Will Tamil Nadu Ever See the Rise of Another Karunanidhi?


Will Tamil Nadu Ever See the Rise of Another Karunanidhi?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

In India, a death is never just the passing of a person. If the person is of a certain stature, it is accompanied by rituals that far surpass their legend in life. Public spaces get tense. People rush home from work expecting a tamasha on the streets, holidays are declared for institutions, and cities come to a grinding halt.

“Kalaignar” (scholar of arts), M Karunanidhi’s death was no different. Crowds camped outside Chennai’s Kauvery Hospital, hoping to hear some good news about the health of their beloved leader. A week back, they actually had something to cheer about – when it appeared as if Karunanidhi was about to breathe his last, the hospital issued a statement saying his vital parameters had improved. That joy was short-lived.

The breathless coverage of Karunanidhi’s health reminded me of the time I was young and my grandmother was still around. Sun TV was a constant in our house then. I still remember seeing footage of the post-midnight drama that unfolded at his Oliver Road residence. The police barged into the DMK chief’s house, woke him up from his sleep, dragged him down the stairs, and arrested him on charges of corruption. Jayalalithaa was the CM then. The footage of the arrest and of Karunanidhi squatting on the floor with swollen feet was replayed on loop on the channel, an example of how Tamil Nadu politics has always had a theatrical bent, where every scene appears scripted for hungry masses.

Sometimes, the lines between art and politics meld – each borrowing heavily from the other. Mani Ratnam’s underrated classic Iruvar is loosely based on the relationship between Karunanidhi and his one-time friend, MG Ramachandran. Their falling out led to the formation of separate parties, the DMK and the AIADMK.

With the death of Karunanidhi, nearly two years after Jayalalithaa’s demise, comes the end of one of the biggest rivalries in Indian political history.

Unlike Jayalalitha and MGR – and now Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth, who’re taking baby steps into their political careers – Karunanidhi wasn’t an actor. But he wielded a far greater influence on the public with a more potent weapon: words. A poet and screenwriter extraordinaire, Karunanidhi’s Dravidian ideology was invoked through his dialogues. Parasakhti, the movie in which Sivaji Ganesan made his debut, has one of the most famous scenes in Tamil cinema where the hero passionately speaks against the evils of casteism, oppression of lower castes, and the state of society where the marginalised have no access to opportunities. This passion would later translate into his years as Tamil Nadu chief minister, when he ensured reservation for the “lower castes”, giving them a chance to rise above their circumstances, and putting Brahminical suppression in its place.

And then there was the issue of Tamil language, on the back of which, Karunanidhi built his political legend.

A few years ago, Kanimozhi, Karunanidhi’s daughter appeared on a TV discussion where the use of Hindi language was being debated. Deciding to make her point, she began to speak in Tamil while the rest of the panel looked on in bewilderment. She then paused and asked if the panelists found it tough to understand her language, how could she be expected to understand Hindi. I don’t know why, but I felt a strange pride at that moment – not because I am some sort of a language chauvinist but because it is near impossible to have one national language in a country as diverse as India. Karunanidhi’s fierce valorisation of Tamil and resistance to Hindi hegemony resulted in the DMK organising a World Classical Tamil Conference in 2010. At a time when Hindi is being imposed indiscriminately on states and people who aren’t very well-versed with the language, Tamil Nadu is one of the few states that has relentlessly resisted it.

Unlike Jayalalitha and MGR, Karunanidhi wasn’t an actor. But he wielded a far greater influence on the public with a more potent weapon: words.


With the death of Karunanidhi, nearly two years after Jayalalithaa’s demise, comes the end of one of the biggest rivalries in Indian political history. Tamil Nadu’s civic life now faces a huge void and is likely to see the emergence of a new political order. But will it witness the rise of new bigwigs? What agendas will they take up? Tamil Nadu, which for many years was the bastion of the DMK and the AIADMK, with no place for national parties, may now be forced to re-evaluate their choices.

A succession tussle has embattled both the DMK and AIADMK. The DMK patriarch’s two sons – MK Stalin and Alagiri – their half-sister Kanimozhi, and the Maran brothers, Dayanidhi and Kalanithi are the players on this side. With Kalaignar gone, the cracks in the DMK might be more visible than ever before.   

Will we see the rise of a leader from within the two big TN parties? Or will the next chieftains come from newer fronts?

It was only toward the end of the Jayalalithaa-Karunanidhi era, that Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan threw their hats into the political ring. The timing could not be better, but with their political agendas still hazy, it is unlikely that they will create a huge dent in state affairs.     

After years of suspense, Rajinikanth took the plunge in December last year, making a pitch for “spiritual politics”. But eight months on, he is yet to announce the name of his political party – and there’s a serious doubt that his rallies will draw the same numbers that his films do. Plus his on-screen persona appears to clash with his political avatar, and that has not gone down well with his supporters.

Rajini, previously believed to be entirely above any criticism, witnessed a social media backlash during the promotions of his movie Kaala. He essays the role of a gangster and champion of the downtrodden, the “lower-caste” – but failed to display that kind of empathy in real life. When the Tamil Nadu police fired at agitators protesting the Vedanta Group’s Sterlite Copper Smelter plant in Tuticorin, which led to the deaths of several people, he spoke out in support of the government’s actions. He might have apologised, but all his future moves will be viewed through the same prism.

Haasan too, has been doing the rounds, meeting political leaders, and in his own words “picking ideologies from everyone”. With a promise to focus on development, will he be able to shift the focus of Tamil Nadu politics away from Dravidianism?

The real test of this will be the 2019 state elections that are expected to usher in a new dawn in Tamil Nadu politics. Will it be Rajinikanth or Kamal Hassan, or will the public go back to the tried-and-tested DMK or AIADMK?

That’s a question we will grapple with in the coming months. For now, a state bids farewell to a beloved – though far from spotless – leader. Like any long career, Karunanidhi’s wasn’t without missteps, but his imprint on the state, its culture, and the galvanising of the marginalised in TN politics, will remain his legacy. How many chief ministers can claim that?