Five chief ministerial terms. Five decades as president of the DMK. Muthuvel Karunanidhi’s high fives to Tamil Nadu resonated through the state in his final moments at Kauvery Hospital in Alwarpet, Chennai, on August 7. Thirty-three years after the scriptwriter-turned-statesman composed the words to be imprinted on his headstone–“Here lies a man who worked without any rest”–the 94-year-old will be laid to rest next to his mentor, CN Annadurai, at the Marina.
Born Dakshinamoorthy in Thirukkuvalai, Nagapattinam district, the silver-tongued rationalist would be known by several monikers–Cheran, the pen name he gave himself as a young man from Tiruvarur circulating a pamphlet called Manavar Nesan in the midst of the Second World War; ‘Kalaignar’, the artist who would sculpt the celluloid and political careers of MG Ramachandran and the future of the DMK; a Dravidian ‘Goebbels’ according to his detractors. Within the party–and through the extended family–his writ was law, but Karunanidhi himself had a healthy irreverance for rules. He stopped short of naming his son Ayya Durai, picking a Russian tyrant over Arignar Anna. Nor did he succumb to pressure at the height of the anti-Hindi agitation when Ramaiah became Perasiriyar K Anbazhagan and Narayanasamy became Navalar VR Nedunchezhiyan. Karunanidhi’s name, and his pride, remained intact through some of the steepest ascents and plummets in Indian electoral politics.
Inheriting the mantle of Periyar EV Ramasamy Naicker’s Self-Respect Movement, and Anna’s political legacy after trumping EVK Sampath, Kannadasan and Nedunchezhiyan, Karunanidhi played up Tamil exceptionalism, backed the demand for Tamil Eelam, and waxed eloquent against Brahminism to become the reigning king of an era that belonged to ideology. From being one of 15 DMK candidates to be elected to the Assembly in 1956, to leading the party to capture 184 seats against K Kamaraj’s 13 in 1971, Karunanidhi had learned to outmanoeuvre the tallest leaders in the state. The vainglorious split with MGR in the 1970s may have been Kalaignar’s one serve that didn’t land in the court, but other mistakes would quickly follow. His vehement opposition to the Emergency, leading to the dismissal of the DMK government on January 31, 1976, ostensibly on charges of corruption, nevertheless had a silver lining for the freedom of the press: a cartoon of Indira Gandhi as Adolf Hitler, published in the party mouthpiece Murasoli, made it to the pages of Newsweek.
Addressing his partymen as udanpirappe (brethren) in his public speeches and in his column in the paper–Stalin, who recently assumed responsibility for penning the column, calls himself ‘ungalil oruvan (one among you)’–came naturally to Karunanidhi, a poet among politicians. The locution became a jumping-off point for a generation of DMK supporters, who slurped up the party’s refurbished ideals of equality irrespective of caste and gender. Language, of course, was a trickier issue. Kalaignar enjoyed an almost proprietary claim over Tamil pride, and rightfully appropriated credit when, in late 2014, the Union Cabinet decided to declare Tamil a classical language, following through on the UPA’s promise.
It was too late, however, to restore the reputation of a tainted empire with mere cultural assurances. In 2001, the Sakaria Commission had indicted Karunanidhi for corruption in allotting tenders for the Veeranam project. Other, meatier scandals followed, even as he turned populist in his last term as chief minister, pricing PDS rice as Re 1 per kilogram and introducing a landmark comprehensive health insurance scheme. Kalaignar lived the life of a calculating adventurer, changing with the times to bet on a rapidly urbanising Tamil Nadu, even allying with the BJP in the ideological thaw after liberalisation. In the last decade, the popularity of J Jayalalithaa, MGR’s protege, seemed to overshadow his own, even if his legacy of welfare measures, including nationalising transport, electrifying villages and raising reservations for the underprivileged, rivalled Amma’s. Like Jayalalithaa, Kalaignar was not a politician but an emotion that swept over the state, a timeless wind blowing from all directions, forcing you to surrender a little of your free will and follow him blindly down the inimical slopes of the Tamil identity.