What it was to be Kalaignar

FORGET the versatility of the man: poet, scriptwriter, aficionado of classical music, powerful orator and social reformer. If no North Indian politician comes close to the versatility of the late M Karunanidhi, the social welfare net fashioned by the two poles of Dravidian politics — DMK and AIADMK — was to be later emulated by the political classes elsewhere in the country. The models of ‘Uzhavar Sandhai’ (farmers’ markets) to eliminate middlemen and ensure fair prices for farm produce, a comprehensive health insurance scheme and model development of villages — these were just latter-day innovations that came to be overlaid on an already humming social welfare model of a functioning midday meal scheme and financial assistance to a range of needy people.

If some of the Centre’s recent schemes and policy interventions such as crop insurance or financial aid to pregnant women have a whiff of familiarity, it is clear where the inspiration came from. Karunanidhi’s reachout to the less fortunate of his land was built on decades of some solid slogging in the streets of mofussil Tamil Nadu, fostering the vision of a more equal and just state moored in a unique mix not witnessed elsewhere in its intensity and sustainability: anti-Brahmin and fiercely atheistic coupled with a rejuvenation and celebration of Dravidian culture distinct from the India beyond the Vindhyas.

But the man who worked to break the stranglehold of caste and class was unable to resist the temptation of surrounding himself with yes-men and relatives. Ironically, the errors in his political judgment multiplied when Tamil politicians had their best moments in the Delhi durbar.  Today, Karunanidhi and his sons seemed more dependent on a favourable political tide rather than their own exertions to pull them out of political redundancy. The Kalaignar’s (artist) goodwill, trust and credibility among the people of Tamil Nadu will endure as much as that of MGR.