check on him have passed away, and he has succeeded in making the party leadership here a pack of his sycophants. Dissenters were either sidelined or expelled,” complains a senior DMK leader.
Tales around him are not about to die down anytime soon. Madurai traders accuse Azhagiri of sending goons to collect protection money from them. Others allege that he holds kangaroo courts, takes his own slice of real estate deals and runs other extortion rackets. “People fear him because he acts as an authoritarian local king,” says Vadivelu, an auto driver.
Meanwhile, CPM state secretary N Varadarajan puts up a brave front. His party, he says, is open to the challenge: “We will face the election without fear. And also write an obituary to all high-handed political activists, who dream of an easy Madurai win.”
For his part, Azhagiri boasts, “I will win by a margin of not less than 3.5 lakh.” It is only the ageing father who seems a little lost in all this: “I presume his life may be under threat. Why does the CPM fear my son so much?”