Much has been said about Muthuvel Karunanidhi, the DMK leader and five times chief minister of Tamil Nadu and his amazingly long unbroken political career. After his first election in 1957, from Kulithalai in Thiruchirapalli district, he never lost an election. In Nangavaram, which lies within the Kulithalai Assembly constituency region, the courts upheld the draconian practices that denied farm workers their due wages, and the government did not go in for an appeal against the verdict. The appalling condition of the men, women and children of this village was the theme of Karunanidhi’s maiden speech. This speech forced the government to act, to help the farmers of Nangavaram to gain decent wages and win back their dignity.
In 1962, he became the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. In 1967, he was the public works minister. In 1969, he became the chief minister after the DMK founder CN Annadurai’s death. There are more than 1,50,000 pages of his recorded orations in the House. There was nothing the canny politician did not know about the nuances of administration.
Dravidian politics was founded on the backbone of the Self-Respect Movement. An incident from Karunanidhi’s childhood exposed him to the inequities of the caste hierarchies prevailing over that time. His father, Muthuvelar, enrolled Karunanidhi in a local school to learn music. He was also keen that his son developed expertise in music. “My music classes were in reality my first political class. I learned about the subjugation of human beings on the basis of their caste. I witnessed the glee with which some people could humiliate others as well as the self-righteousness of others in practising their customs without even realising that they were ill-treating a vast majority of the people.”
The Dravidian movement was against the forward communities, was for the revival of Tamil pride, and for inclusive growth. The movement reflected what the people wanted, and the Dravidian parties wanted to establish social justice ever since they came to power. Tamil Nadu became the state where ideology got translated to policies, programmes and their delivery. According to Dr S Narayan, a former IAS officer who held many senior posts in the state and the Centre and was chief economic adviser to the Vajpayee government between 2003 and 2004 as also the author of Dravidian Years—Politics and Welfare in Tamil Nadu, Dravidian parties have been responsible for changing the social structure of the state, and for implementing a large number of welfare programmes for the poor.
It is easy to overlook the fact that it is Karunanidhi’s first term as the chief minister that made it possible for Tamil Nadu to emerge as the only state in the country which combined social welfare and development. After Karunanidhi took over as the chief minister in 1969, the state underwent many changes.
As Narayan says in his book, “There was strategic use of state patronage and the use of local party cadres in administration”. This served to express public grievances and demands, and has also prevented administration from looking at problems from an upper caste point of view. The DMK was a disciplined organisation in which district secretaries had direct access to top leaders. This again helped people having access to government. The IAS officers had the support of ministers from districts and from chief minister Karunanidhi.
The introduction of recruitment based on the numerical strength of the communities effectively cut off upper caste stranglehold on jobs. The number of entrants into government jobs became representative of existing caste and communities. Everybody talks about the role of former president R Venkatraman in in the industrialisation of Tamil Nadu when he was industry minister in the earlier Congress government. S Madhavan, industry minister in the DMK government, wanted to outdo his predecessor. The creation of new industrial parks, corporations for the development and financing of small industries, large industries were all products of this period.
The Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corporation managed to corner quite a few industrial licences for the state. The State Industries Development Corporation of Tamil Nadu provided land, developed infrastructure and helped with finance.
DMK founder Annadurai had said often that he saw god in the smiles of the poor. Karunanidhi’s regime tried to make this happen. There was major investment in helping the poor. Many housing programmes for the poor were started. It was during this time the expansion of the PDS was initiated.
The development indicators of Tamil Nadu started increasing after DMK came to power. The state domestic product grew by 17 % between 1970 and 1976, per capita incomes rose by 30% and, most important, literacy rates went up by from 39.5% in the 1971 census to 54.4 % in the 1981 census.
Karunanidhi has been much praised and has also been equally reviled. There have been accusations of widespread corruption. He is believed to have been the principal architect of UPA coalition government at the Centre. Yet, the scam that proved the UPA’s undoing—the 2G spectrum scam—happened during his leadership, allegedly involving leaders of the DMK. That took off most of the sheen from his image among the public and took its toll on the party’s electoral fortunes, too. The tall man of Tamil Nadu politics was accused of caving into pressures from his family members.
There are bound to be positives and negatives in a leader who held his own for 50 years in Indian politics. What is indisputable is that the measures taken under the first DMK government and its leader Karunanidhi helped the subsequent AIADMK government to take the state forward. History is bound to be kind to the Dravidian movement and one of its early architects, Karunanidhi.