M Karunanidhi: India's 91-year-old politician who is still fighting

Karunanidhi at an election really
Image caption Muthuvel Karunandihi contested Tamil Nadu state assembly elections for the first time in 1957

Ninety-one-year-old Muthuvel Karunanidhi is leading his DMK party in Monday's assembly election in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. During the 2014 parliamentary elections, critics wrote him off - saying he may not even last until the 2016 polls due to his failing health. But he has proved them wrong - he is still here, and not yet ready to hang up his boots, writes the BBC's Geeta Pandey in Chennai.

Nearly 2,000 people have been waiting patiently for a couple of hours, crammed in a square in the city's Mint area on a hot and humid summer evening.

The street is cordoned off for traffic, colourful lights are strung high above and massive glittering cut-outs of Mr Karunanidhi are watching from vantage points.

As his wheelchair rolls on to the makeshift stage, the DMK patriarch comes in vision: dressed in white with a sunshine yellow scarf over his shoulders, oversized dark glasses in place to hide an old botched eye surgery.

He is accompanied by third wife, Rajathi Ammal, and grandnephew, Dayanidhi Maran, whom he often describes as his grandson.

His arrival is greeted with loud music, the crowd begins chanting his name, there's clapping and waving of hands. A cheer rises through the gathering and black-and-red party flags are waved. Many stand on chairs to get a better look at their leader.

Who is Muthuvel Karunanidhi?

  • Born on 3 June 1924 in a village in Thiruvarur district
  • A school dropout, he made a name as screenwriter in Tamil films
  • A founder member of the DMK when the party was formed in 1949
  • Contested Tamil Nadu state assembly elections for the first time in 1957
  • Has contested 12 assembly elections and won all
  • Been Tamil Nadu chief minister five times
  • Besides film scripts, has written stories, plays and poems
  • Popularly called Kalaingar, the Tamil word for artist, for his contribution to cinema and literature

'Will vote for him until my death'

Party leaders and members bow before him, touch his feet and seek his blessings.

As a mike is placed before him, he clears his throat and begins his address, reading from a sheaf of paper, assisted by Mr Maran.

"No one could prevent our party and alliance from coming to power this time. People have put their faith in us and the crowd here bears testimony to that," he says.

Bus driver G Thangaraj, who is listening to him with rapt attention, says he got his job in 2008 when Mr Karunanidhi was in power.

"He built a lot of bridges and roads during his term. He takes care of our needs," he says.

Tila Thilagavathi, 51, says she has been a supporter since she was a child because her parents supported the DMK.

"He gave 20,000 rupees (£200;$299) for my daughter's wedding. I will vote for Mr Karunanidhi until my death," she says.

"His popularity is rooted in his longevity. He's been a witness to everything that's happened in the state in the past six-seven decades," says newspaper columnist Bhaskaran Krishnamurthy.

"He transformed Tamil literature, he's written stories, plays and poems, he's a reformist, he's the only leader of his stature."

Mr Karunanidhi was first elected to the Tamil Nadu state assembly in 1957 and has contested - and won - 12 assembly elections and been the state's chief minister five times in the past.

This is his 13th bid for the assembly and if the DMK manages to defeat the main rival AIADMK party, led by the charismatic former film actress and current Chief Minister Jayaram Jayalalitha, he's said he would return as the chief minister.

To put things in perspective, when he won his first election in 1957, it was just 10 years after India became a free country and Jawaharlal Nehru was the prime minister.

Today, the fourth generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family is in politics, but the DMK patriarch is in no hurry to hand over reins to his son and successor, MK Stalin.

"If I win, I would be the chief minister for the sixth time," he told NDTV earlier this week.

"Stalin can become chief minister only if nature does something to me," he added.

'His mind is still sharp'

Former MP and party spokesman TKS Elangovan rubbishes talk of Mr Karunanidhi being "too old" to lead.

"He's very active in the field, he's not lost any of his faculties. His mind is still sharp."

A school dropout, Mr Karunanidhi made his name as a successful scriptwriter in Tamil films.

An atheist and a self-declared rationalist, he rose to political prominence in the 1940s by being a part of the Dravidian movement, which challenged the caste-supremacy of Brahmins, and participating in anti-Hindi agitations.

A prolific writer and a fiery speaker, known for his wit and oratory, he enjoys god-like status among his supports.

But in recent years, he's been accused of nepotism with critics saying he needs to look beyond the family members.

There have been allegations of corruption against several of his family and party members, and some say it was one of the main reasons behind his party's decimation in the 2011 assembly polls.

In the past few years, he's also had to grapple with a bitter power struggle between his sons, MK Alagiri and Mr Stalin, and although that row is now settled with Mr Alagiri's expulsion from the party in 2014 and recognition of Mr Stalin as the heir apparent, some say Mr Karunanidhi's troubles are far from over.

Although considered a youth leader in the DMK, Mr Stalin is hardly youthful - he's 63 and is, by all accounts, getting restless.

Mr Elangovan insists there are "no problems" between the father and the son, and that Mr Stalin has said he wants his father to be the chief minister if the party wins, but he admits that "some young party supporters may want to see Mr Stalin as the chief minister".

Mr Karunanidhi is not the only nonagenarian Indian politician trying to hang on to power - in the neighbouring Kerala state, which also goes to polls on Monday, 92-year-old VS Achuthanandan is leading the Communist party's campaign.

'Elderly patriarchs'

So in a country where more than 65% of the population is below 35 years of age, what could possibly explain the enduring charms of these elderly patriarchs?

Lawyer Suhrith Parthsarathy, 30, says there's a reason why Mr Karunanidhi remains in the driving seat.

"He's the glue that holds the party and the family together. But the larger population may regard him as an experienced administrator who has delivered in the past.

"Fielding a youthful leader may not capture the youth's imagination. People want electricity, jobs, peace and an equal society. It doesn't matter whether a leader is 60 or 90 years old. What matters is who can deliver."

But can he really deliver?

At Sunday's rally, Mr Karunanidhi appears to be a shadow of his former self.

As he reads his speech, his voice shakes in places and at times he slurs, there's also a momentary confusion when he gets the names of party candidates he's introducing mixed.

Some media reports have speculated whether considering his age, this could be Mr Karunanidhi's last election, but Mr Krishnamurthy differs.

"I don't think it's his last election. If he's still there five years later, he will contest another election.

"As long as he's alive, you can't imagine an election without him. It doesn't matter whether he's 99 or 109."

Pictures by Nathan G

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