Karunanidhi and the shaping of the Dravidian movement

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam was crucial to making him; later, it became putty in his hands.

Updated - November 28, 2021 08:32 am IST

Published - August 07, 2018 08:11 pm IST

Muthuvel Karunanidhi, former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and president of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

Muthuvel Karunanidhi, former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and president of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

In many ways, Muthuvel Karunanidhi was both a product and a creator of the Dravidian movement. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam that he took over from its founder C.N. Annadurai in 1969 had already made significant ideological departures from the rationalist social reform movement that was the Dravidar Kazhagam.

The atheistic streak of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy had even at that time morphed into a secularism that allowed for a monotheism without the ritualistic trappings of organised religion. The violence and hatred toward the dominant Brahmin caste had turned into a rights-based approach to ending caste hierarchies and social discrimination and to securing educational and job opportunities for non-Brahmins. And the demand for secession was given up soon after the India-China war in 1962.

But with Mr. Karunanidhi, the quintessential Dravidian ideologue, at the helm, the DMK entered a new phase: the party that shaped him would, in turn, be shaped by him.

The DK, and later the DMK, were instrumental in the making of Mr. Karunanidhi, first as a writer and later as a politician. Newspapers, public meetings and theatre and cinema were the means of mass communication for the Dravidian movement. And the young Dravidian activist needed to excel in each medium to work his way up the organisational ladder. His silver tongue and pointed pen came to his aid in building a rapport with party workers and leaders alike.

In pictures: M. Karunanidhi, the five-term Chief Minister


When Annadurai died in 1969, Mr. Karunanidhi was not the automatic choice as successor. But, with his skills of persuasion and people management, he won the support of large sections of the party. Over the years, he managed to have such a stranglehold on the DMK that even  successive electoral defeats and dynastic politics were not seen as unforgivable negatives. The DMK changed its form, but it did not change its head. Those who questioned him had to leave the party, whether it was M.G. Ramachandran in 1972 or Vaiko in 1993.

Wherever Mr. Karunanidhi went, the DMK was sure to follow. The first significant ideological departure of the regional party, formed in opposition to the centralising nationalist politics of the Congress, was the alliance with the Congress faction of Indira Gandhi, first as the dominant partner in 1971 and then as an equal partner in 1980. The anti-Hindi, anti-north Indian plank was given up in favour of a pragmatic approach to electoral politics. However, to his credit, this did not stop him from opposing the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975. He was quick to see the threat to State autonomy and democratic institutions, and took on the Centre. He paid dearly: his government was dismissed in 1976 on charges of corruption.

But his mistake was not in opposing the Emergency; indeed, that phase in his political career might have endeared him to his partymen and steeled his political resolve. The miscalculation was about the political threat from MGR, a film star he helped create with his screenplays. The writer-intellectual in Mr. Karunanidhi did not deem the actor a rival at all. MGR went on to form a breakaway party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which kept the DMK out of power till his death in 1987.

Although Mr. Karunanidhi returned to power in 1989, he could do nothing to dim the aura around the actor-politician, which Jayalalithaa capitalised on to continue to challenge the DMK. Indeed, just as he was initially dismissive of MGR, he underestimated Jayalalithaa who, however, showed remarkable strength and staying power at the head of a rejuvenated AIADMK.


Another failing, perhaps born of the same character flaw, was that he fancied himself as a leader of a world community of Tamils. In the 1970s, he was not very supportive of the Sri Lankan Tamil cause, and in the 1980s, when MGR backed the LTTE, he supported outfits such as TULF and TELO. But when he did support the LTTE in the late 1980s, when the Tigers had eliminated other groups, he went overboard and allowed them a free run in Tamil Nadu. The desire to be hailed as the leader of the ‘Tamil race’ led him to be overindulgent toward the LTTE in his third innings as CM in 1989-91. The need to sound supportive of a militant, secessionist organisation in Sri Lanka, while opposing their activities and all fissiparous tendencies in Tamil Nadu, led to conflicting postures.

The dismissal of his government in 1991 for supporting the LTTE did temper his support for the Eelam cause, and he became the object of much derision for failing to persuade the Congress-led government in 2009 to put pressure on the Sri Lankan government to end the war that decimated the Tigers.

Secular ideology

Although he kept the DMK in its secular moorings until political exigencies prompted him to steer a different course in 1999, Mr. Karunanidhi revelled in being ambiguous about his belief in God. “Naannaastikan thaan,” he would say in response to questions on the subject, playing on the words “aastikan” (believer) and “naastikan” (non-believer). Also, he began wearing a yellow shawl, apparently for religious reasons. To an interviewer, he insisted it was on the advice of his doctor. The shawl, yes; but why the never-changing colour of yellow? Mr. Karunanidhi did not offer an answer.

However, he had an acute sense of what his support base wanted: not mumbo-jumbo about gods, but reservation in jobs. In this, he was unwavering, quite unlike MGR, who toyed with the idea of income-based reservation before the electoral reverse in the 1980 Lok Sabha election brought him back to adopting castes and social backwardness as the criteria.

In pictures: M. Karunanidhi — a Titan of Tamil Nadu politics


Even more than the alliance with the Congress, the most radical of the ideological ruptures he made as DMK chief was in entering into an alliance with the BJP in 1999. After having built a support base drawn from the backward classes and the minorities, with rationalism as the underlying political philosophy, Mr. Karunanidhi did the unthinkable by allying with the BJP. True, he did so while he was under pressure from the AIADMK, which had just walked out of the BJP-led government at the Centre for refusing to dismiss his government in the State.

The alliance did not last the course, with Mr. Karunanidihi finding an excuse to pull out of the National Democratic Alliance government just in time for the 2004 Lok Sabha election. But his decision to ally with the BJP was an indication of both his strength and his weakness: he could take his party along with him no matter what he decided, and he was ready for any ideological compromise for the sake of power.

If any further evidence was needed that the DMK had become putty in his hands by this time, it came in the form of his decision to nominate his children and grand-nephew to positions of power. Though his son, M.K. Stalin, had put in years in the organisation, this was not the case with his other son M.K. Alagiri, his daughter Kanimozhi, and his grand-nephew Dayanidhi Maran. Both Alagiri and Maran became Ministers in their first term as Members of Parliament.

The transformation was complete: he began as a man of the party; now, the party was of the man.

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