Muthuvel Karunanidhi was many things to many people. For some, he was a doyen of Dravidian politics that stood for social justice, state autonomy and social welfare economics. Others, however, viewed him as a smart and sly politician who epitomized dynastic politics and corruption. His legacy is dyed in whitish grey. The final few years have obscured some of the great contributions he has made in his long and checkered political life.
Tamil Nadu’s economic and social success boils down to the politics of self-respect. This idea was fashioned into political programs and social praxis by the leading triumvirate of Dravidian politics: Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, C.N. Annadurai and M.Karunanidhi.
The ideas which emerged from the pen of these writers and thinkers created many of Tamil Nadu’s policies and programs which have emerged as a model for the Indian Union: a multi-tiered reservation policy, emphasis on state’s autonomy, language policies that empowered local tongues, a welfare state that was financially sustainable, and more. Karunanidhi famously likened himself to a catamaran that holds people who chose to board it. Indeed, he was a rising tide that endeavoured to lift all catamarans.
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Karunanidhi was a master administrator. On a typical day, he would clear a proposal to set up a land bank for a greenfield tech park, launch a sky-kissing Thiruvalluvar statue in Kanyakumari, okay a government order for the upliftment of weavers, and sign an agreement for enrolling Tamil Nadu as a member of the Unicode Consortium (a global tech body which normally admits only countries).
Karunanidhi took his political ideas to the federal level in due course. Karunanidhi’s proposal of amending the Constitution of India to make it truly federal, based on the recommendations of the Rajamannar Committee, is a well-known masterstroke in the seventies. When Karunanidhi and his mentor Anna expressed their federalist demands, they became the self-appointed representatives of other states too, especially the ‘non-Hindi’ states. For example, DMK’s manifesto usually demands that all languages listed in schedule 8 of the Constitution should be accorded official language status, and not just Tamil.
Karunanidhi’s defiance of Indira Gandhi during the emergency period is a part of political folklore. His relationship with the Centre wasn’t always smooth, with his sometimes getting dismissed on flimsy grounds, but he bounced back every time.
It was during the coalition era, after he had become the grand-head of a big family, that Karunanidhi started to make compromises. In the aftermath of the Eelam war in Sri Lanka and when he earned the wrath of the people for his acts of commission or omission in scams (though the bigger accusations fell flat in the courts), his glory days had come to a climax.
However, with Karunanidhi’s passing, the state lost its knight in shining armor. It has lost two big guardians in less than two years (Jayalalithaa died in 2016). For an ordinary Tamil citizen, the indirect and de facto rule of BJP, a party that has an idea of India that Tamil Nadu could never share, is a shocking betrayal.
The era of social justice and self-respect that Karunanidhi and his fellow travelers of the Dravidian movement - Anna, MGR and Jayalalithaa, who now share the same space in the hall of memories at the Anna Square on the Marina beach – shaped and set, now seems over. The dreams that remain unmet are in grave danger. Every other week, Tamil Nadu witnesses a new popular protest and New Delhi is always at the receiving end. Night normally begins once the sun has set.
Aazhi Senthilnathan is a writer, entrepreneur and political activist.