As a leader of the opposition, M Karunanidhi was used to the government filing cases against him. On this particular occasion, the case was in reference to a public speech he had made. Karunanidhi read the police complaint and found that his speech had been captured faithfully in the complaint. On inquiry he found that the man who had taken notes of his speech was a police department employee named K Shanmuganathan, a native of Tiruvarur from where Karunanidhi too came.
When DMK came to power and Karunanidhi became PWD minister he sent for Shanmuganathan and asked him to be his assistant. Shanmuganathan baulked since the salary would be less. But his father insisted that he take the offer.
A relationship that started then lasted for 48 years until Karunanidhi died. Shanmuganathan died on Tuesday (December 21). In Karunanidhi’s style of leadership, there was no kitchen cabinet, inner circle or outer circle. He was the only decision maker. He had access to all information and made his own decisions. He would take advice and suggestions from others, but no one could claim any power over him; not Stalin, not Kanimozhi, nor Murasoli Maran.
Such a leader needs an assistant who seeks no power nor benefits for himself but acts as a faithful gatekeeper. Shanmuganathan was one such. He had no agenda of his own. Shanmuganathan held no mini darbars as PAs of powerful leaders tend to do. Whoever wanted to meet Karunanidhi or pass on any information or ask any help could expect that Shanmuganathan would relay it like a recording device to Karunanidhi and get a response.
Whoever wanted to meet Karunanidhi or pass on any information or ask any help could expect that Shanmuganathan would relay it like a recording device to Karunanidhi and get a response
Karunanidhi was an exacting boss. He had a phenomenal memory and knew all the details and information. He would think ten steps ahead and be prepared for any eventuality. Shanmuganathan could match his boss in memory. He would know exactly what his boss did or wrote and when. He would recall Karunanidhi’s file jottings as clearly as Karunanidhi himself would many years later.
A meticulous note taker, Shanmuganathan kept records of all his notes taken in shorthand. If he was in doubt about anything Karunanidhi had said in the past, he would refer to his notes and ensure the correct information was passed on. No one knew where he kept all the notes but he had archived them all.
Karunanidhi was a workaholic. His day would start very early with a walk at the DMK headquarters in Chennai and end late into the night with some time taken off for a siesta. Press releases of Karunanidhi’s meetings with leaders had to be prepared with photos and captions just as the leaders were walking out of Karunanidhi’s meeting room. Shanmuganathan was rarely late.
Karunanidhi’s all seeing octopus eyes hidden behind dark glasses would take in everything. All the sights and texts of the world would be gorged by the brain ticking inside the bald head. If he was not taking in the world, deciding on party or government affairs, Karunanidhi would be writing, dictating and recording for posterity. Shanmuganathan would keep pace. He would reproduce all the myriad records his boss would demand. He would unearth what Karunanidhi had written many years ago.
A meticulous note taker, Shanmuganathan kept records of all his notes taken in shorthand. No one knew where he kept all the notes but he had archived them all.
For instance, when Karunanidhi was chief minister in 1989-91, he had passed an order that small budget films whose film length was under a certain number of feet be given subsidies. More than five years later, when he came back to power, he asked that the file be brought back. Shanmuganathan knew that it was a yellow coloured file and recalled the cap on film length. When the file was fished out from government records, Shanmuganathan was on the dot. His memory was phenomenal too, just like his boss’s.
Shanmuganathan would rarely get angry. He wouldn’t let out loose talk or use careless words that may come back to haunt him later. Amidst the swirling power centers, family members, party leaders and officials active at Karunanidhi’s Gopalapuram residence, Shanmuganathan was a quiet, efficient enabler who kept his counsel. Karunanidhi would get angry with him on occasion but soon calm down.
Though a government official, Shanmuganathan didn’t treat his job as desk work. He wouldn’t pass the buck. If anyone came to him for anything, he would ensure that person was helped or at least got directions.
Always clad in Safari suit, Shanmuganathan was among the few who earned Karunanidhi’s respect. Anbazhagan was another. IAS officers were others.