On the night of the 2009 general election results, the irrepressible Suhel Seth, opinion television’s angry impresario for all seasons, described the DMK as ‘Delhi Money for Karunanidhi’. Seth’s propensity to spit out the outrageous has made him a great favourite on talk shows and the DMK remark appeared to strike a chord with the chattering classes.
After being in power at the Centre for all but one of the last 15 years, the DMK seems to have been branded as a regional party that uses its clout in Delhi to build an election war-chest. Indeed, as the DMK faces a do-or-die battle in Tamil Nadu, the 2G scam has only heightened the party’s image in the media as epitomising political corruption.
M Karunanidhi, the octogenarian patriarch of the DMK family, has been cast in the role of an ageing political godfather, someone who is attempting to ensure a successful transition to his next generation by parceling the spoils of power among them. The children too are seen to be dividing the Dravida empire among themselves. Son and heir MK Stalin controls Chennai; the other son, MK Azhagiri, is responsible for southern Tamil Nadu while English-speaking daughter Kanimozhi was seen as the party’s youthful face in Delhi till the 2G scam hurt her credibility. Not to forget the urbane Dayanidhi Maran, who had established a reputation for being a savvy Union minister.
It all has the makings of a perfect tightly knit family business — like most regional parties in the country. Only the DMK is not just another regional force created around a personality cult like a Lalu Prasad’s RJD or a Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. This is a party whose roots lie in agitational politics, in principles of social justice, rationalism and equality that shaped the Justice Party and, later, the Self-Respect movement of the 1920s in Tamil Nadu. The DMK traces its history to the powerful reformist agenda of EV Ramasami ‘Periyar’ who made a remarkable contribution to the non-Brahmin movement of the pre-independence period.
Karunanidhi, or Kalaignar, which means connoisseur of literature, was part of this great tradition of reformist Tamil society. His film scripts and passionate prose reflected his political idealism, shaped by the idea of creating an egalitarian society. Movies on themes like widow remarriage and religious hypocrisy earned him a deserved reputation of being at the vanguard of social change. By spearheading the language agitation of the 1950s and 60s, by being jailed during the Emergency in 1975, Karunanidhi was seen as a politician of courage and principles.
Yet, today, in the autumn of a long and distinguished career in public life, Karunanidhi is being reduced to a political caricature, a leader who is seen to have put family before ideology. By insisting on prized portfolios for DMK ministers, by issuing periodic threats to withdraw support to the Centre, by anointing his children in key posts, Karunanidhi has devalued the rich traditions of reformist zeal which once imbued his politics. Instead, he has allowed himself to become, like so many of his ilk, a dynastical politician who allows loyalty to his family to overwhelm all else.
It is indeed hard to believe that the benefits of the 2G scam were being monopolised by A Raja and friends without the knowledge of the Tamil Nadu chief minister or that the money was not being transferred from Delhi to Chennai. Certainly, the manner in which Karunanidhi virtually held the UPA government to ransom in May 2009 while insisting that the telecom portfolio stay with the DMK is reason enough to believe that behind the muscle-flexing lay the desire to be part of the 2G loot. In parties like the DMK, an A Raja is only the trusted family retainer, the rules of the game are set by the head of the family. Karunanidhi, whatever his compulsions, cannot escape responsibility for the actions of Raja.
Which is why, logically, the DMK should be heading for a resounding defeat in the forthcoming assembly elections in Tamil Nadu. Unfortunately, logic doesn’t always fashion election results, and personal corruption need not always be an impediment in providing good governance, or determining voter preferences. At the recent IBN 7 Diamond States awards, based on an extensive survey of the comparative performances of different states on social and human development indicators, Tamil Nadu emerged as the number one state, a tribute to its legacy of progressive administration.
During the last elections, Karunanidhi made two major promises: rice at R2 per kg under the public distribution system (PDS) and a free colour TV for every family which did not have one. By all accounts, both schemes have been highly successful. A colour TV for free may be scoffed at by the elite, but its role in giving a poor family ‘recreational’ benefits cannot be minimised. Moreover, the DMK government’s schemes — like providing a maternity assistance of Rs1,000 per month for six months and R300 per month to unemployed youth — amount to a direct cash transfer that bypasses bureaucratic procedures.
Which brings us to the larger question: can an efficient distribution of public utilities make corruption irrelevant in the popular imagination? There is a precedent. The late YS Rajasekhar Reddy and family were seen to have enriched themselves when he was the Andhra Pradesh chief minister. But through his pro-poor schemes, which again involved direct cash transfers, he was successfully re-elected. Will the YSR model work in Tamil Nadu or will Karunanidhi be felled by the stench of family corruption? In the answer to that question lies the future of not just the DMK, but even the UPA at the Centre.
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN 18 Network n firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed by the author are personal.