In a State whose post-independent political history has been inexorably linked to the tinsel world, the demise of Muthuvel Karunanidhi, a five-time Chief Minister who strode Tamil Nadu’s politics like a colossus for over six decades, marks the end of an era. This may well be an inflection point for the Dravidian ideology that shaped the State’s narrative and produced leaders who swore by its core values.
The post-Karunanidhi era is likely to witness the dilution of the Dravidian brand of politics as the void created by his death is difficult to fill. The AIADMK finds itself directionless and rudderless following the death of J Jayalalithaa in December 2016. Added to this is the BJP’s attempt to secure a foothold in the State by piggybacking on a much-weakened and servile AIADMK and fill the political vacuum.
With the key Dravidian stalwarts gone, the State’s political landscape is likely to witness
changes in the days ahead. Started as a revolt against oppressive Brahminism and caste discrimination, the Dravidian ideology slowly emerged as a dominating narrative of the State’s politics with anti-Hindi sentiments, socialist welfarism and a strong sense of Tamil pride becoming its core elements.
Though MK Stalin is set to carry forward the political legacy of his more illustrious father, it may not be smooth sailing for him, given the rumblings and power struggle within the family. The imminent entry of two popular stars, Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, too has the potential to completely alter the contours of the State’s politics.
Kalaignar’s political journey virtually captures the State’s political history since independence. Eighty years of political life, five terms as Chief Minister, 50 years as DMK president and a record 13 successive victories to the Assembly. He influenced the course of the State politics like no other politician of his generation. By winning all the Assembly elections he contested since 1957, Karunanidhi created a record that no Indian leader has matched.
From literature and cinema to politics, he held sway over the masses. Having entered politics at the tender age of 14, the DMK supremo’s journey was a roller-coaster ride. A strong advocate of the rights of State governments, State autonomy and federalism, Karunanidhi secured the right for Chief Ministers to hoist the national flag on Independence Day. If today, Tamil Nadu is ahead of a majority of States in India in terms of key human development indicators, the contribution of Karunanidhi, as a five-time Chief Minister, is significant.
He was the only Chief Minister whose government was dismissed twice — during the Emergency in 1976 and in 1991 — by invoking Article 356. Even while out of power, he was a great influence on the State’s politics, with his powerful writings and oratorical flourish. He weathered many a political storm and steered his party to safety even when faced with certain annihilation.
There were two occasions that tested his resolve: The 13-year period from 1976 to 1989 when the AIADMK’s founder leader and his friend-turned-foe MG Ramachandran was ruling the State and in 1991 when the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi threatened to wipe out the DMK because of its support to the Tamil Eelam cause. However, the DMK patriarch’s steely determination and political acumen helped his party bounce back to power.
Born in a poor family of Nagaswaram players, who in those days were not allowed to wear a shirt or Angavastram, Karunanidhi displayed a streak of rebellion even during his childhood by refusing to learn to play the instrument. He began his social and political campaigns at 14, heeding the call of EVR Periyar and CN Annadurai in Tamil Nadu’s social justice movements.
Social justice, empowerment of the Backward Classes and advocacy of linguistic and regional pride became his lifelong commitment. Growing up amid the Dravidian movement of the 1930s, he began his life as an activist, journalist, and later became a script writer who used cinema as a medium to spread the social message. His political career was launched when he organised students against the imposition of Hindi in 1938. With a passion for Tamil language and social justice, he gravitated towards the ideas of Justice Party, Periyar EV Ramasamy and CN Annadurai.
He had a meteoric rise, first in the Dravidar Kazhagam and subsequently in the DMK of which he was the president till death. He gained control over the party gradually, so much so that the DMK became synonymous with Karunanidhi. When the first DMK Chief Minister CN Annadurai, also a scriptwriter-turned-politician, died in February 1969, Karunanidhi succeeded him.
He entered electoral politics from the Kulithalai Assembly constituency in the then composite Tiruchi district in 1957 and never looked back, winning every election he contested in his lifetime. He went on to hold the post of Chief Minister for 19 years in five spells (1969-1971; 1971-76; 1989-1991; 1996-2001 and 2006-2011).
A long-time friend and film star MG Ramachandran parted ways, launched the Anna DMK in October 1972 and went on to capture power. The DMK was out of power for 13 years, but Karunanidhi’s dogged determination and leadership skills kept the party intact. After MGR died in 1987, the DMK regained power in 1989 and joined the National Front led by VP Singh. However, Karunanidhi’s government was dismissed by Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar in 1991 on allegations of DMK’s nexus with the LTTE. The DMK lost power to AIADMK in 1991 in the aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.
Karunanidhi returned to power again in 1996 and joined the United Front at the Centre. Later, his party became a partner of the NDA in 1999 and joined the Vajpayee government. Though it lost power in 2001, the DMK joined the UPA government at the Centre in 2004 and again in 2009. It lost the 2011 and 2016 Assembly elections.
Pro-poor schemes and empowerment of weaker sections formed the core of the Karunanidhi government’s policies. Some of the schemes like mid-day meals at government schools became the role model for the rest of the country. One of his earliest decisions as Chief Minister was to raise the reservation quotas for Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes. His government nationalised bus services and introduced land reforms.
Karunanidhi also launched several schemes aimed at building social equality in tune with the original goals of the Dravidian ideology. Among them was the comprehensive health insurance scheme for the poor. The subsidised rice scheme, marriage assistance to poor women, introduction of eggs in the noon meal programme and free bus passes for students were the other notable welfare initiatives.
With a flexible and pragmatic approach, Karunanidhi had an unmatched knack of forging alliances with national parties at the right time. As a result, the DMK was part of virtually every coalition government at the Centre: United Front, UPA and NDA. It was able to wield power disproportionate to its strength in Parliament. What made Kalaignar stand apart from other politicians of his State was his ability to gauge the popular mood and firm up alliances that often won public mandate both at the Centre and the State.
Even while playing the regional card to the hilt, Karunanidhi always preferred a non-confrontationist approach towards the Centre, a template that has set a model for other regional parties to follow. The DMK’s alliance with the Congress, despite having suffered during the Emergency, and an understanding with the BJP in the past, despite the saffron party being the antithesis of what Dravidian ideology stands for, showed Karunanidhi’s pragmatic approach to the task of alliance building and governance.
The allegations of corruption against key DMK leaders and the power struggle within his family certainly sullied the image of Karunanidhi in his twilight years. Despite his efforts to keep his family together, the friction, particularly between his two ambitious sons — Azhagiri and Stalin — exposed the vulnerability of his party. He led a colourful life with three spouses, four sons and two daughters.
His detractors often accused him of nepotism and promoting dynastic politics. While in power, the DMK cadres had a free run and graft allegations were rampant. The 2G scam, involving the top leaders of the party, severely dented the image of the UPA-II of which DMK was a crucial partner. Though the DMK leaders, including A Raja and Kanimozhi, were finally acquitted of all charges in the 2G case, the taint of corruption will continue to haunt an otherwise illustrious political legacy of Karunanidhi.