Karunanidhi was the last warrior of Tamil Nadu’s Dravidian politics

Updated on Aug 08, 2018 11:52 AM IST

As an advocate of state autonomy, he put up stiff resistance to the authoritarian rule by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during the dark and brutal Emergency of 1975-77 without worrying about the consequences

DMK supporters gather outside the hospital where DMK chief M Karunanidhi was being treated, July 30, 2018(PTI)
DMK supporters gather outside the hospital where DMK chief M Karunanidhi was being treated, July 30, 2018(PTI)
ByRamu Manivannan

There are many qualities that distinguish DMK leader Muthuvel Karunanidhi from other politicians in Tamil Nadu. These include his humble origins, a socially-embedded political awareness and political activism right since childhood. He began his social and political campaigns at 14, heeding the call of EVR Periyar and CN Annadurai in Tamil Nadu’s social justice movements. Both his lifelong commitment towards social justice and frontline advocacy of language made him a champion of Dravidian politics.

The great survivor of Tamil Nadu politics, Karunanidhi was an eloquent orator, a Tamil writer of repute, indomitable publisher and all-weather political strategist. He was an unassuming party campaigner and dedicated communicator who wrote everyday messages to the cadre, penned articles for Murasoli (sound of drums), the DMK’s official newspaper, proofread copies until midnight and then woke up at 4.30 AM to read and record his notes for more than fifty years of his political life. These qualities are testimony to the remarkable career of a politician who had been chief minister five times, was elected 12 times to the Tamil Nadu assembly and once to the erstwhile Tamil Nadu legislative council. Among the qualities that endeared him to friends, critics and political foes were his accessibility and ability to face criticism without bitterness and listen to different perspectives even if he disagreed with them.

Karunanidhi’s role in national politics deserves more attention than it drew during his active political years. As an advocate of state autonomy, he put up stiff resistance to authoritarian rule by then prime minister Indira Gandhi during the dark and brutal Emergency of 1975-77 without worrying about the consequences that included the dismissal of the DMK government and imprisonment of party leaders, including his son, MK Stalin. The role of party newspaper Murasoli and Karunanidhi’s craft for communicating resistance against the Emergency and the draconian MISA will remain etched in the annals of struggles against political tyranny in the country.

The post-Emergency years and the rise of MG Ramachandran after the DMK split in 1972 led to the diminishing of political fortunes for the party. Though Karunanidhi could never wrest power from MGR and the AIADMK for as long as MGR was alive, he steadfastly refused to see a halo around MGR’s larger-than-life persona. Karunanidhi survived almost 13 years in active politics as leader of the opposition after serving as chief minister twice and kept the hopes of his party and cadre alive because of his ideological strength, organisational skills and mobilisational strategies until the return of DMK to power in 1989.

It was during the launch of the National Front in Chennai in October 1988 that Karunanidhi reinvented himself in national politics. He supported VP Singh and his announcement of the Mandal Commission Report with a call for social justice. With the onset of the coalition era in Indian politics, Karunanidhi never looked back. His role in the launching of National Front in October 1988 is a turning point in altering the bipolar national political scenario into a multi-level coalitional strategy in which Karunanidhi played excellent host and strategist in knitting together the seven-party National Front at Chennai.

The electoral defeats in the assembly elections of 2011 and the parliamentary elections in 2014 led to ideological erosion within the party and alienation of dedicated DMK cadre. But Karunanidhi changed with time as his children grew old enough to be able to to lay claim to his legacy. Although he resisted a feud within the family, he ultimately had to give in. Yet he made his priorities clear in outlining the course of a clear leadership transition in the DMK.

The precarious period from 2004 to 2014 contained both the peaking of power and the seeds of decline of the DMK. Neither the DMK nor Karunanidhi were the same again after the alleged “ethnic cleansing” of Tamils in Sri Lanka in 2009. Soon after that, the DMK’s bargaining for power sharing in New Delhi in the UPA government dealt a big dent to Karunanidhi and the party.

Whether it was the electoral alliance with the Congress-I led by Indira Gandhi in 1972 or the BJP-led NDA coalition in 1998, Karunanidhi made and unmade alliances based on electoral fortunes than political convictions. He treated allies and rivals alike unequivocally like a seasoned gardener cutting, trimming, and shifting seeds of fortune in the thorny bushes of Indian politics. With his passing away, politics in Tamil Nadu awaits a generational change as time carries away a warrior of Dravidian politics and the last among the giants of first-generation Tamil Nadu politicians after independence.

Karunanidhi leaves his party secure in the hands of his son MK Stalin and the state uncertain with the BJP threatening to alter the political discourse. The political message is clear: This is not the end of Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu, but a shifting of focus towards civil society movements. The battle lines are being redrawn.

Ramu Manivannan is Professor and Head of the department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Madras

The views expressed are personal

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