Voice of the South: How M Karunanidhi deepened Indian democracy
Muthuvel Karunanidhi participated in his first political activity eight decades ago (1938), became a legislator for the first time six decades ago (1957) and chief minister five decades ago (1969). It goes without saying that the leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) led an incredibly rich political life.
But if there is a singular contribution that Karunanidhi, who has died in Chennai, made to India’s national politics, it was this: he deepened Indian democracy in ways that made it truly representative, and truly respectful and accommodative of India’s regional, linguistic and social diversity.
Karunanidhi was among the principal political players who ensured Indian democracy took into account the voice of the South. He ensured that it took into account the voice of the underprivileged communities by making ‘social justice’ a political plank and its intersection with caste a key principle of political practice.
Karunanidhi, with colleagues from a similar political tradition, ensured that the Indian state would respect linguistic diversity. He ensured that Indian federalism would truly respect states and pioneered advocacy of greater power to the states.
And he ensured that it was not just ‘national parties’ but also regional entities like his which would be a significant-- often the swing player-- in central politics, forming and toppling government, shaping and undoing policies.
Here is how.
Karunanidhi emerged from a political tradition in the erstwhile Madras Presidency that was both sceptical of the pan-India project of the Indian National Congress , viewing it as an effort to impose Northern hegemony, and the Brahmanical nature of the local elite in the region. This may appear like distant history now, but it is a testament to the long arc of Indian history that Karunanidhi witnessed and shaped that this was the setting of his political socialisation.
The Congress was led by visionaries like Jawaharlal Nehru. But there was no doubt that he was, at times, oblivious to grievances that were driven by identity, be it language or caste. His successors in the party and government were even more so. And that is what Karunanidhi, and his mentors in politics highlighted.
In 1965, when there was an attempt to impose Hindi as the sole official language of the state, it was the DMK which was at the forefront of protests. The centre had to backtrack. At a fundamental level, it meant that the effort to impose a single language on a country of such linguistic diversity would not succeed. At a more immediate political level, it opened the doors for Karunanidhi to eventually take over as the state’s CM later in the 1960s.
Tamil Nadu, because of leaders like Karunanidhi, also embarked on a radical affirmative action programme which went far beyond Indian constitutional scheme of reservations only for Dalits and tribals. This empowered other backward communities, laid the path for their upward mobility in education, government jobs and industry, gave them more political power and in a way showed the way for the rest of the country.
The state also embarked on a radical social welfare programme although, to be fair, this was initiated by the Congres’ K. Kamaraj and continued by Karunanidhi’s successors. But his role in institutionalising welfare programmes was remarkable too.
Karunanidhi may not have achieved this alone. But his contribution in making India sensitive to caste and language-driven differences, and thus the necessity of accommodating them, was crucial.
Making Indian federalism stronger
The first two decades of the Indian federal arrangement saw the Congress party rule the centre and almost all the states. This meant that both the constitutional scheme, which favoured the centre, and the political balance of power, which was stacked in favour of the Congress high command, would give states a weaker say than they would have liked.
The turning point was 1967. Across northern India, Congress lost election. But the alternative coalitions did not last. It was in Tamil Nadu that not only did DMK win, it had the confidence to seek and wrest more power from the centre. Karunanidhi set up a committee to suggest how to make states more autonomous. The Tamil Nadu assembly became the first state legislature in the country to pass a resolution for autonomy to states in 1974.
The formal granting of autonomy may have never happened. But it showed the way to other chief ministers and set a trend in Indian politics. As regional parties gained strength, even if the constitution remained partial to the centre, the states would seek more powers and the centre would gradually weaken.
Shaping the centre
Karunanidhi was also among the first regional leaders who decided that he would not just be comfortable in his state --but would exercise a say at the centre. He backed Indira Gandhi’s bank nationalisation move, but opposed the emergency and paid a price for it with his government dismissed and DMK activists dealt with brutally.
He played a major role in the formation of the National Front government and provided a source of support to VP Singh as he decided to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations on reservations to other backward classes.
Karunanidhi’s party was a force in the United Front government between 1996 and 1998, then the National Democratic Alliance from 1999 and seamlessly switched to the United Progressive Alliance after 2004. Many saw it as opportunism. But it also revealed a ruthlessly pragmatic streak in Karunanidhi that had probably helped him survive.
Take another example of this pragmatism. The United Font government fell in 1998 because the Congress wanted I K Gujral to get rid of Karunanidhi after the Jain Commission implicated DMK in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. Six years later, Karunanidhi and Sonia Gandhi were working together to form the United Progressive Alliance.
Indeed, the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka was a cause Karunanidhi backed with passion for a long time - which complicated Indian foreign policy immensely but also showed him to be a man who believed that states must have a say in shaping foreign policy. This is a trend that has been carried forward on other issues by other chief ministers.
Karunanidhi’s life spanned the course of modern Indian political history. He deepened Indian democracy by forcing the polity to respect and shape policies taking into account India’s diversity. And that strengthened the Indian nation. Karunanidhi showed how you could be a welfarist, a champion of the poor and underprivileged, a pragmatic power politician, a reformer and administrator, and most importantly, both a Tamil nationalist and Indian nationalist all together.