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OPINION | How Kalaignar Continues to Shape DMK Politics From Beyond the Grave

Karunanidhi was always a newsman's delight, with his uncanny ability to come up with witty monosyllabic or one-liners in response to tricky questions.

TS Sudhir |

Updated:August 8, 2018, 9:26 PM IST
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OPINION | How Kalaignar Continues to Shape DMK Politics From Beyond the Grave
Illustration by Mir Suhail.
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Is Muthuvel Karunanidhi a political force to reckon with even after death? If Edappadi Palaniswami's refusal to grant him space for a final resting place by Karunanidhi's mentor CN Annadurai's side at the Marina in Chennai is anything to go by, he is. That could be the only reason why the AIADMK government would choose to display a petulant attitude to a five-time chief minister who strode the Tamil Nadu political scene for seven decades.

The DMK wanted its leader to be laid to rest at the beach, a VVIP zone of sorts for political titans but the AIADMK government instead offered space at the Gandhi Mandapam, that at least in public perception, pales in comparison. The intention, it was suspected, was to deny Karunanidhi the bragging rights to lie by Annadurai's side. It was also an unsophisticated way of conveying that Karunanidhi, despite his accomplishments, was not in the league of Annadurai, MGR and Jayalalithaa.

The real reason is that a late Karunanidhi, etched in public memory through a memorial at the Marina, is as much capable to whipping up emotions and energy for the DMK as when he was alive. Palaniswami's aim was to stab at Karunanidhi's legacy, to rob him and his party of the optic, to reduce him to just another chief minister. In the process, what EPS sought to undermine was Karunanidhi's stature as a poet, dramatist, storyteller of great eminence.

Karunanidhi was always a newsman's delight, with his uncanny ability to come up with witty monosyllabic or one-liners in response to tricky questions. It is an irony that the man with the never-say-die attitude creates news even after his death.

It is a given that the politics of Tamil Nadu is set to change post-Karunanidhi. It will be extremely difficult for a DMK of 2018 to embrace and present the Dravidian template of the kind that Karunanidhi espoused, with the same fervour. That is because Dravidianism as a philosophy has been considerably diluted in the Dravidian political parties of today. As opposed to a defiant atheism the likes of Periyar and Karunanidhi espoused, the AIADMK which swears by the tenets of Dravidianism on paper, today is a party that openly embraces idol worship and temple hopping. It is this pro-Hindu approach that makes the AIADMK closer to the BJP in terms of ideology.

A dilution of the Dravidian mindset would cast the DMK in the AIADMK mould as well. Though the top brass of the DMK still wears atheism on its sleeves, family members are known to secretly visit temples and practise rituals, keeping their politics and private lives separate.

Which is why in the passing away of Karunanidhi is the beginning of the end of Tamil Nadu's ‘anti-ism’. In post-Independence India, the 1950s and the 1960s saw the DMK take up cudgels against Brahminism in an attempt to empower the Backward classes and to usher in an egalitarian society, against the imposition of Hindi to challenge the hegemony of a New Delhi. The likes of Anna, Karunanidhi and MGR rode on that anti-ism to positions of power. Much before the BJP coined the phrase, they ushered in a Congress-mukt Tamil Nadu.

But what changed on the ground? In today's Tamil Nadu, the Thevars, Gounders, Vanniyars are the new Brahmins. These backward classes are the ones who occupy positions of power and authority and what's worse, indulging in caste atrocities against the Dalits and even targeting the Brahmins.

During Karunanidhi's time and even Jayalalithaa to an extent, Chennai did not go to Delhi. The Centre came to Tamil Nadu. Using the clout of his strength in the Lok Sabha, Karunanidhi got what he wanted because he could manipulate the Lutyens power structure.

What the two regional parties did was to promote personality cults. It led to Tamil Nadu practising the most visceral and virulent form of politics. And both Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa were equally to blame for it, for using hate as a dominant emotion, killing the need for civility in political discourse.

So will Tamil Nadu change post-Karunanidhi? It is bound to. The relationship between the DMK and the AIADMK, at least for public consumption, is more civil. And the equations between Delhi and Chennai have changed dramatically, despite a humungous 37 MPs that the AIADMK has. Tamil Nadu, ruled by men who are political pygmies in comparison to a Karunanidhi and a Jayalalithaa, is easily pushed around by the Centre marking a huge shift in equations.

Even the card of anti-Hindi is hardly likely to work in Tamil Nadu with the same fervour as it did half a century ago. Though the BJP is seen as a Hindi and Hindutva party and the use of Hindi on milestones on national highways is a red card, the saffron party will eventually find takers provided it can invest in credible local talent instead of appearing like invaders from the north.

As the sun set on Tamil Nadu on August 7, one can be sure it also marks a new dawn.

(The writer is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.)

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| Edited by: Ashutosh Tripathi
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