With Karunanidhi’s Demise, TN Politicians Have Big Shoes to Fill

Karunanidhi was, without doubt, one of Tamil Nadu’s tallest leader. His death has sent TN into a tizzy.

3 min read
Hindi Female

DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi breathed his last at Chennai’s Kauvery Hospital on Tuesday, 7 August. In his final hours, apart from his family members, present outside the hospital were DMK cadre and supporters, who thronged the hospital.

On 28 July, when Karunanidhi had to be hospitalised, among the worried DMK cadre thronging his Gopalapuram residence in Chennai, was 85-year-old Rathnambal. She shares a link with the late Kalaignar — they were both born in Thirukkuvalai in Nagapattinam district, 340 km from Chennai.

An emotional Rathnambal told The Quint:

I took a bus, asked around for directions to Gopalapuram and came here. Kalaignar is the one who solemnised my wedding, and also ensured my daughters got married. I owe a lot to him.

Karunanidhi was more popularly referred to as ‘Kalaignar’, which means ‘artist’, as a tribute to his outstanding literary skills.


Kalaignar Fought till the End

‘Fingers crossed’ was pretty much the sentiment in Chennai until Kalaignar breathed his last on Tuesday. In fact, a man who told a television crew in late July that “it will be a huge loss for Tamil Nadu if Kalaignar passes away,” was bashed up by the crowd at Gopalapuram, who objected to such negative speculation.

Incidentally, on 28 July, when Karunanidhi’s health took a turn for the worse, the iconic political leader also crossed a significant milestone.

He became the first leader to enter the 50th year as the president of a political party. On 27 July 1969, Kalaignar had been elected as party president, five months after he had become the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, following CN Annadurai's demise.

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It won’t be an exaggeration to say that Karunanidhi, along with his two arch political rivals – MG Ramachandran and J Jayalalithaa – has defined Tamil Nadu politics for the past five decades, and more. The senior-most politician of high standing in India in recent years, along with VS Achuthanandan of the CPI(M) in Kerala, Karunanidhi's brand of Dravidian politics has also been about ensuring that Tamil Nadu mattered in the corridors of power in New Delhi.


Karunanidhi, the Social Reformer

That the DMK figured in both the NDA and UPA governments at the Centre, is testimony to Kalaignar’s ability to form friendships across the political spectrum. Kalaignar’s focus remained the development of infrastructure in Tamil Nadu, though it must be said that in his latter years, his track record has been known more for a competitive freebie culture, which he encouraged in order to win elections. For every TV set his government distributed, Jayalalithaa gave away free mixie-grinders and fans.

However, what set apart Karunanidhi from politicians of his era was his erudite personality.

Kalaignar was the inspiration for many a Tamilian, for pride in Tamil language, and the manner in which it is to be articulated. The late DMK chief’s film scripts reflected his political idealism, and his belief in an egalitarian society. Karunanidhi’s focus on social evils, be it untouchability, widow remarriage, the abolishing of the zamindari system, and religious hypocrisy, positioned him as a social reformer.

Moreover, his courage to take a contrarian position, be it to Hindi (in the language agitation of the 1960s), or to Indira Gandhi’s Emergency a decade later, established Karunanidhi as a leader who could not be ignored.


Remembering Kalaignar

Though MGR got the better of the DMK electorally between 1977 and 1987, and Jayalalithaa repeated the feat winning a second successive term as CM in 2016, Tamil Nadu politics largely also has been about a pro-Karunanidhi and an anti-Karunanidhi vote. The love for Karunanidhi, his prose and baritone is as strong as the dislike for him by those he would dismiss as the privileged Brahminical class.

For more than a year before his death on Tuesday, Karunanidhi had not been active in public life. Given the flux Tamil Nadu politics is in right now, Karunanidhi has passed away at a time when the state needs him the most.

On July 29, Hindu Makkal Katchi leader Arjun Sampath, on the other side of the ideological divide from the DMK, was at Kauvery hospital, where Karunanidhi was admitted a little after midnight, with prasadam from a temple. The fact that Karunanidhi was an atheist was clearly of no significance — Tamil Nadu collectively prayed till the end, hoping the hospital visit was nothing more than a case of the ‘nervous 90s’ for the nonagenarian. Alas, it was not meant to be.

(The writer is a senior journalist who tracks South India’s politics. He can be reached at @Iamtssudhir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  DMK   Tamil Nadu Politics   M Karunanidhi 

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