Karunanidhi: end of an era

Muthuvel Karunanidhi’s life spanned almost 100 years, which saw epochal changes in the world, the country and his state, Tamil Nadu, where he lived and died. He was not only witness to the change, but was part of it, was its agent and was even himself the change in his state. Like many Renaissance personalities of the last century, he was many things in one — writer, film artiste, social reformer, journalist, activist, agitator, politician, ruler. Not may leaders are made in that mould now. Typically, societies in transition socially, politically and culturally produce such leaders. The Dravidian movement provided such a radical and seminal moment to Tamil Nadu’s society, and Karunanidhi embodied the verve, values and ideals of the movement as few others did. It was perhaps the assertion of centuries of life under the surface that made the movement the storm that swept Tamil Nadu for a few decades, and Karunanidhi was among those who rode the storm. 

Caste, class, race, language and faith were all elements of the identity politics which was born out of the movement and which has dominated Tamil Nadu since the 1950s. Karunanidhi and the DMK shaped that politics, and he practised it with great skill and elan. He was chief minister of the state five times over half a century, and even when he was not at the helm, he was not diminished and always had many aces up his sleeve. While he was strongly entrenched in state politics, he has influenced national politics also at critical times. Few other leaders could claim the support base, popularity and charisma that Karunanidhi had, and few others could sustain it for so long.    

Power and politics sanitise revolutions and Karunanidhi and the DMK evolved through skirmishes and compromises with a demanding system. He has been criticised for devaluing the first principles of the movement, using them for his own benefit and imposing family rule on the party. He has faced corruption charges and investigations and found himself in controversies over promotion of separatism. They may have hurt, but he still remained on top of his politics, and the patriarch did not lose the touch of spring even in his autumn days. Tamil Nadu is a frontline state in development, administration, culture, ideas and many other measures of a state’s life. Participating in its moving life, getting actively involved in it and leading it for decades is a measure of greatness and worth beyond the calling of ordinary politics. Karunanidhi had that high calling on a fuller scale than many others, and an era has ended with his departure. 

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