The passing away of DMK patriarch and Dravidian icon Muthuvel Karunanidhi truly marks the end of an era. As it comes close on the heels of his bête noire J Jayalalithaa’s death last year, Tamil Nadu politics is likely to change for good. The Dravidian parties that dominated the state for five straight decades might soon have to contend with competition from parties of different ideological persuasions.
M Karunanidhi addressing the third meet of the International Conference of Tamil Studies, inaugurated at the College de France in Paris on July 15, 1970. (Credit: UNESCO)
Kalaignar (artist), as Karunanidhi was fondly addressed, was a man of many parts and talents. His career in movies was not just a precursor to his long political career but ran almost parallel with it. A voracious reader and prolific writer even towards the latter part of his political career, he embodied a certain work ethic that many politicians in the new era might struggle to emulate.
Karunanidhi was as much an iconoclast as his mentors like Periyar EV Ramaswamy Naicker and CN Annadurai, despite his nepotistic turn later. He successfully leveraged films for political messaging and used it as a means of propaganda with his strong scripts and dialogues.
DMK supremo and Tamil Nadu CM, M Karunanidhi, looks on as J Jayalalithaa takes oath as member of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assamebly on February 6, 1989. (Image: Frontline)
Karunanidhi was also a great linguist whose mastery of the Tamil language is almost unparalleled. While the likes of Kamal Haasan and Rajnikanth have forayed into politics after a lifetime as actors, Dravidian icons such as Karunanidhi and MG Ramachandran (MGR) were essentially political animals.
A master practitioner of realpolitik, Kalaignar emerged as the leader of DMK following the sudden demise of CN Annadurai in 1969, and consolidated his position by sidelining and driving out challengers and dissenters like VR Nedunchezhiyan and MG Ramachandran and the likes of Vaiko at a later stage. That he managed to keep the party together during the long spell out of power during MG Ramachandran’s incumbency was a testament to his tenacity and determination. Karunanidhi was also a key player at the national stage beginning with 1989 and remained so during the late 1990s with his associations with the United Front governments and the BJP. Even during the UPA era, he was a vital partner of the Congress in Delhi.
Karunanidhi served as chief minister for five terms and never lost an election since his first election in 1957—remaining a legislator for over sixty years. Long before the Mandal wave swept north India, social justice was the plank on which the Dravidian parties made their mark. Rather than mouthing empty slogans, Karunanidhi actually delivered on his promises to transform a state as large and populated as Tamil Nadu into a near welfare state.
Kalaignar successfully set the stage for latter governments to take it to the next level of government interventions and welfare schemes.
The demise of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi in quick succession will certainly create a vacuum in state politics as the next generation of leaders will take their time to make a mark. With the succession in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) almost sorted out with MK Stalin’s elevation as the working president, it is only a formality before he is declared the president by the DMK general council.
Dayalu Ammal, M Karunanidhi and MK Stalin. (Credit: PTI photo)
Although some people expect MK Alagiri to offer resistance, it’s unlikely as Stalin has wrested total control of the party organisation and Alagiri’s sphere of influence limited to his pocket borough of Madurai.
But Stalin will have his work cut out in the 2019 general elections and the state elections in 2021 with a severely discredited AIADMK government in power in the state. While Stalin has a cadre-based party and experience of four decades in politics to bank upon, it will not be a smooth sailing for his party in the next Assembly election, after having narrowly lost it in 2016.
The entry of new political players like matinee idols Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth might mound a formidable challenge to the domination of Dravidian parties in the state. TTV Dhinakaran and other regional parties and players in the state too might fancy their chances in the changed scenario—even if a multi-cornered contest might ultimately favour the DMK with their strong cadre presence on the ground.
The state of flux in Tamil Nadu might have presented an opportunity for national parties like the BJP, but it is unlikely that the hardline Hindutva professed by the BJP would find resonance in the bastion of the Dravidian movement.
In fact, the current AIADMK regime is unpopular primarily because of its closeness to the BJP. Tamil pride and sub-nationalism is likely to be a motif in the elections to come as Tamils are considered inherently rebellious and take pride in their language and cultural identity.
Even if the next generation of leaders might look insignificant compared to the likes of Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa, it’s in the nature of politics to throw up surprises and leaders out of nowhere.
But the passing away of Kalaingar might be a precursor to the end of the total domination of Dravidian politics in the state of Tamil Nadu as we know it.