In the last two years, Tamil Nadu, specifically the city of Chennai, has witnessed two state funerals. The first was of a silver-screen star-turned-monarch, and the second of a writer who gave political literature an entirely new definition. Ironically, not too much sand now separates the resting places of these two political arch-enemies.

When they were hospitalised, they virtually took over the hospitals. The lives of other patents, doctors, nurses, administrative staff, assistants and interns were most certainly affected. In fact, a popular store on the ground floor of the Kauvery Hospital building, where Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief and former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi was hospitalised from July 28 till his death on August 7, remained closed for days because of the crowds that had gathered, the round-the-clock media presence and the stream of politicians visiting the leader and his family.

But there was certainly a difference in the way information was shared with the public. During All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief and Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s more than two-month-long stay at the Apollo Hospital leading up to her death on December 5, 2016, everything was hyper secretive, so much so that people tried leaking information and rumour mills went into overdrive. No one from Jayalalitha’s inner circle cared and consequently, conspiracy theories floated unchallenged. In the case of Karunanidhi – Kalaignar, or the artist, to his admirers – there was openness, the hospital bulletins were clear and the family was honest about the situation. At no point did we feel a game was being played on us. They had either learnt from the Jayalalithaa episode or this difference said something about the individuals and those who surrounded them.

Kalaignar and Amma

The bodies of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi were both kept at Rajaji Hall for public viewing. And it was obvious even to the casual viewer that the number of people who rushed to get a glimpse of Karunanidhi was more than those who came for Jayalalitha. At the same time, it is indeed unfortunate that some people lost their lives when they came to pay their respects to Kalaignar but they have been treated only as a number count.

Jayalalithaa died as chief minister, yet the outpouring of grief was limited largely to her party cadre and loyalists. Karunanidhi had not been seen or heard in public for over a year, yet he garnered a massive outpouring of love and affection. Somehow, he transcended party boundaries and remained fresh in people’s imaginations. It is possible that his longevity contributed to his iconic status.

It is also true that Jayalalithaa, in spite of being Amma or mother, was always a distant goddess who was feared and worshipped. Her rare interactions with the common person were much like a queen meeting her praja. Karunanidhi was seen as someone who came from the Tamil heartland fighting caste oppression. And there is no doubt that his eloquence only helped him become a people’s artist.

Jayalalithaa had very few people who stood by her in life and death. The only person who remained was VK Sasikala. (Credit: PTI)
Jayalalithaa had very few people who stood by her in life and death. The only person who remained was VK Sasikala. (Credit: PTI)

I vividly remember watching All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam MLAs sitting on the innumerable steps leading up to the high verandah at Rajaji Hall as though they were bonded functionaries in a feudal organisation. It was clear their relationship with Jayalalithaa was unequal, which is expected, but their subservient behaviour even after her demise made me realise how irrelevant they were in the larger scheme of things. The only person who mattered and was seen watching over Jayalalithaa’s body like a hawk was her aide, VK Sasikala. And Sasikala, in turn, was surrounded by her family.

In contrast, Karunanidhi’s senior party colleagues remained close and his family was a large visible presence. From what we saw at the time of his death, it did seem that the relationship between Karunanidhi and his lieutenants was indeed different. In spite of the reverence, deference, respect and seniority that separated them from their leader, somehow he remained approachable, accessible.

Jayalalithaa had very few people who stood by her in life and death. That loneliness was apparent when she lay alone at Rajaji Hall. Her ministers and party compatriots were a necessity, nothing more. She was a powerful woman surrounded by a herd of men. Over the years, she had hardened and protected herself from predators, made a habit of keeping people away and discarding anyone who came too close. The only person who remained was Sasikala. What a tragedy. At Karunanidhi’s funeral, there was so much emotion, tears, a genuine feeling of loss. And these were people who came from different walks of life. Old friends, film personalities, political allies and foes, writers and intellectuals. All this despite the fact that Kalaignar had lived what may be called the full span of his life. Jayalalitha’s funeral was cold, still, stoic, with few to generously mourn her. It was much like what she presented herself to be in public.

Karunanidhi's son and political heir MK Stalin (centre) and other family members in tears during the veteran leader's funeral. (Credit: PTI)
Karunanidhi's son and political heir MK Stalin (centre) and other family members in tears during the veteran leader's funeral. (Credit: PTI)

Religiosity, corruption

While Jayalalithaa’s resting place on Marina Beach was unquestioned, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam had to go to court to make sure Karunanidhi lay beside his mentor and the party’s founder, CN Annadurai, on the same beach. While Jayalalithaa’s last rites were an uncomfortable mix of Brahmin rituals and a Dravidian burial, Karunanidhi’s was copybook Dravidian. This also reflected the two parties’ relationship with religiosity. Jayalalithaa’s rise to the helm of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam resulted in the party becoming overtly religious and she herself did not shy away from Brahmin ritualism. But the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam remained more or less atheistic in texture, though Karunanidhi’s yellow shawl obsession has not been explained till date.

I visited Jayalalithaa’s samadhi a few hours after she had been buried. There were barely 50 people present and no large continent of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam cadre. What was disturbing was watching some members of the public take selfies at the burial spot. I wonder when we became so vulgar. I was unable to visit Karunanidhi’s resting place but I am certain the scene would have been very different and this can be attributed to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s cadre strength.

When Karunandhi died, the reaction of the caste-class elite was most curious. They brought up the corruption cases against many of his family members and spoke of him as the person who had brought corruption into Tamil public life. Many of them believe the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam will now self-destruct, bringing an end to Dravidian politics.

When Jayalalithaa died, a friend proclaimed that she was the only Brahmin who had survived Dravidian politicians. He even went on to say that she would probably be the last one. Suddenly, she had become a feminist symbol and, amazingly overnight, in their minds, she was cleansed of all corruption charges. Sasikala, currently serving a four-year jail sentence in a disproportionate assets case, was considered the sole conspirator who had used this good woman for self-aggrandisement.

The contrasts of the days before and after the deaths of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi were difficult to miss. And irrespective of where Tamil Nadu heads politically, December 5, 2016, and August 7, 2018, will remain moments we cannot forget. Not only were they significant for the future of the state but they also revealed the nature of powerful leaders and the legacy they leave behind.