At the time of his death in August 2018, M Karunanidhi was the titan among leaders of his home state of Tamil Nadu and one of India’s seniormost politicians. From 1938, when he took to the streets against the Congress government’s promotion of Hindi in school education, right to his last electoral battle in 2016, when his party finished second, he stood out as a fighter. But he was also a writer, playwright and screenwriter, an orator and a man of letters. Novelist and veteran journalist Vaasanthi offers rare insights into the man and his mind. The young Karunanidhi experienced caste exclusion when he saw that his father, an expert nadaswaram player, left his chest bare when he met a member of the upper-caste landed gentry or mirasdar. The idea of a unified Tamil society which addressed issues of exclusion would take him first into the militant Dravida Kazhagam, and, then, with his mentor CN Annadurai, to the Dravidar Munnetra Kazhagam.
A deep pride in Tamil language and culture was not unique to the young idealist, activist and editor. But he was gifted with the written and spoken word and skillfully organised political workers. The loss of his first wife, terms in jail and a hand-to-mouth existence deepened his commitment. By the early 1960s, he was a key leader in a rising regional party. As a senior minister, he was well placed to succeed Annadurai when he died of cancer in 1969.
The first two terms in office saw more than the expansion of reservations and steps to claim more autonomy for the states. The horrific Kilvenmani massacre of Dalits (1968) in the Thanjavur delta exposed the pressing need for redressing agrarian inequality. Legislation for fair wages and a higher minimum wage was followed in 1970 by halving the land ceiling from 30 to 15 acres.
By aligning with Mrs Indira Gandhi in the historic Congress split of 1969, the DMK leader also entered the national stage. In the wake of the Indira wave of 1971, he managed to manoeuvre the national party out of state politics while allowing it a share of Lok Sabha seats. Despite a falling-out over the Emergency and the dismissal of his government, he was able to forge ties with the Congress later — with Indira in 1980 and with Sonia in 2004, he was the ally of an all-India party that swept back into office.
The ascent to the top and the subsequent falling-out with MG Ramachandran are well-known: close friends became rivals and parted ways three years later. The MGR decade, till his death in 1987, was a trial by fire for the DMK and Karunanidhi could not dent the chief minister’s base.
As atrocities mounted in Sri Lanka, both men sought to play on Tamil sentiments. By the time India intervened in 1987-90, they were already on opposite sides, the one backing a federal nation and the DMK coming close to endorsing Eelam. But as chief minister in 1990-91, Karunanidhi was unable to control the Tigers; their rival K Padmanabha was brutally murdered in June 1990. Even before Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, and his government’s dismissal, Karunanidhi was seen as being soft on terror. This gave J Jayalalithaa the perfect launching pad to power in 1991.
Karunanidhi was in power twice after that, and in these terms, including the last in 2006-11, he retained his focus on social and economic inclusion. But succession was a problem. He reacted strongly when asked who his heir would be, asserting that the DMK was a democratic party, not a religious order. Yet by the mid-1990s, the choice of his son MK Stalin was clear. The long spell of power of the Congress-led alliance in Delhi saw the party embroiled in the 2G spectrum scam controversy, and a long jail spell for his daughter Kanimozhi. Sadly, lineage and kinship became central issues, even in a movement with a radical social message.
Karunanidhi’s determination, visible when he was arrested by Jayalalithaa in 2001, was paralleled by a deep vulnerability. Vaasanthi portrays his anguish at his daughter’s arrest. Was he losing the plot by that time? Certainly, the damage done by the 2G scam was beyond what the party had imagined. Vaasanthi draws on Karunanidhi’s writings and speeches, stray remarks and editorials. The emergence of the Kalaignar as kingmaker and shaper of policy in Delhi in 1996, and in the long spell in coalitions virtually unbroken until 2014, gets due attention.
Other than K Kamaraj in the 1960s, no Tamil leader ever wielded such influence. In the Kalaignar’s case, there was a near-unbroken spell in office as coalition partner from 1996 to 2014. This made a regional party a major player in economic decision-making at the federal level. Vaasanthi rightly shows the deep affinity he had for the late VP Singh, mainly on account of the Mandal Commission.
And, yet, the man remains an enigma. Was he a social radical till the end, or did he lose his way? Can regional nationalism survive once its colossus has departed? Much food for thought here. Vaasanthi’s prose is beguilingly simple. Its skilful play of shadow and light preoccupies long after you finish reading.
Mahesh Rangarajan teaches history and environmental studies at Ashoka University.
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