Three “K”s defined my childhood. To be specific, I used to famously refer to them as my three favorite “க”s. Given Tamil’s unique ability (or handicap) to handle multiple sounds from the Ka (Ka, Kha, Ga, Gha) family, through a single letter, it’s a coincidence that my three favorite “க”s were also three favorite “K”s.
Out of the above three, my liking for both Kamal Haasan and Kapil Dev came truly out of my following their work in their fields. Not surprising given that Cricket and Movies were very much an integral part of my childhood. But as for my liking for Karunanidhi ….I guess it was largely circumstantial. Technically, he was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu when I was born, but that didn’t really mean much. By the time, I was old enough to know who he was, and when I really got introduced to him, a phenomenon called MGR had already arrived in the Tamil Nadu political scene and the force of that phenomenon was indomitable. So much so that by the time, Karunanidhi became the CM of Tamil Nadu again, it was literally after MGR’s death. So Karunanidhi was actually the fierce opposition leader during these formative years of mine, when I developed a liking for him. Looking back, I do not know why this man appealed to my boyhood political interests. But he did. And growing up in a small town in Tamil Nadu in the 1970s meant, you had only three political choices – MGR or Karunanidhi or None (no interest in politics).
My father had a huge collection of tapes with Karunanidhi’s speeches. These were mostly speeches from his political rallies. But boy..how much I loved listening to his speeches even as a young boy. A young boy whose knowledge of politics didn’t extend beyond being able to identify party names, symbols, and their flag colors. Looking back, I could recall how his speeches acted as the background score for my many cricket evenings or many indoor game days, that I used to play with my brother, as my father was completely absorbed by perhaps the last best orators to have come out of the Tamil Nadu political scene. If you do not understand Tamil and if you haven’t followed at least a couple of Karunanidhi speeches, you have no idea what you are missing. I cannot in any honesty equate his oratorial skills and his wit, elan, and mastery of the language, with any other politician from any part of the world.
Muthuvel Karunandhi aka M.K. Karunanidhi, better known as Kalaignar Karunanidhi was not just an orator par excellence. He was a literary stalwart. A playwright. A movie screenwriter. A true lover of the language, who pushed for Tamil Renaissance. He started as a journalist/editor at the age of 16, publishing his own handwritten magazine. One of the first essays he wrote at the age of 17, that made the Tamil literary world look at him was on “Widow Remarriage”, a true rebel of a thought in those days, leave alone what it meant for a 17 year old to pen a very well coherent argument in favor of letting a widowed woman lead a free life, by quashing centuries old traditions and superstitions.
He concluded thus in that essay.
“ஆகவே,செந்தமிழ்ச்செல்வா! மங்கையர்தான் நம் நாட்டின் பொக்கிஷம் என்பதை மறவேதே! அவர்கள் வாழ்வைக் கெடுக்காதே! மறுமணத்தை மறுத்து அவர்கள் இளமையைப் பலியிடாதே!”.
“My Dear son of the rich Tamil soil,
Hence, please note that women are the only treasure of this country.
Do not ruin their lives.
Do not kill their youthhood by denying them their right to remarry!!”
Now, political opponents of the 21 century, especially those who seemed to have gained all their political knowledge through WhatsApp forwards and twitter, have a very narrow view of Kalaignar Karunanidhi. They know Kalaignar merely as this senile politician who sided with P. Chidambaram and encouraged his daughter to collude with a few prominent names in Delhi to make the most out of the now infamous 2G scam. This post is not about that shady side of Karunanidhi’s legacy and in my opinion, this doesn’t even begin to define Karunanidhi, the leader, the politician, the administrator, and the literary star he was. That shady sub-plot of his long career is a blotch, no doubt, but his contribution to Tamil Nadu is so huge that I would call you an ignorant student of Indian politics, if you insist on talking only about that to define him. Besides, I am writing this blog post only to highlight how his legacy impacted Tamil Nadu and in the process, attempting to outline my own understanding of his legacy.
When Karunanidhi first became the chief minister of TN in 1969, he had a strong Tamil identity platform to step on, well laid out by his mentor C.N. Annadurai. In combination with Anna’s platform and Periyar’s rational movement ideologies, Karunanidhi was able to create his own and unique voice in the TN political scene. A very different one from Kamaraj’s and a much stronger one than Anna’s.
In a long political career that followed, Karunanidhi established himself arguably as the most efficient administrator that Tamil Nadu has ever seen till now. He was efficient because his leadership style involved long deliberations, and not relying on instincts. He was ok to waver on his platform, if people around him felt that something was not the best decision. He was very different from MGR in that MGR ran a populist administration, very successfully. On the other hand, Karunanidhi tried to mix populism with his Dravidian ideologies while drafting his policies, keeping the need for Tamil Nadu to stand independent in his mind. Independent from the barrage of attacks coming from the “Hindi Nationalist” leaders from the center. His Tamil identity took front seat at all times.
Here is Karunanidhi after MGR’s death. Even an eulogy of a political rival sounded like a poetry when he spoke.
J. Jayalaitha, who became his arch nemesis for almost the next three decades or so after the death of MGR, proved to be a bigger challenge for Kalaignar to tackle, than what he may have anticipated in 1987 immediately after MGR’s death. Strangely, many political pundits dismissed Jayalaitha’s political stamina then, because she was sort of viewed as a misfit to the Dravidian movement as conceptualized by the likes of Anna and Karunanidhi. She was a movie star, who rode on her charisma and ego. Her close association with MGR helped her launch her career.
Everyone in Tamil Nadu was surprised to see that in no time, what an ambitious leader she turned out to be. So, Kalaignar was completely unprepared to handle someone like Jaya. He was used to handling someone like MGR, a peer, a respectable colleague, and someone who grew in his era of Dravidian movement. But Jaya didn’t have any of that background. She was a convent educated woman, who grew up in a tight shell with very little exposure to the real world. The battle was on. And these two established a sort of political rivalry for 20 odd years that probably no other Indian state may have seen and/or may ever see.
Till June 2001. When the world got to see how revengeful and vindictive Jayalalitha could be.
The midnight arrest of Karunanidhi, an ex-chief minster, along with two central cabinet ministers, in somewhat of an inhuman way was, notwithstanding the circumstances that led to the charges, completely authoritarian by any democratic standards. This incident definitely redefined the rivalry between KK and JJ. Since then, Jayalaitha continued to win more elections than Karunanidhi as long as she was alive. But purely in terms of the manner in which Karunanidhi continued to keep his political statesmanlike aura around him intact, all the way till he became physically immobile in 2016 or so, it was remarkable that only a handful of world..yes world…political leaders could have even dreamt of having.
Karunanidhi was a master politician. Not only at the local and state level, but most importantly in knowing how to work with the center. Barring once or twice, Karunanidhi always managed to come out as a winner in his negotiations with the ruling party in the center. This, in spite of his staunch anti-Hindi stance was something to be admired. Even though Jayalalitha showed how she could get her way with the center using more aggressive tactics, she didn’t earn the same kind of diplomatic respect that Karunanidhi earned over a period of time. Contrary to what people may believe, Karunanidhi was one of the least vindictive leaders I have seen in Tamil Nadu politics. I am not saying this with any bias. This was simply the case. Some people may call his non-vindictive style, political opportunism, but I think he understood the value of keeping his political enemies close enough so that he could make them his friends when the time came, which it often did.
As many superfluous and heartfelt tributes flood the pages of print, pixels of TV & internet, and every footstep & decibel of stage, his critics, of whom there is no dearth, will hurl insults on his lifestyle that openly included living with two wives, one of whom, he sometimes referred to as the “mother of my daughter”. The truth though, is that not many could have had the courage and the openness with which he embraced living with two families, leave alone breaking the societal taboo associated with it all.
With a potential leadership battle awaiting to disrupt the stability of the party, Karunanidhi’s legacy alone may not be enough to anchor the political future of DMK.
Five decades of party leadership is a unique feat that no other political leader in India could claim to have achieved.
All roads end somewhere. And this is where Karunanidhi’s ends.
When the sun rises tomorrow without the last of the pillars that held Tamil Nadu upright till now, Karunanidhi’s legacy would have become that of the past.
A legacy like none other’s.
And many will continue to hear echoes of him saying “என் உயிரினும் மேலான அன்பு உடன்பிறப்புக்களே.” in his unique scratchy voice.
எப்போதும் சிரித்திடும் முகம் –
எதிர்ப்புகளை எரித்திடும் நெஞ்சம்!
இளமை இளமை இதயமோ
இமயத்தின் வலிமை! வலிமை!
தமிழர் வாழும் நிலமெலாம் அவர்தம் மனையெலாம்
தன்புகழ் செதுக்கிய செல்வா – எங்கு சென்றாய்?
Loose Translation of the above lines:
An ever smiling face
A chest to withstand adversities
Young at heart
With a strength of the mightiest of the mountains
Where is that man who carved his fame in
Every household and every land inhabited by Tamilians..?
Where did you go?
(Above lines are Karunanidhi’s. Written after the death of Tamilselvan. How apt that I get to use these lines now!)