M Karunanidhi: The radical wordsmith who shook up Indian politics
[August 08 2018]
Born to a working class
family, Karunanidhi's public life began at age 14
The passing of Muthuvel Karunanidhi at 94 marks the
end of one of India's most prolific political careers, writes Sudha G
Karunanidhi, who was chief minister of the southern
state of Tamil Nadu five times between 1969 and 2011, was born to poor
working class parents in Tiruvarur town in 1929. His public life began
at age 14 when he dropped out of school to join the student wing of the
Justice Party, which later became a movement to bolster Tamil identity.
Even as the rest of India was in the throes of a
freedom movement against British rule, the Justice Party stood out for
challenging elitism, religious dogma and caste orthodoxies in south
It was stringent about civil rights, opted for civil
disobedience to demand affirmative action and was outspoken for Tamil
identity against national pride. These ideals found a zealous convert in
the young Karunanidhi.
He campaigned against the caste supremacy of Brahmins
and also opposed a move by the federal government to impose Hindi as an
official language of communication in south India
He helped found the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)
party in 1949. The party would go on to be one of the most influential
political entities in the state.
Karunanidhi (L) with his mentor CN Annadurai
As a young activist, he strongly challenged caste
hierarchy in the country and was inspired by the ideals of the
Self-Respect Movement, which envisioned a society where backward castes
would have equal rights.
According to a recent biography, Karunanidhi: A Life
in Politics, he was dazzled by the oratorical skills of Self-Respect
"The compelling arguments of Periyar's speeches, the
bravery and courage in Azhagiri's sentences, Anna's beautiful Tamil -
these mesmerized me," he wrote.
But his radical views did not always work in his
His sympathies for the separatist Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militants in neighbouring Sri Lanka cost him his
position as chief minister when former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was
assassinated by the group.
But despite this setback, Karunanidhi continued to be
a master in political sophistry, often playing a critical role in
federal politics as well.
His first foray into national politics came in 1989
when he formed an alliance with the National Front under then prime
minister VP Singh.
His party also joined the coalition government headed
by the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) AB Vajpayee in 1999. The DMK
continued to play a key role in federal politics as it joined the
Congress-led coalition in 2004 after it defeated the BJP.
Karunanidhi (L) with Tamil movie star turned
In the theatrical world of Tamil Nadu politics though,
he faced corruption charges and was famously subject to a midnight
arrest by his fierce rival Jayalalitha who died in 2016.
He regularly dealt with accusations of nepotism.
His nephews controlled the TV business in the state,
and he was frequently accused of ushering in dynastic politics in the
DMK. His sons and daughter all took up prominent leadership roles with
the objective of one day leading the party.
But he was the true pioneer of political theatre in
Drawn in by the world of letters, Karunanidhi wrote,
staged and acted in plays that doubled as vehicles of his party ideals.
And he was a pioneer in dovetailing popular culture
with political and social advocacy.
From street plays, to movies, to owning television
channels bearing his party emblem of a rising sun, Karunanidhi enjoyed
an extraordinary status in Indian politics for segueing politics and
performance art into a successful formula for reaching voters and
A younger Karunanidhi (left) with film star and
political contemporary MG Ramachandran
He was a wordsmith beyond compare. So his wit and
clever puns gave him a Wilde-like literary charm unmatched in Tamil
His fans were swayed by his gravelly voice, hyperbolic
flourishes and blazing oratory. His theatrical moments of repetition for
emphasis with a liberal sugar dust of irony and humour were hugely
popular. And his unique gift of employing Tamil grandiose literary verse
one moment and using a mocking street cadence in the next showed his
mastery in appealing to all kinds of listeners.
A typical Karunanidhi speech, in fact, gave rise to a
generation of mimics before memes were even a thing.
He could, with stony self-conceit, tide over tricky
questions in press conferences with droll asides and wry humour that led
his critics to call him the artful dodger in the tangled world of Indian
To his die-hard fans and supporters though,
Karunanidhi was known as Kalaignar, or "the artist". Even his political
enemies admired his vast contribution to Tamil cinema and literature.
In 1952, he wrote the screenplay and dialogues for a
film called Parasakthi which was an instant hit - and shook up Tamil
cinema. The hitherto benign world of Tamil talkies, that was used to
religious musicals, mythological and family dramas, sat up.
Centred on a Tamil family of migrants from what was
then Burma to Tamil Nadu, the wordy film, which had no songs, harshly
critiqued the exploitative caste structure that led to the family being
ostracised in society.
It created enough controversy to be banned.
But despite the protests, the film is considered a
classic in the canon of India cinema and enjoys cult status in Tamil
Nadu even today.
A prolific writer, Karunanidhi wrote more than 30
movie scripts, novellas, poems, historical novels and regularly
contributed letters to readers in Murasoli - the Tamil newspaper that
was the mouthpiece of his party.
He never gained the swooning fan base that his
political rivals - the popular matinee idol turned chief minister, MG
Ramachandran, and later Jayalalitha - enjoyed. But his iconic status
among his followers was evident as they gathered in droves across Tamil
Nadu to mourn his passing.
Karunanidhi leaves behind the distinct legacy of a
leader who played the dual role of artist and statesman for the longest
time in Indian politics.
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