Kalaignar: An era
For six decades, Karunanidhi’s dynamic personality reverberated through Indian politics; now, that era is coming to an end.
In contemporary Indian politics, M Karunanidhi, heading a regional party for over half-a-century, has gained national repute for being among the most remarkable leaders. His vision, perspective, commitment, and strategies in politics, governance, and administration are distinct. Very few at the local or even national level can match his astute thinking and expertise. He is an unquestionably tall leader with multifaceted talents and a shining personality. He was a born leader with a revolutionary spark in his thinking and actions. In Indian politics, very rarely do individuals emerge to occupy a space of consequence without a family legacy, caste dominance, and economic stronghold. Karunanidhi did not have a background to boast of, either from the family or from caste or class. His capacity, skill, talent, commitment and hard work have enabled him to occupy this space of reverence. He had a legacy of swimming against the current. He is a poet, storyteller, scriptwriter, actor, director, orator, prolific littérateur, media giant, voracious reader, publisher, party leader, former Chief Minister, opposition leader, opinion maker, and a model legislator. In every aspect, he has only excelled. His contribution to Tamil literature is unparallel. Despite having studied only at the school-level, his literary contribution is indeed remarkable.
Karunanidhi's social development schemes with an emphasis on pro-poor development programmes are a model for many states in the country. He was the godfather of echoing the country's regional and ethnic aspirations within the ambit of Indian politics. He connected himself with three generations of politicians, at the national and state levels, by contextualising his approach and strategies. His perspective is a blend of socialism and communism and, hence, he was close to all those parties through his political journey in the past six decades. Several innovative social development schemes were introduced by him as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, much before the concept of social development gained currency in the governance discourse.
Despite being in politics for a long time, Karunanidhi has equipped himself to utilise the best of modern communication methods and technologies to reach out to the masses. In India, he is the only politician who has handled cinematography effectively and efficiently to spread social reformatory ideas. With astute thinking, he handled the film industry strategically to spread the political ideology of his party.
Above all, he is a hardcore democrat. In the formative years of Independent India, he used his oratory skills to promote democratic values and revolutionary ideas. He worked for democratising the various diverse communities. He was instrumental in creating a productive space for the lower-middle class and poor in legislative politics by giving tickets to diverse individuals to contest in the state Assembly and Parliamentary elections. This strategy attracted the lower-middle class and poor communities towards his party. Alongside revolution, he deeply valued the debates and discourses in the Legislative Assembly. Whenever he was Chief Minister, he would conduct the Legislative Assembly sessions for a longer period. His commitment to democracy is known through his brave act of opposing the imposition of Emergency. He faced several harsh consequences for his opposition to the Emergency. He is even now remembered for his inflammatory speeches. His oratory skills were indeed attractive and motivating.
Karunanidhi was also instrumental in institutionalising the Dravidian Movement by creating a very vibrant library and documentation centre. By visiting the library and the gallery, one could recount and be awed by the achievements of the Dravidian movement and more specifically the role of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). No other party has invested in building such a library and documentation centre as the DMK.
Karunanidhi has always been quick in responding to the media on the events and issues of Indian and Tamil politics, presenting his unique and well-corroborated perspective, which is fondly remembered by everyone. Had he been involved in national politics, he would have surely become a tall national leader. Limiting himself to Tamil politics did win him a lot of hearts in South but he missed out on an opportunity of marking his eloquent presence in the national capital.
His absence from active politics has created a void not only in Tamil Nadu but also across the country, especially today when regional leaders are gaining momentum. He has surely created a history of sorts during his tenure in politics, governance, and administration. He represented an era, and that era is now drawing to an end. His leadership is unique and it demands a perspectival research to add value to the existing knowledge paradigms on the conduct of leadership.
(The author is Professor and Rajiv Gandhi Chair for Panchayati Raj Studies, Gandhigram Rural Institute. The views expressed are strictly personal)