On 23 May, at the Madras University Convocation Hall, Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa was sworn in after winning a historic second consecutive term. What created a flutter though was that 14 MLAs of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), led by its treasurer and heir apparent MK Stalin, were seated somewhere in the tenth row for only the second time in a decade-and-a-half when the Opposition attended the swearing-in of its rivals in government.
A DMK leader in the know later described how the party’s nonagenarian leader, M Karunanidhi, created what he referred to as a ‘scene’ at his Gopalapuram residence in Chennai. “Nee thalaivara, illa naan thalaivara?” a furious Karuna is said to have asked of his son MK Stalin, seemingly peeved at the media attention he received on that day. In English, his question translates to “Are you the leader or am I?”
And this, perhaps, is what is bothering the grand old man of Tamil politics the most, as he celebrates his 93rd birthday on Friday. Power, or maybe the draining away of it. DMK workers say that ‘Kalaignar’ (artist, Karuna’s moniker) is suddenly active in party affairs — especially after the recent debacle in the May 2016 Assembly polls. With the party that he leads now filled with loyalists of his son Stalin, and his chief ministerial dreams dashed, Karuna is not likely to be in the best of spirits.
Karunanidhi has been in active politics for almost eight decades now, joining the Dravidian movement when he was only 14 years old. A large chunk of the state’s post-Independence history has this man inextricably intertwined with it.
“You cannot talk about Tamil Nadu politics by detaching Karunanidhi’s name from it from the 1950s to now, and the same will continue as long as Tamil Nadu exists as a state,” said RK Radhakrishnan, senior journalist and political commentator. “Following reforms that have happened in the state, which has led the state to be one of the best in the country in terms of the key indicators — social or economic — it is Karuna’s policies that have led to these developments. He has also continued the legacies of his predecessors without trying to discontinue them merely because a political opponent has started it,” he added.
But the Chanakya of Tamil politics finds himself at a crossroads now in his 94th year. Longevity and ruthless politicking have, perhaps inevitably, led to widespread criticism of the leader. Once adored and showered with adulation, Karuna now faces merciless brickbats from all quarters.
He may be fond of calling himself as Periyar’s (founder of the Dravidian movement) protégé but many Periyarists (ardent followers of Periyar) disagree. The movement that launched Karunanidhi’s political career, they say, now stands in tatters – and a large part of the blame for the decline, dilution and decay of the movement, they say, goes to Karunanidhi.
“He was the one who took the decision to align with the BJP and the Congress when in power — this, despite decades of fighting against the Congress,” said Kolathur Mani, Periyarist and founder of the Dravidar Viduthalai Kazhagam, a group that propagates Periyar’s ideology. “That itself was an opportunistic move. When the DMK was formed, what did they say about why they wanted to get power? They said they want to bring Periyar’s ideologies to the whole state and implement them. Did they do that? Not at all,” he said.
Mani agrees that a lot of the blame possibly rides on Karuna’s shoulders simply because he has been at the helm of affairs the longest. CN Annadurai, the first chief minister from the DMK, died early, with Karuna replacing him. “It is not just Karunanidhi’s fault, but the entire DMK itself, as a concept, is at fault,” explained Mani, adding, “Once the DMK was formed, Periyar’s ideology was diluted. Even when Periyar was alive, his take on women’s rights, his anti-caste stand, none of that was followed. The decay began during Anna’s time itself,” he said.
Experts do not necessarily concur.
They say that Karuna’s role must be looked at from the view of what was necessary for Tamil Nadu at the time. “Karuna’s contribution should be seen in the light of the gradual ideological decay that has set in in society, its polity and the country in general since Independence,” argued RK Radhakrishnan, senior journalist, further stating, “Measured against this, Karuna’s contribution has been remarkable in every sphere of empowerment of marginalised classes, benefits to organised sector, embracement of market reforms, allying with ideologically incompatible partners and guiding Tamil Nadu as a key player in national polity.”
Anger of the Dalits
Another section of Tamil society that feels cheated by the DMK in general and Karunanidhi in particular, are the Dalits. This 25 percent of the state’s population has been disdainful of the DMK of late, preferring instead to vote for its rival, the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).
Dalit thought leaders argue that Karunanidhi has taken an openly anti-Dalit political stand throughout his career. They point to the various incidents of crimes against Dalits in the state’s recent history and argue that Karunanidhi, whether in power or in Opposition, did nothing except mouth vague platitudes.
“Karunanidhi, in terms of Dalit welfare, has contributed more negative inputs than positive,” said C Lakshmanan, associate professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies and an expert in Dalit issues. “When he became chief minister for the first time, he expelled a strong Dalit leader Sathyavani Muthu, who was a founding member of the DMK. She was unceremoniously thrown out of the government and the party — because the SC-ST (Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes) development allocation from the Centre was diverted to the Backward Classes Department — as a minister for Adi Dravida Welfare, she asked how without her prior knowledge other ministries and officials were overriding her powers. After this, he went on to create a rift between the Dalit communities — between Parayars and Pallars,” he explained.
Karunanidhi loyalists in the DMK, like KS Radhakrishnan, a DMK spokesperson, defend their leader staunchly. “Pazhuttha maram than kalladipadum,” said Radhakrishnan. “In English, this means that only a tree that bears ripe fruit will suffer an attack of stones by those who want to pluck it. Similarly Kalaignar is 93 years of age. He has given more than 70 of his years to public life. What he has done for the people of Tamil Nadu is incalculable,” he said.
Introduction of freebie culture and institutionalised corruption
The DMK leader has also been criticised severely for launching the state-sponsored freebie culture, not just in the state of Tamil Nadu, but all over the country. It was in 2006, ahead of the Assembly election, that Karuna announced free colour televisions for poor families in the state. The DMK combine was installed in the seat of power. Subsequent elections have seen a rash of announcements of freebies, each party competing with the other to give away mixer-grinders, fans and gold.
“The introduction of free colour TVs in the manifesto in 2006 was possibly the first time a major freebie was introduced to the Tamil people,” said RK Radhakrishnan, senior journalist. “He (Karunanidhi) laid the foundation stone for a lot of such things to be added to manifestos which did not in any way help the development of the people or society.”
The DMK demurs.
“At every point of time in history, there is a need in society — economic and social needs and demands,” argued KS Radhakrishnan, DMK spokesperson. “Colour TV was the need of that time. This time it is different. That is why we have not announced any freebies in this election. As a party, we change with the times,” he said.
Corruption and the DMK have become synonymous, following the 2G scam and the Rs 200-crore Kalaignar TV scam, two of the biggest corruption allegations the Indian courts have tried.
Experts say nothing can take away the contribution made by the nonagenarian to Tamil and national politics. “Some of his initiatives on the front of federalism, his stand on inter-state relations, administrative measures, the Constitution are all sound,” said Lakshmanan of MIDS, “But Karunanidhi is also the person who changed the government processes into a wholly sycophantic machinery. He has always hankered after populism and publicity."
RK Radhakrishnan said Karuna’s pragmatism in politics is admirable. “His pragmatism can be seen in the way the DMK gave up the demand for a separate Tamil state, aligning later with the Congress — which had dismissed his government - and much later his decision to be part of the NDA govt at the Centre and then switching sides to be again with the Congress,” he pointed out. “All because of his firm conviction that the demands of the Tamils can be aligned with Delhi, regardless of whoever is in power.”
The DMK believes that many of the best schemes now in vogue in the country were implemented during the DMK regime, under Karuna’s leadership. “Each time the DMK formed government, a pilot scheme was initiated which was followed by other states — the slum rehabilitation scheme, lepers rehabilitation scheme, spectacles for the downtrodden, the abolition of hand-pulled rickshaws — all of this was done in the 1970s,” said KS Radhakrishnan, and argued, “In 1989, he announced free power for farmers — it was only after that that the Punjab government announced it in its state."
But the writing is on the wall for the aged lion. Eight decades of missed opportunities to become a statesman, rather than remain relegated to the position of a mere politician. “A statesman requires certain qualities, a certain charisma,” said Lakshmanan. “A statesman is one who has a vision. Statesmen will tide over party line and political mileage to speak up for the downtrodden. I don’t think Karunanidhi has done any of that,” he concluded.
On Friday, his birthday, as he holds his first public meeting since the election results were announced — nostalgia is likely to be writ large in his speech, as it has been of late.
The lion will roar for the gallery.
The writer tweets @sandhyaravishan
Updated Date: Jun 03, 2016 10:40:40 IST