Indefatigable politician

| Updated on August 07, 2018

Karunanidhi helped shape modern Tamil Nadu but leaves behind a mixed legacy

Muthuvel Karunanidhi, 94, DMK President, who died on Tuesday, was not your average, run-of-the-mill politician. At different times in his decades-long public life, he wore different hats — fiery orator, follower of social reformer EV Ramasamy Naicker, protégé of DMK founder CN Annadurai, into whose shoes he stepped in as Chief Minister following Annadurai's death in 1969, DMK president, State-level politician who played a major role in shaping national politics in the era of coalition governments, playwright and script writer, author and journalist, movie buff, cricket fan, and, above all, one who perfected the art of caste-based identity politics and compromise. Karunanidhi, like many other Dravidian political leaders, specialised in alliterative speeches, in a voice trained and honed to appear coarse. He could sway crowds with his words, lacing his speech with wit and sarcasm, self-deprecatory humour, and trenchant criticism of political opponents and those who dared disagree with him. He has rubbed shoulders with leaders of all hues and ideology. If in 1980, he could justify teaming up with Indira Gandhi, who had only four years earlier dismissed his government and appointed a commission of enquiry to probe charges of corruption against him, nearly two decades later he could convince himself and party faithfuls on why he was tying up with the BJP, a party that was poles apart in ideology and beliefs. He believed and practised the adage — that there are no permanent foes or friends in politics. Thanks to his felicity with words, he could make even a compromise appear like an ideological victory for himself and his party. He came up from the ranks through dint of hard work and determination — traits that stood him in good stead in his long years in politics.

He was, at heart, left of centre in his beliefs, but was not dogmatic about it. He was pragmatic enough to realise that what sounded good while out of power may not be feasible while in office. The DMK handed out a shocking defeat to the Congress and came to power in 1967 under the leadership of CN Annadurai, riding the plank of Tamil nationalism, tapping into the anti-Hindi feelings in the State and the disenchantment among the people over rising prices. The manner in which Karunanidhi manoeuvred to become chief minister after Annadurai's death in 1969 gave a glimpse of his mettle and ability. For almost 50 years, Karunanidhi continued to tap into the anti-Hindi, anti-North Indian and Tamil nationalist sentiments, as the occasion demanded.

Karunanidhi leaves behind a strong cadre-based party. Though the succession has been more or less decided, the transition is going to be anything but smooth. It was family first for him; his late nephew Murasoli Maran took care of his interests in New Delhi and was minister in different governments. Then, Maran's son, Dayanidhi, became a minister at the Centre. Later, MK Alagiri, a son and then the party's strongman in the State's southern districts, was appointed a minister at the Centre. Karunanidhi's daughter Kanimozhi was nominated to the Rajya Sabha and his third son MK Stalin, now the party's working president, occupied the post of Deputy Chief Minister when Karunanidhi himself was chief minister. Various wings of the extended family started businesses that flourished, the most important one being the Sun TV network started by grand-nephew Kalanithi Maran.

It can be said that it was Karunanidhi who started the culture of freebies in the State, something that his arch political rival and late chief minister J Jayalalithaa expanded and perfected. It was also the same Karunanidhi who realised the important role that sunshine sectors such as information technology and biotechnology would play in the State's economy. Karunanidhi must also be credited with thinking of, and launching, a modern metro rail system for Chennai. Karunanidhi also established a State-level, modern library in Chennai, with grand plans of having similar but smaller libraries in the district headquarters linked to the one in Chennai. After Jayalalithaa's demise, the acrimony that marked the relations between the two main parties in the State — AIADMK and DMK — came down a notch. Now, with Karunanidhi's passing, one hopes that the two parties will take a bi-partisan approach towards key development issues, even while continuing to politically oppose each other.

Kalaignar, as he was addressed by one and all, has had a long innings in public life. He has lived life to the fullest, taking everything that life has thrown at him in his stride. It is now up to his family and party to put his death behind them and recoup quickly to play the role of the main opposition party and get ready for elections. That is the best tribute they can pay to his memory.

Published on August 07, 2018

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