The death of Muthuvel Karunanidhi, an outstanding profile in Tamil Nadu’s political landscape, ends one of the most illustrious chapters in India’s socio-political narratives but also opens a timelessly relevant retrospective on the life and times of a leader of myriad intellectual hues whose contribution to the idea of politics as a socially empowering catalyst has been path-breaking.
A passionate proponent of social justice in a post-Independent India, Karunanidhi, who became the chief minister of Tamil Nadu on five occasions, was among the early harbingers of the truth that despite its freedom from a colonial power, the country’s schisms of caste and prejudice remained an endemic problem that required attention.
His allegiance to the vision of one of the stalwarts of Tamil identity, CN Annadurai, who was in the vanguard of the momentum for Tamil Nadu’s social justice awareness, set the stage for his eventual rise to pre-eminence. But that was by no means his only shining facet at the time. He was also a name to reckon with for his literary brilliance that assumed many forms, a penchant he displayed since the age of 14 when he started a handwritten newspaper. Plays, poems, letters, novels as well as trenchant contributions to the movie industry of Tamil Nadu with dialogues, screenplays and lyrics encompassing themes of identity, autonomy and justice for all sections of society, set alight the imagination and aspirations of hundreds of thousands of viewers.
A rare example of an individual who rose to become a leader of the people through sheer force of vision, persuasion and intellectual velocity — and minus any trappings of privilege or pelf — Karunanidhi’s greatest ability lay in the way he roused the masses to relate to their identity as a tool for social reform and progress.
Such was the charisma wrought by his intellectual thunder that the youth of Tamil Nadu, it is said, in the 60s and 70s, took to wearing dark glasses, a signature Karunanidhi touch, as a sign of solidarity. It is, arguably, a benchmark for politicians as role models for the masses that has since not been surpassed in India.
His brand of political acumen and expository passion, a synthesis of his commitment to the value of identity and the principles of social justice, needs to be accorded the highest rung in India’s political hall of fame.