In India, posthumous hyperbole often exceeds the stature of a departed political icon. But in M Karunanidhi’s case, nothing will ever be enough to summarise his legacy because he was truly matchless.
Truly one of a kind – an ideologue, politician, writer, social reformer, scholar, orator and an administrator, all rolled into one. And in each role – that too in public life that lasted nearly eight decades – he shone like a star. It’s simply impossible to find another name that comes anywhere close. People like him are rare occurrences, not just in India, but anywhere in the world. Nowhere in India, people – including the leader’s detractors – called their Chief Minister a “Kalaignar” (artist).
Karunanidhi began early, in his teens to be precise, in both politics and the world of letters and arts, and his public life stayed that way till the end. Although he tasted success first with screenwriting while he was still in his early twenties, including the iconoclastic cult movie Parasaskthi, he entered the legislative assembly within a decade and never left till the end of his life.
Despite being kept away from power for long periods by charismatic AIADMK rivals MG Ramachandran (MGR), and his protege J Jayalalithaa, he still managed to rule the state for five terms. And each time he was in power, he did something remarkable that brought lasting changes to the socio-economic and cultural affairs of the state.
His self-built foundation of politics and the arts was very strong. By design, Parasakthi – that also launched one of India’s all-time great actors Shivaji Ganesan – took on poverty, religion, judiciary and the overall socio-economic inequality in society. It was a 28-year old Karunanidhi’s Dravidian political project dressed up as a mainstream blockbuster. Although he had already proved his mastery over political communication with his writing with “Ilamai Bali” (Sacrifice of the Youth) for “Dravida Nadu” – which was run by his mentor and later first chief minister of Tamil Nadu, CN Annadurai (Anna) – Parasakthi was a breakthrough. Interestingly, when he began his twin careers of writing and political activism, Karunanidhi was so young that Anna asked him to finish his studies before getting involved in party work, but he didn’t step back.
This early, direct connect with people that he established through his scripts and political activism was the leitmotif of his personal and political life that also was reflected in his characteristic salutation to people in public meetings. It was so powerful that every time he said En Uyirinum Melana Anpu Udanpirappukkale (My brothers and sisters whom I value more than my life), audiences went crazy. Many went to his meetings just to hear this single line. MGR and Jayalalithaa too had customary opening lines, but nothing matched Karunanidhi’s evocative quality.
For generations, this connect was also kept alive meaningfully through his open letters titled Kalaignar Kaditham in the party newspaper Murasoli. They kept the cadre and sympathisers briefed on the DMK’s political ideology and stand on critical issues. He continued to write these letters even when his health was failing and his movement was restricted.
Karunanidhi was also a masterful political strategist in making and breaking deals, seizing opportunities, limiting others’ spheres of influence within the party (like he did with Vaiko), and even at brokering political alliances at the national level. National leaders respected him and rushed to Chennai whenever there were crises. He was among the most prominent voices on provincial autonomy and became a pivot for other states to rally around whenever the Centre tried to usurp their powers. However, he also knew how critical sharing power at the Centre was for both the benefit of the state and his party, even if it meant aligning with an ideologically discordant BJP.
As an administrator, Karunanidhi was focussed, purposeful and tireless. His early back-to-back stints during the late 1960s and 1970s – before he was literally banished by MGR for more than a decade – saw landmark socio-economic policy reforms. His later innings also saw firm strides towards economic growth, new age industries, and modernity. In fact, his achievements as a Chief Minister are literally endless, touched every aspect of public life and every section of society.
Steps such as nationalisation of transport, giving legal status to self-respect marriages, housing for Dalits, electrification of villages, free education, rehabilitation schemes for the poor and marginalised, raising reservation for backward classes and scheduled castes, agricultural growth, new public industrial establishments such as SIPCOT and schemes aimed at the protection of women and children among others dominated his rule in the first innings. His post-MGR return albeit short, saw reforms such as equal property rights for women, financial assistance for widows and inter-caste marriages, free education for backward castes and women, free electricity for farmers, establishment of new universities, support to women self-help groups and more.
His post-Jayalalithaa comeback of 1996-2001 saw sweeping changes towards modernity. There was massive all-round development of infrastructure, establishment of new industries, industrial and technology parks, a big push for information technology and knowledge-based industries, besides a slew of welfare and social protection policies that included the establishment of model habitats to end caste discrimination, 33 per cent reservation for women in local bodies, farmers’ markets, improvement of the mid-day meal scheme and more.
The same trend continued in his last tenure during 2006-11 as well.
Clearly, Karunanidhi seemed to have enjoyed his role as an administrator, as much as he enjoyed literature and realpolitik, because he worked intensely even during his old age. He often went to work on Sundays and stayed till late, even when he was in his late-eighties. Sometimes, he went back to the office at night. He had a knack for picking smart officers, who swore by his hard work and eye for detail.
In fact, the state was at the cutting edge of technology and modern industries in India during his 1996-2001 rule. The state saw robust investment in both the public and private sectors, and flourishing entrepreneurship. Tamil Nadu became a magnet for new technologies and innovation during that period, and the officers had a free hand to drive the machinery forward. Many landmark institutions and infrastructure in the state – some of which were later discarded or soft-pedalled by the subsequent government for political reasons – are his contributions.
As a politician and Chief Minister, he was accessible and reasonably democratic, rarely ducking the media even when they were tough on him. His cryptic one-liners, that referred to subjects as diverse as ancient texts and games such as tennis and cricket (there is a famous Wimbledon analogy he made in the assembly when one of the ministers of Jayalalithaa’s first government was arrested), in his interactions with the media, party workers, visitors and legislators were legendary. He was unrelentingly funny in his derision of superstitious and illogical religious texts and beliefs, including stories from the epics. However, he never exceeded a certain level of subtlety so that it didn’t inflame people’s sentiments.
It’s extremely hard to find someone who matches Karunanidhi in Indian politics because he was a man of many parts, and was outstanding in everything he did. He was an embodiment of rare intelligence, creativity and imagination, extremely hardworking and equipped with a vision for himself and the state. However, his role as the patriarch of a large and extended family with interests in multiple sectors may have taken away some of the sheen of his legacy, particularly during his last innings as the Chief Minister. But Karunanidhi will remain an everlasting emotion for Tamils and probably the entire population of the imaginary southern nation that Dravidian ideologues once dreamed of.
That’s why they call him Kalaignar, and never by his name.