DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi leaves behind a legacy unparalleled in Indian politics. His death brings an era to a close in Tamil Nadu. The imprint of the five-time chief minister and legislator for over six decades is visible on almost every aspect of Tamil public life — politics, public administration, cinema, literature. He restricted his arena of political activity to the state, but national leaders across the political spectrum travelled to Chennai to engage him. He outlived his formidable political rivals, colleague-turned-foe MG Ramachandran and the latter’s successor, J Jayalalithaa, who competed with him for the legacy of the Dravidian Movement. Though MGR and Jayalalithaa could outsmart him in electoral politics, the ideological dynamic of their politics, too, was shaped by Karunanidhi.
The ideals of the Dravidian Movement formed the bedrock of Karunanidhi’s politics. The main features of the Movement were its strong anti-caste agenda, federalism and the privileging of Tamil identity. These shaped Karunanidhi’s worldview. He joined the Dravidian Movement in his teens, when it was mobilising people against Brahminism and for a Tamil nation. The chief disciple of Periyar EV Ramasamy, CN Annadurai, spotted the potential in the young Karunanidhi. The political milieu, too, was ripe for a leader like him, who was well-schooled in the classical Tamil literary tradition. The Dravidian Movement found in cinema a vehicle to propagate its reformist ideals and Karunanidhi went on to script some of its iconic films, for instance Parashakti. When Annadurai died in 1969, two years after leading the DMK to power, Karunanidhi and MGR battled for their mentor’s legacy. Between them, they ensured that only Dravidian parties got to rule Tamil Nadu since 1967. And, in office, they ensured that public policies reflected the egalitarian sentiment and federal concerns of the Dravidian Movement. Karunanidhi, who was CM for 19 years, effectively used the instrument of quotas to address caste privileges in education and administration, a policy his opponents too followed. The welfarist measures followed by the DMK and AIADMK governments have ensured that Tamil Nadu today is not just an industrial powerhouse but also ranks high on social and health indicators among Indian states.
Under Karunanidhi, the DMK also became a party of leaders and their clans. He had no qualms in promoting his family, ruthlessly marginalising leaders who challenged his authority. Corruption allegations shadowed him in office and “Tamil pride” prevented him from recognising the nihilistic streak in organisations like the LTTE. Unlike many politicians, however, Karunanidhi accommodated criticism. Kalaignar encouraged a secular civic culture and refused to privilege religious and caste concerns over constitutional rights and categories, as he shaped the destiny of modern Tamil Nadu.