In a career spanning seven decades in public life, Karunanidhi evoked fierce loyalty and strident criticism in equal measure. But his contribution to the body politic of Tamil Nadu and the country is unquestionable.
Veteran DMK leader and former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, respectfully known as Kalaignar, breathed his last at Chennai's Kauvery Hospital. In a career of over seven decades in public life, he evoked fierce loyalty and strident criticism in equal measure. But his contribution to the body politic of Tamil Nadu and the country is unquestionable.
Karunanidhi was the chief minister of Tamil Nadu five times and headed the state for a total of 19 years in all (1969-76, 89-91, 96-2001 and 2006-11). As the torch-bearer of the Dravidian movement after the demise of his mentor CN Annadurai, Karunanidhi built the DMK into a formidable political organisation capable of surviving long periods out of power.
His ability to sustain the party was put to test when MG Ramachandran led his AIADMK to three successive election victories in 1977, 1980 and 1984, keeping the DMK out of power for over 13 years. But on the demise of MGR, Karunanidhi was back in power in 1989 aided by the split in the AIADMK but facilitated by a party that he had nurtured and kept alive through that long period.
In 1991, his DMK government was dismissed for links to the LTTE which allegedly led to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and the party was almost wiped out in the ensuing election. Again, he bounced back after the J Jayalalithaa government, that came to power in 1991, was routed in the assembly elections of 1996. The DMK returned to power in 2006, though with smaller numbers in the house and support of the Congress from outside.
Throughout the UPA years, the DMK exerted huge influence at the Centre with Karunanidhi's son MK Alagiri, his grandnephew Dayanidhi Maran being in the Cabinet and his daughter Kanimozhi becoming an MP.
An orator par excellence, a script writer for several films, an author of dozens of books, and a poet with a rare and enviable command over the Tamil language, Karunanidhi built a cult following for himself in Tamil Nadu with his famed oratory. His quick wit and sharp repartee stood him in good stead and his ability to maintain his sense of humour even in the most trying of circumstances was remarkable. His contribution to Tamil literature has been immense, not just through the works he penned but also through the construction of the Valluvar Kottam in Chennai and the Tiruvalluvar statue in the sea off Kanyakumari.
Karunanidhi, during his heyday, was considered a political Chanakya of sorts, able to make astute moves when required to forge alliances with parties of diametrically opposite ideologies and still be able to justify his stand. The DMK has, at various points of time, been in alliances with the BJP and the Congress (it still is) and the Communist parties too. Karunanidhi’s ability to distance personal rancour from political opportunity was an important reason the DMK was as successful as it was in wielding power both in the state and at the Centre.
Social justice was the core ideology of the Dravidian movement and Karunanidhi's commitment to it was perhaps the hallmark of his years in office. This week, one of his pet projects saw fruition as the Tamil Nadu government appointed the first non-Brahmin priest to a temple run by the state. Karunanidhi also championed the concept of Samathuvapurams or community living where people of all caste and religion were provided homes by the government and made to live together.
For his critics, and there are many, Karunanidhi was seen as a leader who had a dodgy reputation for probity in public life. They also accused him of promoting various members of his family and perpetuating dynastic politics.
Despite being in indifferent health for the last couple of years and away from public life, Karunanidhi continued to cast a long shadow on the political scene in the state. Every action that his son and heir apparent, MK Stalin took was instantly compared with what Karunanidhi himself would have done in a similar situation.
Sumanth Raman is a Chennai-based television anchor and political analyst. The views expressed are personal.Note: This column has been updated to incorporate the latest developments.The Great Diwali Discount!
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