Farewell Karunanidhi: Curtains Down on Tamil Nadu’s Blockbuster Politics


Farewell Karunanidhi: Curtains Down on Tamil Nadu’s Blockbuster Politics

Illustration: Akshita Monga

The last few days have been full of suspense in Tamil Nadu, as the entire state hung on to the fate of DMK head honcho Karunanidhi. Hundreds of followers have been camping outside Chennai’s Kauvery Hospital for the last few weeks, holding on to any piece of information on their leader which they received from the medical bulletins. On July 29, Karunanidhi’s condition worsened, triggering panic, but within hours all fears were assuaged. The hospital called it a “transient setback” and Tamil Nadu heaved a sigh of relief.

DMK working president MK Stalin urged supporters to maintain calm time and again as Karunanidhi’s health went from critical to normal to very critical. And 21 DMK cadres reportedly died of shock in the past few weeks.

After being in and out of hospital for over a year, the DMK patriarch breathed his last today. He was 94.

The passing of Karunanidhi, the last of Tamil Nadu’s political bigwigs, marks the end of the state’s blockbuster politics. For Karunanidhi, fondly known as Kalaignar, built his reputation on a dramatic kind of statecraft – possibly aided by his years of experience as a film script and dialogue writer.

Kalaignar was the wind beneath the wings of the Dravidian movement that drove home the Aryan invasion theory, and the sullying of a “pure” Dravidian homeland. As this obituary points out, Karunanidhi’s career really took off with the anti-Hindi agitation of 1953 – the turning point was the TN government’s decision to change the name of the town Kallakudi to Dalmiapuram in honour of business baron Ram Krishan Dalmia. “Dravidian leaders denounced this decision as an insult to the people of Tamil Nadu… To protest the decision, Karunanidhi and his comrades lay down on the tracks in the town to block the trains. In the police action that followed, two persons died. Karunanidhi was arrested and imprisoned for five months. He chose to serve an extra month in jail instead of paying the fine of Rs 35. The protest magnified his popularity within the DMK.”

It certainly contributed to his legend and set the tone for the kind of politics he was going to practice. In the years to come, the epithet most frequently yoked to his name would be “wily”.

In Tamil Nadu, politicians learned from their film careers that an actor is only as good as his fan base, and they embraced the common man.

The whole affair, the passing of yet another political powerhouse, has echoes of Jayalalithaa’s demise in December 2016. Even in her final hours, Jayalalithaa, like Karunanidhi, didn’t leave without a dramatic twist. Cloistered at Chennai’s Apollo Hospital for over 70 days, her health updates kept veering from the wildly outrageous unofficial versions to the carefully controlled official narratives. Her final moments were no less than a thriller with rumours about death flying high, and tributes and retractions being pronounced in rapid succession. Finally, after days of suspense, when her tireless followers were spent, Amma was pronounced dead.

In Tamil Nadu, dying isn’t part of the script. Icons are meant to live forever, to be symbols of endurance, supplication, and dynasties, and part of dinner-table conversations. And death brings an end to the suspension of the belief that the people have in their film stars and politicians. Ruffled emotions bring out uncontrollable, misdirected fears. The violence in the aftermath of MGR’s death, still vivid in the minds of those who lived through it and even those who only heard of it, bears testimony to this. The shade of fanatical adoration that’s reserved for movie stars has bled onto the fabric of Tamil Nadu’s political landscape.

But then again the lines between politics and filmdom have always been blurred here – some of the state’s biggest statesmen have transitioned from reel-life drama to the real-life drama that is politics. Be it the legendary MGR, who went on to become the hero of the AIADMK, or Karunanidhi, who began his career as a magazine editor and screenwriter, and then shrewdly wrote the narrative that drove the Dravidian dream. Jayalalithaa’s transition into this political pantheon was a movie in its own right. She went on from being MGR’s muse to a political novice, from being thrown off her mentor’s hearse to being sidelined and assaulted inside the Tamil Nadu assembly by a DMK minister, a moment that changed the course of the state’s politics.

With this kind of a backstory, MGR, Karunanidhi, and Jayalalithaa, three fully fleshed-out characters, became a fiction writer’s dream. Fact and fiction have mingled to create a celebrated mythology in Tamil Nadu. The stories that emerged out of this political potboiler were like a deadly two-headed hydra – half real, half make-believe, but wholly consuming. They encouraged the people to look at life through the prism of celluloid – larger than life and with massive doses of drama. It also helped that the politicians of Tamil Nadu assumed the role of some kind of modern-day Robin Hoods, who emptied the state exchequer to win the hearts of the poor.

Elsewhere around India, politicians are always treated as though they are an anathema, people who are distant, corrupt beyond reason, powerful, and indifferent to the lives of the public. But in Tamil Nadu, politicians learned from their film careers that an actor is only as good as his fan base, and they embraced the common man. The building of temples, offering paal abhishekams to life-size cut-outs, and excessive display of emotions were encouraged. And it didn’t stop at that. Arrests were met with suicides, death with violence. And all along, the powers that be watched the spectacle that unfolded under their noses silently because they knew very well that legends are built only with hysteria and hero worship.

The last quarter of a century has seen only two figures dominate the landscape of the state’s politics. Now, both of them are gone, and the next election is in 2021. And though the DMK has a succession plan chalked out, it lacks a leader who will match the charisma of its patriarch and play the powerful role that the electorate expects of the party. Unless MK Stalin enacts a drama of his own and gives the people of Tamil Nadu their politics packaged in a performance.

Karunanidhi and Jayalaithaa’s deaths have forced the people of Tamil Nadu to confront a new reality and the possibility of a whole new political landscape by the time the state readies itself for the next electoral battle. While AIADMK’s long-term survival plan seems questionable, it’s MK Stalin who is likely to lead the DMK in the next polls. It is evident that Tamil Nadu politics will never be the same again.

We have just witnessed one of the last great rivalries of Indian politics come to an end. And what an action-packed potboiler it has been. There was romance, drama, revenge, victory, defeat, and retribution. But now, it’s curtains.

(With inputs from Pawan)