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Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | Karunanidhi: a giant who shaped Dravidian politics

The successes as well as failures of modern Tamil Nadu can be traced back to the ideological mix he epitomized

The death of M. Karunanidhi marks the end of an era. He had an active political life of more than eight decades. He was a dominant figure in Tamil Nadu for over five decades. It is thus no surprise that he has left a deep imprint on his state.

Karunanidhi epitomized Dravidian politics, with its roots in the Justice Party that emerged in the old Madras Presidency in 1916. Its hallmark was social egalitarianism combined with rationalism. That tradition was carried on by the Dravida Kazhagam and its two major tributaries, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. This style of politics has been a unique combination of affirmative action, social sector spending, aggressive federalism, regional cultural pride, economic pragmatism and personality cults. The successes as well as failures of modern Tamil Nadu can be traced back to this ideological mix.

Tamil Nadu began to pull ahead of other states around the same time that the Dravidian parties overturned the old Congress hegemony in 1967. Karunanidhi first became chief minister in 1969, soon after the death of his mentor C.N. Annadurai. The commitment to social equality led to a reservations policy that created educational opportunities for a wider pool of castes. Successive state governments focused on building public goods as well as attracting industrial investments. Tamil Nadu has been able to be a pioneer in social programmes such as the mid-day meal scheme on the one hand and become a magnet for large industrial projects on the other.

It is interesting that Tamil Nadu has seen remarkable policy stability over these past five decades, despite the very public clash of personalities. One possible reason is that both the main Dravidian parties come from a similar ideological background. The dominance of three leaders—Karunanidhi, M.G. Ramachandran and J. Jayalalithaa—meant that Tamil Nadu saw chief ministers who ruled in a presidential style. The positive fallout of such dominance was more efficient administration. The negative impact is a neo-feudal fascination for freebies handed out by the ruling deity of the day. The corruption has also been legendary, and political scientists will struggle to explain why all this did not come in the way of development, as it did in other states such as Uttar Pradesh.

The death of a titan like Karunanidhi obviously leaves behind a massive hole in the public life of the state. Tamil Nadu has been a success story, but the strains of the old strategy are also showing. The affirmative action by the Dravidian parties has led to a new set of dominant castes rather than a casteless society; the Dalits have clearly felt left out even as caste tensions have grown. Tamil Nadu has faced fiscal pressures in recent years because of its aggressive culture of freebies. The state economy is too dependent on the Chennai region for its industrial growth. The two main Dravidian parties are so wedded to personality cults that there are clear risks of a leadership vacuum in the years ahead, even a family battle in Karunanidhi’s own party, perhaps providing an opportunity for the national parties to get back into the game after 50-plus years at the margins.

Karunanidhi was also an important voice for political federalism and cultural autonomy. The mainstream of the Dravidian movement has thankfully abandoned its secessionist tendencies, but it has been an important voice in the federal argument that India is too complex a country to be run from New Delhi. His fight against the imposition of Hindi also matters, though economic change plus migration seems to have muted some of the more extreme manifestations of anti-Hindi rage in Tamil Nadu.

Karunanidhi was one of the giants of the Periyar tradition, which threw a profound challenge to the old social system. A comparison with the Ambedkarites is interesting. The followers of Periyar were able to build political parties to capture power. Their ideological appeal has remained limited to one state. The followers of B.R. Ambedkar have failed to build viable political vehicles, with the Bahujan Samaj Party being the sole exception. However, Ambedkar’s message has meanwhile spread all across the country, with every major political party at least paying lip service to it. It is worth speculating whether the capture of political power by the Dravidian parties led to the fossilization of their ideology. What started as a movement for political justice has ended up as a celebration of personality cults.

Is Tamil Nadu at an inflexion point similar to the one in 1967? It is impossible to say for sure. Yet, the death of the last giant of the Dravidian movement should open up interesting possibilities. Much will depend on how the two main parties in Tamil Nadu respond. Will they stay true to the ideals of the Dravidian movement while adapting to the realities of the new century?

Will the national parties be able to make a comeback in Tamil Nadu? Tell us at

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