In many ways, M Karunanidhi was the man that most males would aspire to become. Like most men, Karunanidhi had a personal life, a professional life and a family life. Most men wish that somewhere these three lives would meet and sync, if not coalesce. Their lives would have been well lived if this happened. In Karunanidhi’s case, it happened. In him, the personal, the family and the professional all merged into one seamless whole.
Unlike most men, however, Karunanidhi’s life was governed by another dimension too – a social life. Karunanidhi’s party and the state, of which he was often the tallest leader, comprised the arena of his social life.
Karunanidhi has often faced much criticism for allowing his personal and social dimensions to mesh. But he was a product of a culture that is deeply embedded in Tamil, and Indian, society where women have to jettison family to play their professional and social roles fully but men need not.
Karunanidhi had his priorities clearly marked out. His first priority was himself. Next came his family and third came his profession or his social life – Dravidian politics and the DMK. His party was, in effect, an extension of his family.
Karunanidhi had his priorities clearly marked out. His first priority was himself. Next came his family and third came his profession or his social life – Dravidian politics and the DMK. His party was, in effect, an extension of his family. The cadres were akin to his blood brothers – udanpirappugal, those born with him.
Karunanidhi’s greatness lay in succeeding in his personal life, his family life, as well as his professional, social life.
In a telling anecdote that he recounts in his multi-volume autobiography, Nenjukku Needhi, a teen Karunanidhi deftly manipulates a rival students group that has emerged in his village and becomes its leader. The opportunity came when the rival group was staging a play. They needed someone to play the lead and they couldn’t find one. Karunanidhi offered to play the lead only if they agreed to dissolve their group and merge with his group. And they agreed. Few men have lasted so long, vanquished so many of their rivals, and come out on top as Karunanidhi.
Few men have raised such large families as Karunanidhi’s and given them so much, although the success of each of his progeny could not always be guaranteed. As the paterfamilias, he was there for them in their hour of need even as some fell by the wayside, unable to keep up.
Up until the 1980s, it seemed as if his profession was priority number 2. But it became clear in the 1990s that wasn’t so. To wield power on ever bigger scale, Karunanidhi had to have his trusted people everywhere – and who could be more trustworthy than family members. The power he wielded did serve his ideology as much as his first two priorities – himself and his family – allowed.
Just to recall a little bit of history, a particularly controversial move was breaking bread with the BJP. His nephew Murasoli Maran led from the front what was then an about-turn for the DMK. And Karunanidhi followed him with few apparent qualms.
He was often a key player in the state’s social life. In many ways, he determined the course Tamil Nadu took in the last fifty years and more.
Karunanidhi remains everyman’s envy, a male touchstone. Yet, his success was the Dravidian movement’s loss. Karunanidhi could never quite acquire the persona his mentor Annadurai had acquired. The movement needed a leader who could symbolize the entire state but Karunanidhi remained a polarising figure until the very end. The DMK-AIADMK split took an ugly turn after his death and the AIADMK gracelessly opposed his Marina memorial.
His party faithful called him Tamil – the embodiment of the language. But that only served rhetorical purposes. Till the end, Karunanidhi remained a politician, a party leader and a family leader. That was the arc of his life’s narrative. And the movement that gave birth to him remains unfulfilled – caste continues to rule the roost in the state’s social life and dalits continue to be oppressed, not any less than other states with little claim to a progressive legacy.