When empires fall, the legacy of emperors is defined by their glory. The Idea of the Dravidian Empire, which thrived in the life and work of its last steward, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, was a glorious inspiration to Tamils—a testament to his legacy as a statesman, actor, poet and a colossal human being. However, with his death, Tamil Nadu has lost its unique political identity.
He was its only credible connection with the rest of the country. His genius ensured that Tamil power was never at a loss for words. Never before has there been a leader who rarely spoke English or Hindi but held the clout to dictate and define the national narrative for decades. With the Kalaignar’s passing, India has lost a great son. But Tamil Nadu has lost its father, elder brother, patron, guide and philosopher.
Karunanidhi, who never lost an election in 60 years, was both a unifier and a divider—a harmoniser of contradictions. He was a socialist at heart but a hardcore free market promoter by action. A strong proponent of a welfare state, he incentivized the corporate sector with land and tax concessions. He ridiculed Hindu gods and Hinduism but allowed family members the freedom of faith and worship. Like every regional satrap, he promoted his dynasty, but also created a strong second-rung leadership. He incited fiery protests against the “imposition of Hindi” in his state but maintained a cordial relationship with Hindi-speaking leaders from the north.
Inconsistency in his political philosophy was his most effective consistency. He hardly travelled to other cities except New Delhi, but shook and shaped the politics of Delhi through Chennai. The first genuine non-Congress alliance—which defeated the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress—was launched from the very sands of the historic Marina beach where his mortal remains have been buried with state honours. The Kalaignar was the maestro of film script writing, equally skilled in writing political screenplay; deflecting every uncomfortable question with a reply couched as an equally complex question. Karunanidhi’s vague word was the last wise word.
This majestic vagueness attracted polar opposites like Narendra Modi and Sonia Gandhi. Pragmatism was his ethos. In 1980, he helped Indira Gandhi return to power, choosing to forget she had dismissed his government and jailed him during the Emergency. Previously, in 1969, when the Congress had split and K Kamaraj took her on, Karunanidhi directed his 25 MPs to support Indira. He voted for VV Giri as President. Yet, in 1991, Rajiv forced Chandrashekhar to dismiss the DMK government. The Congress again wooed Karuna when party president Sitaram Kesari toppled Deve Gowda, who refused to drop DMK ministers from his Cabinet after the publication of the Jain Commission report. Eight years later, Karunanidhi helped Sonia form the UPA government led by Manmohan Singh in 2004.
Ironically, Karunanidhi was the only regional leader who was nationally famous but not nationally accepted. The rise of regional Mughals can be attributed to Indira Gandhi’s marginalisation of state Congress leaders. Soon, many of them left to form their own outfits while others filled the space vacated by the Congress. They became powerful only after her assassination in 1984. In 1989, after Rajiv’s disastrous term, the regional satraps asserted themselves in choosing the prime minister. The combination of Karunanidhi, Jyoti Basu, Chandrababu Naidu, Deve Gowda, Devi Lal, Lalu Prasad, Biju Patnaik and Mulayam Singh dominated national politics.
Barring Karunanidhi, the rest played a part in Delhi’s manoeuvres and machinations. While Gowda become the PM, Basu lost the opportunity due to opposition from within his own party. Previously, Basu and Kerala’s first Communist chief minister, EMS Namboodiripad could play national politics because they were part of a national party. But no national party or the elitist establishment backed Karunanidhi, who chose Tamil Nadu as his exclusive turf, forcing others to seek his support and blessing. His objective was clear—build an aggressive cadre-based party and become a powerful alternative to the Congress.
Tamil Nadu was his political topography, while he left national geographical aspirations to others. A strong votary of state autonomy, Karunanidhi strengthened federalism by championing the chief minister’s right to hoist the national flag on Independence Day—which was not allowed until 1974.
The actor-turned- politician’s real life was always in line with reel life. Using the medium of cinema, he opposed upper caste dominance and superstition on screen and used political power to implement his Dravidian vision. Though it was Annadurai who laid the foundation for Dravidian rule, it was Karunanidhi who strengthened Dravidian cultural and political mojo in Tamil Nadu. Anna toppled the Congress in 1967 but died before completing his term.
Thanks to the policies and politics pursued by his ideological heir Karunanidhi, no national party has been able to stage a comeback for over five decades. Tamil Nadu is the only state to have elected a regional party without a break since 1967. Excluding President rule, Karunanidhi’s tenure was the longest (6,863 days) followed by that of his arch-rival J Jayalalithaa, who ruled Fort St. George for 5,239 days over five stints.
Annadurai recognized the political dividends of creating a welfare state when he became chief minister, at a time the state was reeling under severe drought and inflation. He introduced the scheme providing 4 kg of rice for just one rupee, which was discontinued later due to a fund crunch. When Karunanidhi took over in 1969, he expanded the politics of freebies to include subsidized power, education and food items.
His successor and matinee idol MG Ramachandran not only stuck to the welfare politics, but expanded them with a midday meal scheme for schoolchildren, and made Jayalalithaa the chief implementer. After becoming chief minister, she redefined the scope of subsidies by distributing free saris, television sets, grinders and mixers. Private engineering and medical colleges were allowed, which unfortunately became the sources of major corruption.
Karunanidhi was also the first chief minister to introduce social reengineering with caste-based reservation over and above the Constitutionally-mandated percentage. He set up a Backward Classes Commission under AN Sattanathan and raised the reservation quota from 2 per cent to 31 per cent. Tamil Nadu was the first state to ensure 49 per cent reservation for lower castes, including SCs, STs and other backward classes.
The Karunanidhi model of governance proved that an unexpected byproduct of caste and welfare politics was development. Today, Tamil Nadu is India’s third-richest state. Its GDP growth exceeds the national average and per capita income is 70 per cent higher. Its poverty reduction rate is more than that of any other state. It is one of the three top destinations for domestic and foreign investment. With Karunanidhi’s demise, his beleaguered dynasty would be hard-pressed to keep the faction-infected DMK together, and may also lose its place at New Delhi’s high table. However, not just the Kalaignar’s family, but Tamil Nadu, too, has been orphaned.
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