End of An Era!
Karunanidhi, who never lost any election in his entire 80 years of political life, always acknowledged followers in speeches citing, “My siblings are more dearer to me than life”
It is doubtful if there can be another Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu for years to come. Hailing from a humble background, Karunanidhi was almost the last of that generation of leaders who had had to struggle to come up in life. Growing up amid the Dravidian movement of the 1930s, he began his life as an activist, journalist, and later became a scriptwriter who used films as a medium to spread his message. His autobiography Nenjukku Neethi gives a glimpse of his life and struggle.
Despite not speaking English or Hindi, Karunanidhi played a crucial role in national politics. During the 1969 Congress split, he supported Indira Gandhi. When Jayaprakash Narayan launched the Janata Party, the DMK was part of it. He joined many coalitions like the National Front, United Front, the NDA, the UPA and held power at the Centre. He had a comfortable relationship with several national leaders. He declined to be the Prime Minister in 1997 when HD Deve Gowda stepped down. Karunanidhi’s answer was, “I know my height.”
When asked in an interview what he would like inscribe on his tombstone, M Karunanidhi is said to have quipped, “The tireless worker rests here.” By all accounts, the iconic Tamil leader was a workaholic. He scaled heights in politics, literature, and cinema. His oratory was unmatched; his writing will be unrivalled. However, it is his political feat of winning all 13 legislative assembly elections that will probably never be eclipsed.
Kalaignar, as he was known to his loyalists and rivals, lived and breathed politics. His party, its ideology and the cadres – whom he addressed as siblings – meant everything to him. He would often say that the DMK cadres were only born to different mothers for it would have been impossible for one womb to bear so many children. He thus began each letter with his trademark “anbulla udanpirappey (dear sibling)”.
During every public meeting, there would be pin-drop silence when it was his turn to speak. In Tamil Nadu, it is customary to acknowledge the leaders and speakers on the dais at the beginning of one’s speech. Kalaignar always followed this stage protocol, but his opening sequence
would conclude with his trademark phrase acknowledging his followers as “my siblings who are more dear to me than life.” The crowd would always reach a rapturous crescendo by the time he uttered these words, and this set the tempo for all his speeches.
Although rhetoric was prolific in his written and spoken word, Kalaignar was a pragmatic and effective politician. Under him, Tamil Nadu perfected the Dravidian economic model of consumer socialism. He gave impetus to industry by setting up the first industrial mega-estate in Ranipet spread over 730 acres, birthing 107 new industrial plants, in 1973.
His fourth and fifth terms as chief minister, in 1996-2001 and 2006-2011, saw the development of Tamil Nadu into an information technology hub and an automobile manufacturing powerhouse. The number of check-dams and universities built under the DMK regimes far surpasses that of other parties, which have governed the state. The state has performed better than the national average in all economic and social indices over the last four decades.
It was the cause of social justice that was closest to his heart. During his first term as an MLA, he raised issues pertaining to land rights of agricultural labourers in Nangavaram. When he became the chief minister, he legislated the removal of hereditary priesthood in Hindu temples. He championed subdivisions within reservation quotas and promoted a casteless society through multi-caste government housing (the Samathuvapuram scheme).
During his final term as the chief minister, he oversaw the setting up of a welfare board for transgender six years before the landmark Supreme Court judgment in the NALSA versus Union of India case. Similarly, the state government’s insurance scheme for life-saving treatments predated Modicare by eight years. Tamil Nadu was, thus, always ahead of the social policy curve.
It was, however, his love for Tamil that has been his constant companion throughout his life. When the first wave of Hindi imposition under the newly elected Congress government hit erstwhile Madras Presidency in 1938, 14-year-old Kalaignar had led mini-protest marches, screaming, “Let’s go to war if needed, to chase away this Hindi ghost; Let’s remind this Hindi witch, this is not a land of cowards.”
In June 1953, the four-year-old Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party organized protests against the use of Hindi names for towns and villages in the state. Kalaignar would lead the protest to change the name of Dalmiapuram train station to its original Tamil name – Kallakudi – by laying his head down on the railway platform. In later years, he played a major role in persuading the Government of India to recognize Tamil as a classical language and set up the Central Institute of Classical Tamil in Chennai.
The love between Kalaignar and Tamil was mutual in some ways. The rich language and its flowery prose helped Kalaignar rise as the state’s unparalleled political giant; in return, he repaid his debt to the language in full. When asked what his regret as a politician was, he was able to admit that his efforts to make Tamil an official language of the Union of India and the lingua franca of the Madras high court had not yet borne fruit. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that he lived his life true to the famous Tamil proverb, “The body is buried in the sand. But the soul is dedicated to Tamil.”
DMK working President MK Stalin with family members Kanimozhi and others during their father M Karunanidhi’s funeral ceremony