A journey to reckon with

M. Karunanidhi’s legacy will depend on the DMK’s ability to rise to deep introspection

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:30 pm IST

Published - June 03, 2017 12:02 am IST

Muthuvel Karunanidhi is Tamil Nadu’s only unquestioned leader today. Only? Today? Has he not been that for years, decades? Has he not, as the one and only Kalaignar, the supreme word artist among its leaders, dominated the State’s political stage since 1969 when he became Chief Minister at 45, reaching that office four more times, in 1971 at 47, in 1989 at 65, in 1996 at 72 and then in 2006 at the very mellow age of 82?

A unique link

Dominate, he has. But after the charismatic M.G. Ramachandran, no one within the multiple folds of the Dravidian movement has stood as unrivalled, as unsurpassed as ‘Mu Ka’ has, in the esteem of the intelligentsia and the public at large, together. Ripened by age into a patriarchate, by experience into a peerage and by sheer lasting-out into a pre-eminence, he has been sui generis .

The Kalaignar enjoys a certain immunity today, an indemnity, from humdrum critiquing. This is not the result of his patent seniority as much as a certain perceived maturity. Others, including the unique J. Jayalalithaa, who was sworn in six times as Chief Minister, have held office and enjoyed popular esteem. ‘Mu Ka’ has done a third ‘thing’ as well — he has been a player and a viewer, a participant and an observer, an actor and an analyst of events both small and big, setbacks both minor and severe. Where other players have been plaintiffs and respondents, stepping into and out of the Court’s railed-cage, he has been Tamil Nadu’s testifier, corroborator, curator. He has been its foremost witness, or sakshi . He has seen it through a national emergency, President’s Rule, the obloquy of financial scandals, the fluctuating fortunes of elections. He has seen it all, been through it all, bruised, tousled, but still very much himself, the last link with the value systems of the Justice Party.


Superstition, idolatry, discrimination, north-centrism and the undermining of federal nostrums have been challenged by him as by no one else. Whether in office or out of it, Mr. Karunanidhi has posited Tamil Nadu as the flag-bearer of federal dialogue in a highly monocratic atmosphere, of republican sharing in an autocratic ethos. He has, through the compass of the Rajamannar Committee’s far-sighted report, steered Tamil Nadu away from the rod of centralisation. In this he has been a champion of democratic rights, of representative government. Few things work on the popular mind as ‘real stuff’. His directive to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) to take no political advantage of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s fatal illness, to seek no ‘fast-tracking’ of electoral gain, and wait for the political wind to turn ‘in its own course’ will forever redound to his credit. As will the protocol he has observed in the matter of partnering in national coalitions.

As the Kalaignar enters his 95th year, assessments and appraisals will flow, tributes and panegyrics flood the pages of print, screen and stage. His critics, of whom there has never been a lack, will furl their public criticism of him for this season of celebration but will they cease whisperings about his alleged ‘hidden’ godward-ness? Unlikely. There will also continue slanderous gossip pertaining to his lifestyle. Such vilification arises from envy rather than ethics. How many in the sanctimonious humbug of our public life have shown the admirable frankness with which he has acknowledged his ‘daughter’s mother’? The nonagenarian has outlived calumny, outwitted libel. He is what in Tamil English is called the Don’t Care Master and, if I may be allowed an ironic comment here: Thank god for that!

Time for introspection

But has flattery spared him? Have intrigue and that stock-in-trade of electoral politics, money, let him be? Surrounded as he is by those two tricksters I believe Mr. Karunanidhi sees through them even if he lets them play around him.


And what of parameters in public life? He is, I would like to believe, disturbed over the growing amnesia about the Dravidian movement’s commitment to rationalism, the scientific spirit. The austere Periyar is a living being for him. He must be worried on whether that is so for his party cadres. Also about his party’s image in the matter of financial probity. The monetary coefficient in governance, to call corruption by a sanitised name, has disfigured public confidence in Tamil Nadu. The usurpation of natural resources by state and non-state entities in the name of ‘development’ has often disfigured ecological safety. The hydrocarbon project at Neduvasal and the bulldozing at Ennore Creek exemplify our environmental anxieties.

A self-introspecting future DMK, led by M.K. Stalin in the State and by M.K. Kanimozhi for national-level coordination, learning from wrong turns, its own and those of its political adversaries with adverse records, and seeking to unite the scattered shards of the Dravidian movement, could crown the versatile legacy of M. Karunanidhi.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and Governor

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