Of all the regional leaders with large national significance, DMK patriarch Muthuvel Karunanidhi was the foremost. A five-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu and a 13-term MLA, Karunanidhi never shifted to central politics. Yet, his party played a key role in central governments, beginning with the support it lent to Indira Gandhi’s in 1969 following the split in the Congress Party. Probably, with the exception of Prakash Singh Badal in Punjab, who has held up one pole of the State politics for nearly half-a-decade, no other regional leader has enjoyed such longevity at the head of a political party.
After the death of C N Annadurai, the legendary disciple of Periyar E V Ramaswami, and the founder of the Dravida movement in the State, Karunanidhi became the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. For a while, another prominent member of the DMK, the Tamil cinema idol, MGR, stayed with him until he rebelled and formed the rival AIADMK. Having ousted the Congress in the 1967 Assembly poll, the rival DMKs now alternated in power, with both MGR and Karunanidhi maintaining a firm grip on their respective parties, frowning on any discordant voices. Following MGR’s death, his star-partner on the Tamil screen, J Jayalalithaa, ably commanded the AIADMK, matching Karunanidhi in charisma and organisational heft. Yet, Karunanidhi had several other qualities which distinguished him from a mere politician. He was an ace script and story writer for Tamil cinema.
His mastery over Tamil literature was unparalleled, his silver-tongued oratory laced with literary references enthralled many generations of Tamilians. Above all, he was a good administrator. Indeed, both the DMKs in government launched several welfare programmes for the poor. Housing, education, mid-day-meal for school children, virtually free rations, etc were some of the schemes later implemented by other States as well. The poor constituted the core constituency of the two DMKs with Karunanidhi enjoying bigger support in urban and semi-urban areas. Remarkably, after having begun their politics on a somewhat ambivalent position on national unity and integrity, Karunanidhi abandoned the secessionist position to embrace the Indian Union without any preconditions or reservations. His strong belief in federalism coupled with long stints in power helped to tame the rebel in him. As he grew in stature, he also showed a weakness for family, ejecting out anyone who questioned his succession plan to hand over the reins of the party to his second son, Stalin. A prominent number two, and an aspirant for chief ministership, Vaiko, was virtually forced out when Stalin was anointed the heir apparent. Karunanidhi wheeled in his Singapore-based daughter, Kanimozhi, from his third wife, and made her an MP. The eldest son, M K Alagiri, did not accept Stalin as the DMK chief and revolted. Now, with the death of the patriarch, the family dispute over division of political and financial legacies is likely to break out into the open.
The Tamil politics is in a state of flux, with the demise of Jayalalithaa last year and now Karunanidhi. Though Karunanidhi fought on an anti-caste platform all through his life, but ironically, in reality it turned out to be nothing more than anti-Brahminism. In recent years, the State has seen the birth of several caste-based parties, a clear rebuff to the Dravida movement. Splintering of politics into caste-based formations is bound to get an impetus in the absence of tall leaders such as Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. It is in this vacuum that two of the biggest stars of Tamil cinema, Rajnikanth and Kamal Hassan have sought to jump into the political fray. Without a charismatic leader, the ruling AIADMK is being held together by the Centre. Unless someone like Rajinikanth can step into the shoes of Jayalalithaa, its future seems bleak, especially when Sasikala, now in prison on corruption charges, and her nephew, Dinakaran, are waiting in the wings to destabilise it unless given leadership. The Tamil politics is now at a crossroads. The DMK’s new boss, Stalin, has a challenge on his hands keeping the party together from internal feuds and external challenges from newcomers like Rajinikanth and Haasan. The AIADMK has to find a viable leader. Smaller caste-based groups can gain further traction when State-wide parties are in turmoil.