Every time a senior politician dies, contemporaries set up a chorus of “irreparable loss”, “nation in mourning”, and so on, oblivious to the fact that most of them were living fossils of a time long past. The eulogies for Muthuvel Karunanidhi are similarly out of date because this passionate champion of the Dravidian movement and the Tamil legacy had morphed into the head of a political dynasty by the time of his death. The rhetoric had become mechanical, the passion for Tamil muted and the principal purpose of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam was keeping the family in power. For all that, he leaves his successors a solid inheritance though how long it will last is a moot point.

Karunanidhi was a rarity in Indian politics, actor, dramatist, screenplay writer and journalist, like his mentor C. Annadurai. With other like-minded peers they turned Tamil cinema into a powerful vehicle for their political movement. In terms of harnessing popular media to political ends they are probably unique. The closest comparison would be with the propaganda films of the communist countries where all media are state-owned. In India, by contrast, cinema has always been a private enterprise, but the charged rhetoric of films like Parasakthi resonated deeply with audiences. They became box-office monsters, pushing both the self-respect and Dravidian themes, the central core of DMK’s philosophy. Like his mentor, Karunanidhi lived two lives at once, as an artiste and as a political underdog who eventually supped at the high table.

The DMK victory in the 1967 assembly elections was an achievement on par with the communist victory in Kerala (1957). With its emphasis on Tamil, Dravid heritage and regional sentiment, it was a direct challenge to the prevailing idea of India as a country with one master language and a single, overarching cultural matrix. Nothing summed up the bewildering variety of India as the thought of a government that literally spoke a different language and gave no quarter to Hindi bigotry. As a demand for equal linguistic status it was also an assertion of state rights as unbending as the movement for linguistic states in the 1950s. The Centre had to give ground and it is worth noting that every government since 1967 has, at least nominally, been a child of the Dravidian movement.

Linguistic chauvinism is an ugly thing but its power in the assertion of regional identity cannot be overestimated. N.T. Rama Rao’s advocacy of Telugu pride in 1982 swept Andhra Pradesh like a cyclone and vaulted him into the chief minister’s chair just nine months later. His Telugu Desam Party has been one of the state’s principal political outfits since then.      

When they came to power Annadurai and his young men (they were all men) were not just underdogs, they were also among the dregs of the caste hierarchy. Their incumbency ensured a disruption of the prevailing power networks and the empowerment of lower castes that fundamentally upturned the old order. Indeed, this is also the time of the “Great Migration” of students, mostly from upper caste backgrounds, to other parts of the country for higher education. As an engine of empowerment DMK and AIADMK governments have been as effective as the post-Mandal Commission regimes in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. It also happened two decades earlier.

The major drawback of phenomena like the Justice and self-respect movements is that while they are impassioned pleas for equality they are at heart social reform initiatives. Once they capture political power they tend to lose steam as they come up against the realities of redistribution, whether office, power or wealth. Such regimes are usually vaguely socialist, but almost always economically incoherent. They all promise radical, disruptive change, precisely the kind of things that make bankers and industrialists uneasy unless they are delivering it themselves. Populism is a term of derision for most sober economists and the elite groups; it implies giveaways to people without making them work for it. It is an endorsement of shirkers not workers, as a conservative might put it.

But populism has a logic for a movement backed by the disenfranchised, a promise of the acche din that the Modi government held out to voters. In Tamil Nadu, the early Dravidian governments floundered economically but election manifestos were populist in nature and statement, and governments tried to keep their promises. The result is a plethora of schemes that cost the state thousands of crores annually in subsidies, freebies and giveaways. Both DMK and AIADMK have benefited as they built up a core of supporters that has so far shut out all third parties.

When the AIADMK government of M.G. Ramachandran upgraded the existing arrangement with his “nutritious food scheme” in 1982 it was widely derided as economically unviable and an unsustainable political gimmick. A report by public health authorities six months later produced the first evidence that it was effective in improving child health. So the nutritious meals scheme sealed MGR’s popularity with the voter and kept DMK out of power until his death. Populism as an integral element of any political project won its argument in the state. Other states have taken the hint and even the Centre got into the act. 

The scheme created an inescapable electoral logic for immediately tangible benefits and successive governments have competed to provide rice at `1 a kilo, TV sets, sewing machines, marriage assistance for girl children, subsidised meals, fresh vegetables, medicines, and so forth. The net result is that Tamil Nadu is among the top 5 states in the human development index (2015). It is also, interestingly enough, second in terms of GDP, behind only Maharashtra (2017). Far from being a recipe for all-round poverty, the subsidies regime seems to have certain advantages. There will always be detractors but Dravidian movement’s populism, premised purely on selfish electoral advantage, has not only kept its promises but also benefited the people who vote for it. In that sense at least, it is a rational response to public expectations.

The other major public benefit of the movement has been the absence of anything like the polarisation by faith or caste that seems to be the template for so many states. For someone in their thirties or forties it is hard to remember when the last communal incident took place, an unfortunately normal fact of life in Rajasthan or Uttar Pradesh. That is only to be expected of a movement that started out as avowedly rationalist. Faith has been a political non-issue except in small pockets in the far south.

No one leader can claim sole credit for the way the movement has flowed or values it has emphasised, but Karunanidhi as one of the core leaders is entitled to as much if not more than Annadurai and MGR. As a public intellectual and literary figure he stands tall. As a steadfast champion of federalism he enriched democracy. As a practical politician Karunanidhi was a master deal maker. His legacy is marred by his unfortunate preference for familial power and the failure to encourage a robust second line leadership. The real challenge, however, begins now, with a resurgent BJP sniffing for an opportunity to break the stranglehold of regional power.  The coming years will show if the party he left is strong enough to survive the brutal headwinds of Hindu nationalism.