Tamil Nadu’s five-time chief minister and DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi, a Tamil litterateur known as “Kalaignar” and a beacon of light for many Tamils worldwide, leaves behind an army of grieving cadres and politically-savvy kin. He headed the Dravidian party that was an offshoot of the Justice Party and Self-Respect movement for 49 years, right up to the end, though he was indisposed for the past two years. An orator with a gravelly but compelling voice, he challenged an old, conservative society with new ideas and was a champion of the downtrodden and disadvantaged. Having become CM in intra-party manoeuvring in 1969 on the death of mentor C.N. Annadurai, Karunanidhi remained the undisputed master strategist for decades, whether in power or out of it in Tamil Nadu.
As a dynamic champion of the Tamil language he had few equals. He played upon a pan-Tamil sentiment to set alight a dream of an independent Tamil homeland, but the DMK swiftly shed this jingoism after the 1962 Chinese aggression and later was treated in a cavalier way twice through direct rule from New Delhi rule under Article 356. He realised the danger of consorting with LTTE militants and concentrated on regaining political power to pursue the greater goal of social engineering enunciated by social reformer “Periyar” E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker. A committed votebank in the DMK cadre brought him back alternately to the CM office with J. Jayalalithaa after he couldn’t stop the party’s matinee idol MGR leaving the fold to form the AIAMDK, much to the detriment of the DMK’s and Karunanidhi’s hold on power. His phenomenal record of never losing an election will, however, take some beating in a land where even the likes of Indira Gandhi and Jayalalithaa at times lost.
A disciplined party with a clear chain of command enabled MK to rule as unquestioned leader but with passage of time came ambitious relatives, for whose sake he forced his party to abandon its anti-nepotism stand. Corruption charges hanging around succeeding generations stifled the reach of the older Dravidian party, though it picked up a reputation for “institutionalising corruption” when it first came to power on top of the 1960s’ anti-Hindi agitation, with students as the dynamos. The state was to suffer in terms of development thanks to the Dravidian parties ruling in a duopoly after dismissing the Congress to an acquiescent ally role. Beyond the mundane, “Kalaignar” was the last of the titans who sold a dream through cinema to Tamils, MK with fiery dialogues that pepped up Sivaji’s thespian delivery and MGR and Jayalalithaa with mass matinee marquee appeal. However frail at the end of his 94 years, he was a colossus of Dravidian values till the end and always an eternal democrat.