The death of Muthuvel Karunanidhi, an icon who strode Tamil Nadu politics like a colossus for six decades, marks the end of an era in Dravidian politics. A five-time Chief Minister and president of the DMK for the last five decades, Kalaignar had 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 so far. From literature and cinema to politics, he held sway over masses. Having entered politics at a tender age of 14, the DMK supremo’s journey was a roller-coaster ride.
Karunanidhi was the only Chief Minister whose government was dismissed twice — during the Emergency in 1976 and in 1991 — by invoking Article 356. 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. Nurtured in Dravidian ideology, Karunanidhi remained, till the end, a people’s politician, attuned to their hopes and aspirations.
Never known to be fond of either visiting Delhi or learning Hindi, the wily regional satrap, however, had an unmatched knack of forging alliances with national parties at the right time. As a result, the DMK was part of both the UPA and NDA alliances at the Centre and was able to wield power disproportionate to its strength in Parliament. What made him 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 Kalaignar’s pragmatic approach to the task of alliance building and governance.
Despite political compromises, he never strayed away from the core Dravidian ideals built on social reform and welfare, empowerment of backward classes and promoting Tamil identity. However, the allegations of corruption against key DMK leaders and the power struggle within his family certainly sullied the image of Karunanidhi. An unseemly row over the choice of his burial place could have been totally avoided. It was churlish and petty on the part of the AIADMK government to have refused permission for burial at Marina Beach, which has memorials for other former chief ministers. Kalaignar deserves a final resting place befitting his stature.