DMK traces its roots to the South Indian Liberal Federation (Justice Party) formed in 1916, by P. Thyagaraya Chetty, Dr. P.T. Rajan, Dr. C. Natesa Mudaliar and a few others. The Justice Party, whose objectives included social equality and justice, came to power in the first General Elections to the Madras Presidency in 1920. E. V. Ramasami ("Periyar"), a popular Tamil reformist leader of the time, had joined Indian National Congress in 1919, to oppose what he considered the Brahminic leadership of the party. Periyar's experience at the Vaikom Satyagraha made him to start the Self-Respect Movement in 1926 which was rationalistic and "anti-Brahministic". He quit Congress and in 1935, he joined the Justice Party. In the 1937 elections, the Justice Party lost and the Indian National Congress under C. Rajagopalachari ("Rajaji") came to power in Madras Presidency. Rajaji's introduction of Hindi as a compulsory subject in schools led to the anti-Hindi agitations, led by Periyar and his associates.
In August 1944, Periyar created the 'Dravidar Kazhagham' out of the Justice Party and the Self-Respect Movement at the Salem Provincial Conference. Dravidar Kazhagam, conceived as a movement and not a political party, insisted on an independent nation for Dravidians called Dravida Nadu consisting of areas that were covered under Madras Presidency.
Over the years, many disputes arose between Periyar and his followers. In 1949, several of his followers led by C. N. Annadurai, decided to split from Dravidar Kazhagham, after an aged Periyar married a young woman Maniammai and appointed his young wife to act as his successor to lead the party, superseding senior party leaders. Until then E. V. K. Sampath, the nephew of Periyar, was considered his political heir.
Annadurai, on 17 September 1949 along with Kudanthai K.K.Neelamegam, V. R. Nedunchezhiyan, K. A. Mathiazhagan, K. Anbazhagan, M. Karunanidhi, N. V. Natarajan, E. V. K. Sampath, and thousands of others in Robinson park in Royapuram in Chennai announced the formation of the DMK. The name of the party (DMK) was announced by Kudanthai Perunthagai. K. K. Neelamegam.
In 1953, actor M. G. Ramachandran ("MGR") joined the DMK, popularised the party flag and symbol which at that time stood for secession from India by showing it in his movies. MGR was a member of the DMK, and he was seen as an icon of the DMK and spread its message through films like Adimaippenn and Namnadu. DMK entered the electoral fray rather unsuccessfully in 1957 with even senior leader V. R. Nedunchezhiyan losing from Salem although M Karunanidhi won after initially having opposed all-Indian government and later supporting only those parties which promised to help its secession from India cause.Then in1962 another prominent actor S.S.Rajendran ("SSR") contested in Theni,legislative assembly election, against the then popular congress leader NRTheagarajan and won the seat.He is the first actor to become an MLA.
In 1967, DMK came to power in Madras province 18 years after its formation and 10 years after it had first entered electoral politics. This began the Dravidian era in Madras province which later became Tamil Nadu.
In 1969, party general secretary and founder, CN Annadurai died. After his death, there came the power tussle between M Karunanidhi and V. R. Nedunchezhiyan. Most of the elected MLAs of DMK, including leaders like Mathialagan, Nanjil Manoharan and the celluloid hero MGR favoured Karunanidhi as CM in preference to Nedunchezhiyan, the Senior leader after Anna. To pacify V. R. Nedunchezhiyan a new post called party president was created for M Karunanidhi and V. R. Nedunchezhiyan was the post of general secretary . MGR was appointed as the Treasurer of the Party.
During the Indian President election, there was divided opinion between the leaders of Indian National Congress. Though the party nominated Dr.Sanjiva Reddy as the Official Candidate, the then Prime Minister, Mrs.Indira Gandhi had suddenly switched her allegiance to Dr.V.V.Giri, the Opposition-sponsored Candidate. She had also advised all party elected members to vote according to their conscience. Dr.V.V.Giri was elected as the President of India with the support of Mrs.Indira Gandhi. This has resulted in the split of Congress Party and in October 1969. Senior Leaders like Morarji Desai, Athulya Ghosh, Kamarajar, S K Patil and Nijalingappa on the one side as Congress (Organisation) and Indira Gandhi, Shankar Dayal Sharma, Jagjivan Ram, C Subramaniam on the Other Side as Congress (Indira). The DMK, led by Mr.Karunanidhi took a stance to support Mrs.Indira Gandhi in certain reforms like abolition of privy purse, nationalisation of Banks.
In 1971 election, the DMK fought in alliance with Congress (Indira)and the Opposition alliance which consisted of the two Senior National Leaders, Rajaji and Kamarajar was termed as a strong alliance and was widely supported by Media to re-capture power in Tamil Nadu. However, the DMK emerged victorious with a vast majority of 184 seats out of 234 and Dr. Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi becoming the chief minister for second time. The Opposition Grand alliance could capture only 25 seats.
M. G. Ramachandran (MGR) who was a popular actor and the then party treasurer had played a vital part in popularising the party's ideologies. The political feud between MGR and the party president Karunanidhi emerged as an aftermath of the latter calling himself "Mujib of Tamil Nadu". In 1972, MGR called for a boycott of the party's General Council. With the crisis falling into call for corruption probe by MGR, he was eventually suspended from the General Council. Thus emerged a new party All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). The new party ADMK had drubbed the parent party DMK in the by-election to the Loksabha seat at Dindigul in 1974.
In 1977, DMK lost the Assembly elections to MGR's AIADMK, and stayed out of power in the state till 1989. After MGR's death in December 1987, AIADMK split into two factions between Janaki (MGR's wife) and Jayalalithaa. DMK returned to power in 1989 State assembly elections and Karunanidhi took over as chief minister in January 1989.
1991 election was held on the backdrop of DMK government dissolved within 2 years of formation due to pressure from Rajiv gandhi, in the same year Rajiv was killed by Human bomb during election campaign. Due to DMK's pro Tamil stance and the dismissal of the state government mid way by Rajiv, people persumption was against DMK and the sympathy wave in favour of AIADMK–Congress alliance and the DMK was deprived of any seats in the Parliament.
In the 1996 state elections, DMK came to power on strength of corruption charges against J.Jayalalithaa and the alliance with Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), headed by G.K. Moopanar and supported by cine actor Rajinikanth. However, in 2001, the AIADMK, on strength of a strong alliance and the incumbency factor against DMK, came back to power in the state assembly elections.
In the 2004 parliamentary elections, DMK formed an alliance with Congress, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and swept a grand Victory, the alliance winning all 40 seats including Puducherry. This enabled 7 ministerial posts in the Central government and influential power to DMK.
Two years later in 2006, the same alliance won in the state assembly elections and the DMK for the first time formed a minority government in the state with help from Congress. M Karunanidhi became the Chief Minister of the state for the fifth time. The DMK-Congress alliance was also successful in the 2009 parliamentary elections.
In the 2011 Assembly elections, held in the wake of the [2G scam] and allegations of nepotism, the DMK won only 23 seats, 127 seats less than earlier.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha election DMK failed to win any seats; however, by vote percentage it was second only to AIADMK.
DMK, from its inception, wanted to have a separate independent state for the Dravidians. C. N. Annadurai wanted a separate Dravida Nadu but the DMK changed its stance with the Chinese invasion in 1962 and suspended its demand for the length of the war and supported India for raising funds for the war. When the war ended, nationalistic feelings were so strong that DMK gave up the separate Dravida nation idea.
The Anti-Hindi agitations of 1965 forced the central government to abandon its efforts to impose Hindi as the only official language of the country; still Hindi imposition continued as Indian government employees are asked to write as much as 65% of the letters and memoranda in Hindi.
In April 1974, the DMK government brought in a resolution in the House urging the Centre to accept the Rajamannar Committee recommendations on state autonomy and amend the Constitution of India to pave the way for a true federal system.
The DMK and its prime opposition party, the ADMK have posted an array of populist schemes targeting the human development index of the state. Most of the schemes are accused to be targeting garner larger electoral support. Both the parties have schemes listed in the election manifestos covering various segments of the population involving fishermen, farmers and school children. Till the 2000s, the parties had welfare schemes like maternity assistance, subsidised public transport and educational grants. After the 2000s, the parties started competing at an increasing level over the distribution of consumer goods. The ADMK government distributed free cycles to class 11 and class 12 students during its tenure of 2001–06. The DMK, in competition, promised free colour televisions in its manifesto in 2006 elections. The competition continued during the 2011 elections when both parties announced free laptops for schools students and grinder, mixer and fans for public.
The party's election symbol is the sun arising from between two mountains, called the Rising Sun. It has a black and red flag.
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The DMK party runs two newspapers, one each in English and Tamil, namely "The Rising Sun" (weekly journal) and "Murasoli" (daily) respectively. Kalaignar TV is a channel started on 15 September 2007 and managed by Kanimozhi and Dayalu Ammal, the daughter and wife of Karunanidhi. The sister channels of Kalaignar TV are Isaiaruvi (music channel), Seithigal (news channel), Sirippoli (comedy channel), Kalaignar Asia and Chithiram (Tamil cartoon channel).
Indira Gandhi dismissed the Karunanidhi government in 1976 based on charges of possible secession and corruption. The DMK government has been indicted by the Sarkaria commission for corruption in allotting tenders for the Veeranam project. In 2001, the former chief secretary, K.A. Nambiar, and a host of others were arrested on charges of corruption in the construction of flyovers in Chennai. Karunanidhi and DMK party members were also charged under Sections 120(b) (criminal conspiracy), 167 (public servant framing an incorrect document with intent to cause injury), 420 (cheating) and 409 (criminal breach of trust) of the IPC, and Section 13 (2) read with 13 (1)(d) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, but no prima facie evidence was found against him and his son M K Stalin.
The interim report of Justice Jain Commission, which oversaw the investigation into Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, indicted Karunanidhi for abetting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The interim report recommended that Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and the DMK party be held responsible for abetting Rajiv Gandhi's murderers. The final report contained no such allegations.
DMK has been accused by opponents, by some members of the party, and by other political observers of trying to promote nepotism and start a political dynasty along the lines of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Vaiko, who quit the DMK, has been the most vocal. Political observers say that Vaiko was sidelined as he was seen as a threat to M.K. Stalin and other family members.
Karunanidhi's nephew, Murasoli Maran, was a Union Minister; however, it has been pointed out that he was in politics long before Karunanidhi became the Chief Minister in 1969.
Many political opponents and DMK party senior leaders have been critical of the rise of M. K. Stalin in the party. But some of the party men have pointed out that Stalin has come up on his own. Stalin was an MLA in 1989 and 1996 when his father Karunanidhi was the Chief Minister, and became Chennai's 44th mayor in 1996. In 2009, he was made the Deputy Chief Minister.
Karunanidhi has been accused of helping Murasoli Maran's son Kalanidhi Maran, who runs Sun Network, India's second largest television network. According to Forbes, Kalanidhi is among India's richest 20, with $2.9 billion.
Another son of Maran's, Dayanidhi Maran, served as Union Minister for Communications and IT portfolio. Dayanidhi was withdrawn from the because Dinakaran (a newspaper run by the Maran brothers) had shown the result of a public poll which read Dayanidhi Maran as the successor to Karunanidhi. This created a bloody violence in the Madurai branch of Dinakaran office, causing the death of three employees.
It has been pointed out that Karunanidhi has hesitated to take action against his erring family members.
Karunanidhi is also accused of allowing Azhagiri to function as an extraconstitutional authority in Madurai. The Dinakaran newspaper case was handed over to the CBI. But the District and Sessions court acquitted all the 17 accused in that case. So far, the case has not been appealed in a higher court to identify and punish the perpetrators of the crime. His daughter Kanimozhi is a member of Rajya Sabha.
DMK has been facing allegations regarding 2G Spectrum scam. The scam was bought into limelight in 2010 when case filed against Minister for Communications and Information Technology A. Raja had been reported. 2G licenses were issued to private telecom players at throwaway prices in 2008. The CAG estimated on the basis of 3G auction that the 2G Spectrum scam had cost the government ₹1.76 lakh crore (equivalent to ₹2.8 trillion or US$41 billion in 2016) (short scale). Rules and procedures were flouted while issuing licenses. The CBI in the Supreme Court has since indicated that the factual loss is around ₹30,000 crore (equivalent to ₹470 billion or US$7.0 billion in 2016). One of the party's TV channel stations, Kalaignar TV was raided by Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) officers in connection with the 2G Spectrum scam on 19 February 2011. Karunanidhi's daughter MK Kanimozhi arrested and sent to Tihar jail on 20 May 2011 for alleged kickbacks in 2G Scam. She has been arrested for the illegal transfer of money to the DMK's official channel Kalaignar TV. DMK MP A Raja is the prime accused in 2 G scam and sent to Tihar Jail. Kanimozhi was subsequently released on bail on 29 November 2011