Karunanidhi's earliest association with politics was when he was only 14 years old.
Periyar E.V. Ramasamy Naicker walked out of the Indian National Congress to found the Self Respect Movement in 1925. He certainly was not aware then of the birth, just a few months before, of Muthuvel Karunanidhi, someone who would inherit the legacy of the Self Respect Movement, adapt it to the needs of another time and another object.
One may, however, say that Karunanidhi was the product of a churning that Tamil society went through since the 1920s and the founder of a political legacy that gathered mass in the anti-Hindi agitation. Its by-product, so to say, was the firm commitment to federal principles and the plural tradition in the discourse after independence.
The Justice Party, even if it had won elections under the Montague Chelmsford Act could not have emerged into a popular platform against Brahmanism that the leadership of the INC in Madras had turned into. The Self Respect Movement filled that space. The non-Brahmin manifesto of 1916, wherein the Brahmin domination of the polity was sought to be remedied by proportional representation of castes in the bureaucracy (where the Brahmins were present in far higher numbers than their proportion in the population) warranted a movement and not just a party that came up in response to the early constitutional reforms under colonialism.
The churning that marked the Tamil society in the 1920s took formal shape with the Self Respect Movement. It was then no wonder that Karunanidhi joined the movement of his times. The Self Respect Movement had transformed from being an idea in the domain of social reforms into a political campaign involving the ordinary people and the intelligentsia through the struggle against the making of Hindi language education and the contentious vocational education programme, both of which introduced by C.Rajagopalachari as head of the Provincial Government between 1937 and 1939.
Karunanidhi grew up amidst all these and hatched into a political animal soon. His earliest association with politics was when he was only 14 years old. And he carved a niche in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, founded in 1949 from out of the Dravidar Kazhagam, in 1953 jumping off the platform before a stationary train engine at the Dalmiapuram station (as it was called then). The agitation he led was to restore the town into its old name – Kallakudi. He was only 29 years old then and landed in the Tamil Nadu assembly at the age of 33. Karunanidhi was among the 15 DMK MLAs in the assembly. He did not lose an election to the assembly since then.
Karunanidhi, as much as his icon C.N.Annadurai was, refused to imprison himself in any sort of puritanical cages when it came to picking up allies. An illustration to this was the DMK finding common cause with the Swatantra Party’s founding spirit – C. Rajagopalachari against whom the Self Respect Movement had taken its political shape and Karunanidhi had cut his teeth – ahead of the 1967 elections. The party’s reins came in Karunanidhi’s hands in just a couple of years after the DMK wrested power. And there was no stopping Karunanidhi since then into experiments in politics as the art of the possible.
The non-Brahman-caste-Hindu base that the Justice Party established for itself along with the Swatantra party’s landed gentry gave the DMK its organisational clout while the Congress party sustained itself in Tamil Nadu (a fact after the making of a separate Andhra Pradesh and Kerala in 1956, although the State was named Tamil Nadu only after the DMK wrested power in 1967) with the Dalits and some other social groups behind it. Karunanidhi, however, could not keep this social chemistry intact in Tamil Nadu; this was particularly the case after M.G.Ramachandran was sent out of the DMK in 1972 after he raised charges of financial corruption within the party and with the CPI’s M.Kalyanasundaram coming to his aid, trained his guns against Karunanidhi.
The Emergency battered Karunanidhi and his government was dismissed on January 31, 1976. And it was the ADMK, MGR’s party that ousted Karunanidhi in March 1977. Karunanidhi’s astute sense of reading the political waves was tested in 1980; in spite of his alliance with Indira Gandhi’s Congress in January 1980 his party came a cropper. And the alliance with the Congress was lost before 1984, not because he chose it that way but MGR managing it then.
Kalaignar, however, showed his strength to hold on and his decision to side with V.P.Singh, who had then rebelled against the Congress, did not gather any mass for the DMK in the Lok Sabha; and yet he ensured that his nominee, Murasoli Maran was a minister in the National Front Government that came to power in 1989. A split in the ADMK, post-MGR, led to the DMK wresting power in Tamil Nadu within months after that.
The assembly elections of 1989 established that the DMK’s organisational core and its ability to gather votes were intact. That was, indeed, Karunanidhi’s accomplishment. He did not let the electoral defeat his DMK suffered in 1991 (devastating it was) to let go his determination to fight back. He did steer his party, striking an alliance with the breakaway group from the Congress party, to sweep his rival, J.Jayalalithaa aside and arrest power in 1996. The DMK, as it could in 1989, became part of the United Front cabinet too; the glitch came soon and it had to do with one of DMK’s ideological past – its vocal support to the demand for a separate Tamil Nation in Sri Lanka. Well. All parties in Tamil Nadu and the national leadership of the Congress were on the same page but Karunanidhi had to pay for it.
His government was dismissed earlier in 1991 on grounds that the party and the state machinery under its control aided the groups that fought a violent battle for Tamil Eelam. Karunanidhi stood with the Janata Dal-led front in 1998 and this certainly was evidence of his political morality – to stand by those who stood by him – even while the front he was part of was now beginning to collapse. The United Front, after all, did not budge to Congress pressure and sack the DMK ministers from the cabinet and preferred to go down together!
But then, politics-as-the-art-of-the-possible overtook his convictions in 1999 and the Dravidian party went into an alliance with the BJP, a party that was described as legatees of the Aryan conspiracy by the DMK in the past. His antenna was still alert and caught signals of the BJP-led NDA’s imminent defeat in November 2003. The DMK supremo ordained his men to quit the Vajpayee ministry, struck an alliance with Sonia Gandhi’s Congress and thus ensured the return of his partymen to the Union Cabinet. It included his grand-nephew, Dayanidhi Maran and A.Raja. A lot about that is history and an important marker in the phase leading to this was the demise of his nephew and most-trusted aide, Murasoli Maran.
Karunanidhi, no doubt, returned as Chief Minister in 2006. But things were not the same. He had to manage sibling rivalry within the party and his acumen seemed to fail. All this, however, did not affect his command over the DMK’s war horses. They stayed with him and even while the party organisation seemed to suffer due to the erosion of values all around. None in the party, however, asked him why his own kith and kin were promoted and they seemed to join one or another of them and when they accepted M.K.Stalin as the heir, when Karunanidhi announced it, it was evident that the DMK was his party and his words were the writ.
That, indeed, is what Karunanidhi will be remembered for. Although late, Karunanidhi adapted himself to what the elite would deride as populism. The health insurance scheme his government introduced during his last term as Chief Minister – 2006-11 – and the fact that he did not let the other such schemes killed only because it came during the regime of his rival, J.Jayalalithaa , was indeed another evidence of his ability to read the writing on the wall. And he did ensure that the well-knit organisational structure that the DMK was made up of kept working and it worked from within the limitations of a party where the leader’s kith and kin were considered for special treatment.
Karunanidhi will be remembered for his eclectic readings, evidence of which were plenty in the column he wrote for the party organ, Murasoli. It can be said that his columns, when put together, will match the writings of Jawaharlal Nehru in The Discovery of India. The vast canvass they covered and the ideas they discussed are worth any number of readings. I will recall one of those he wrote when a manufacturing unit of St.Gobain glass works was commissioned in Sriperumbudur: Karunanidhi’s article then dwelt at length into the Versailles Palace, Napolean Bonaparte and all that to say that the mirrors there were made by St. Gobain.
Karunanidhi, indeed, marked an epoch in the making of India. And if there was one idea that he stood up for, it was the idea of India as a federal republic in the political, cultural and linguistic sense of it. And the need to preserve this idea is all the more central to the political discourse of the present.
V. Krishna Ananth is a professor of history at SRM University, Andhra Pradesh.
First Published: IST