The legacy of Karunanidhi

Last Updated: Wed, Aug 08, 2018 11:29 hrs
Karunanidhi

At 94, DMK patriarch Karunanidhi had outlived generations of leaders before he breathed his last on Tuesday evening.

In less than two years, Tamil Nadu has witnessed the deaths of arch nemeses, the two people who were the indisputed heads of their parties for decades preceding their passing.

What could this mean for the state?

And what legacy does the man who spent the best part of eight decades in politics leave behind?

Perhaps he has more in common with Jayalalithaa than he would like to have thought.

As it happened in her case, the moment of death marked a fight over the burial. In her case, relatives who had been estranged for years insisted on being part of the ceremonies. Her friend Sasikala became the protagonist and made an attempt at becoming her political heir.

In Karunanidhi´s case, legal hurdles have reportedly prevented the Tamil Nadu government from allotting him a resting place on Marina Beach, where all the Dravidian party leaders of prominence over the last century are buried. There was drama enough, down to a midnight court hearing.

Unlike Jayalalithaa, his family tree has enough offshoots to resemble a banyan.

But like her, he has groomed no indisputed heir.

For much of his life, his sons Stalin and Azhagiri were fighting for the title of lieutenant. Stalin eventually triumphed, but he did not ascend to the throne. He has not played a prominent enough role in the state’s politics to be seen outside the shadow of his father. He spent much of his life, even as a senior citizen, heading the youth wing of the party and being described as the “youth leader”.

There appears to be a modicum of peace and cooperation between Stalin and his half-sister Kanimozhi, but one cannot quite predict how their father´s death will affect this dynamic.

There is no clear heir to the throne, no one of whom Karunanidhi could say, as Annadurai once did of him, that the show will go on and that it will be directed by this specific person.

Karunanidhi has often been praised for his way with words, and for the screenplays that brought him his fame and perhaps the Dravida parties to power in Tamil Nadu, once a Congress bastion. He is seen as a powerful orator, and a skilled writer.

But he was also shrewd, navigating the state´s politics with acumen. He chose the medium for his writing that would have the maximum impact among the largest number of voters – cinema.

While claiming to be progressive, down to declaring in assembly that one of his partners was his wife and the other was his daughter´s mother, he managed to pass sly, snide remarks about his arch rival Jayalalithaa´s chastity.

Though Annadurai had proclaimed Karunanidhi his successor, the throne was not his for the taking. It was widely expected that V R Nedunchezhiyan would assume the reins after Annadurai´s death.

His early years in the leadership of the DMK were marked by his rivalry with MGR, whose popularity he could not outdo. And so there were cases of corruption against the party, right from the early 1970s to 2010, when his daughter was accused in the 2G scam. The fact that the party survived, and that its frontline was largely unscathed, owes no small debt to Karunanidhi´s cunning.

And so, what is the legacy he leaves behind, other than the linguistic chauvinism which saw Tamil Nadu change the names of its cities and signboards, and the propensity for self-immolation of party workers, another instance of which marked his death?

In a rather morbid portent of what lies ahead, Karunanidhi almost literally seemed to turn in his grave – his body slid quite horrifically inside its coffin, complete with the day´s Murasoli newspaper lying on his remains, its headline announcing the death of its founder.

We don´t know which way the Marans will swing, and what Azhagiri might do without his father to check his hostility towards his brother.

With Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan both starting their own political parties, will another legacy continue – that of the state being run by people with little qualification aside from long careers in cinema – under the charge of new faces?

Will the corruption charges overwhelm the party, or will the Stalin-Kanimozhi combine prove formidable?

Is the double blow to Tamil Nadu strong enough to allow the BJP or Congress to claw their ways back into the state?

Karunanidhi´s legacy, like the man himself, will perhaps present itself only through riddles and complicated allegiances.


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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. 

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