In the end it was one battle too many. As a fighter all his life, he had also fought the vagaries of age for the last several years but this was one battle that he was not destined to win, and the end of a long and eventful life came at 6.10 pm yesterday. M Karunanidhi, the five-time former chief minister of Tamil Nadu who strode the political stage in the state like a colossus for over six decades, passed into eternity.
Few leaders have captured the imagination of the people of the state as Kalaignar—as he was reverentially and affectionately called—did. His fiery oratory, quick wit, political acumen and never-say-die spirit ensured that he gained a mass following in the state, a following that stayed with him till the very end.
There will be many positives in Kalaignar that will be highlighted but the stand-out attribute was his penchant to put in hard work, day after day for decades, often in situations that would have driven lesser men to despair. His was an indefatigable spirit if ever there was one; his ability to keep the DMK cadre together and keep them motivated for long periods of time when out of power will remain an important chapter in Indian political history.
For 13 years, the DMK was in the wilderness especially during the MGR years and yet when in 1989 the AIADMK split soon after the death of MGR, he was quick to seize the opportunity and guide the DMK to an electoral win and a return to power. Born in 1924, Karunanidhi was involved in politics from his teens. Inspired by Periyar E V Ramasamy and Annadurai, Karunanidhi became one of the lieutenants of Annadurai as he built the DMK through the decades until it ultimately came to power in 1967. In less than two years thereafter Annadurai died, and in the battle of succession that followed, Karunanidhi emerged triumphant. Thereafter there was no looking back as Karunanidhi stamped his larger-than-life personality on not just the DMK but on the body politic of Tamil Nadu for the next five decades.
A script writer, a poet, a playwright, an author of several books and a chronicler of ancient Tamil history, the former Tamil Nadu chief minister effortlessly managed all this while still maintaining his unwavering focus on politics. The DMK was the party that championed social justice in Tamil Nadu and whatever else he may have compromised on during his long political career, Karunanidhi showed a strong commitment to the plank of social justice. The breaking of the Brahmin hegemony in Tamil Nadu was made possible due to a large extent by the DMK and Karunanidhi played a sizable role in the DMK’s efforts in this regard. If Karunanidhi were to have been asked how he would like to be remembered the most, it is very likely that his answer would have been “as a fighter for social justice.”
An orator par excellence his mesmerising speeches would be laced with wit and poetry and repartee. Cadres would go into rapture just at his opening remarks to them where he would call them as those who were more dear to him than life itself. His administrative acumen and ability to grasp the intricacies of governance were spoken of admiringly by bureaucrats, who would often be asked sharp questions about the issues they took to him for approval. Throughout his career, Karunanidhi was considered a good administrator and even those not fond of him would concede him that.
If ever there was a pragmatic politician, it was Karunanidhi. His ability to differentiate between personal friendships and political rivalry meant that no one was deemed a permanent enemy. Thus he was able to find himself in the political company of both the BJP and Congress at different points of time.Heading a regional party confined to one state he successfully managed to exert significant influence in Delhi, especially during the UPA years from 2004 to 2013 when the DMK exited the Union government.
Under Karunanidhi, the DMK started many social welfare schemes that have ensured that the social indices in Tamil Nadu today are among the best in the country. Some of these schemes were at that time criticised but in time their worth was mostly proven. As with any politician, and one who had as long a political innings as he did, the former Tamil Nadu chief minister faced his share of criticism. His promotion of his family members in politics and the party was fiercely criticised and his brushes with charges of corruption would never really fade entirely from public memory.
Karunanidhi was a leader who never flinched from taking hard questions from the media. He would answer the most difficult of questions with his quick wit and sometimes sharp tongue. He was a media man’s delight, as one could always expect a good quote and a catchy headline from him. Due to his being in indifferent health for a while the DMK patriarch managed to anoint his son and chosen heir M K Stalin as the party’s working president and so Karunanidhi leaves the party the way he wished to—a unified entity and in as capable hands as he would have believed possible. In the history of Indian politics, there have been few men who have strode its stage for as long and as rightly as M Karunanidhi. Tamil Nadu will remember him and his legacy for a long long time to come.