The States' Man

Karunanidhi’s unsung contributions to Indian federalism

15 August, 2018

“Under our constitutional system, no single entity can claim superiority,” Muthuvel Karunanidhi, then the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, wrote in The Hindu on 15 August 2007. “Sovereignty does not lie in any one institution or in any one wing of the government. The power of governance is distributed in several organs and institutions … Even if we assume that the Centre has been given a certain dominance over the States, that dominance should be used strictly for the purpose intended, not for oblique purposes.”

At the time Karunanidhi wrote the article, his Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government was in its second year of office and enjoyed cordial relations with the Congress and the Left parties at the local and national levels. Even so, it opposed a move by the central government—via a resolution passed in the Tamil Nadu assembly—to transfer to the Union List the subject of “Panchayati Raj,” which until then was on the State List. Around the same time, the DMK government passed a resolution in the assembly to enable the use of Tamil in the Madras High Court. The party attempted to utilise its good offices with the Congress leadership to return to and strengthen federalism, a principle that remained dear to Karunanidhi, in spite of the twisted outcomes that attended a realisation of the idea. (The centre disallowed the use of Tamil in the high court, though it could be used in the lower courts.) His arguments for federalism spanned several registers, of politics and law, of economic planning and development, of Tamil linguistic pride and Dravidian nationalism.

Karunanidhi’s sense of Tamil culture was shaped by the historiographical debates of the early twentieth century—in particular, by the views of those who upheld the distinctive claims of Tamil culture and civilisation. Drawing on the corpus of poems known as the Sangam texts, as well as Jaina and Buddhist literature, antiquarians as well as popular writers of the time argued that ancient Tamil culture did not know varna divisions and owed nothing to the Aryan-Brahmin civilisation, highlighting its secular aspects. Throughout his life, Karunanidhi would reference these texts: for instance, he cast the Thirukkural, a fourth-century Jaina text known for its gnomic wisdom, as a veritable icon of Tamilness. To this day, buses run by the Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation, which was created when Karunanidhi’s government nationalised transport services in 1967, feature verses from the Kural. A gigantic statue of Thiruvalluvar, author of the Kural, was erected in Kanyakumari, as if to rival the commemorative presence of Vivekananda that marks that landscape. These marks of Tamil culture may be read as public reminders of the avowedly “secular” tradition of Tamil rational and ethical thought.

With respect to political federalism, the most important influence on Karunanidhi has undoubtedly been his mentor, CN Annadurai, who in turn, owed his understanding in this instance to EV Ramasamy, better known as Periyar. From the late 1920s, Periyar and his followers argued against the idea of India, as being both untenable and impossible, given caste divisions and Brahmin intellectual and political dominance. While the former did not allow a shared polity and society, the latter ensured that national claims would remain partisan ones, calculated to preserve and perpetuate upper-caste dominance. In the 1940s, this critique morphed into a rigorous examination of what came to be termed the Brahmin-Bania core of Indian nationalism. Periyar and the Dravidar Kazhagam, a party that he founded out of the older Non-Brahmin Justice party, were vociferous in arguing that unless caste-based iniquities were addressed, Indian independence would usher in “Hindu-Hindi-Hindustan” and not a modern republic. As an alternative, Periyar outlined his case for a sovereign Dravidian nation that would be free of Brahmin hegemony and Bania control.

Like many others of his generation, Karunanidhi was excited by this call for a sovereign Dravida Nadu. It spoke to the linguistic pride and pleasure of young men, schooled in the anti-Hindi protests of the late 1930s. They were aware that the issue at hand was political—it had to be actioned not only on the streets and but also in the legislature. The moment for such a politics arrived, when a generation of enthusiastic Self-Respecters—followers of Periyar’s Self Respect movement—broke away from the Dravidar Kazhagam, which did not contest elections, to form the DMK in 1949. In time, Karunanidhi would emerge as the new party’s main spokesperson, but in the 1950s, he was one among many bright young men, who took to asserting the cause of Tamil autonomy within the Union of India. The political literature of the time examines the idea of federalism from several points of view, often drawing from global examples. Karunanidhi’s own writing blended the claims of what has been described as “cultural nationalism” with astute political and constitutional arguments.

In the 1960s, Tamil Nadu witnessed another round of anti-Hindi politics as well as symbolic campaigns against the authority of the union government. Karunanidhi emerged as the veritable face of these energetic protests, flamboyant, heroic and politically astute. When the DMK took office in 1967, he was inducted into the cabinet, and eventually became chief minister in 1969. One of the first things he did was to set up the Rajamannar Committee to examine centre-state relations.

This committee presented recommendations of a far-reaching nature, which have since remained central to the DMK’s vision of a federal India. Its most important recommendation was to set up an inter-state council, comprising chief ministers of all states, equally represented, with the prime minister as chairperson. The council was to function like a watchdog, to ensure, that the union government did not interfere with what was essentially a demand for shared sovereignty. The committee also recommended devolution of more taxes to the states through the setting up of an impartial and independent Finance Commission to disburse grants-in-aid; and the transfer of a number of items from the Concurrent and Central Lists to the State List. Karunanidhi had Murasoli Maran summarise the committee report in crisp and communicative Tamil for wide dissemination.

Recalling that report in the 2007 article Karunanidhi noted that, in 1989, when the United Front government under VP Singh took office, it acted on the recommendations and set up the inter-state council in 1990. This was possible, he observed, because for the first time regional parties were part of the union government, a practice that has since continued in one form or another. For him, this development signified the onset of a more representative politics. Nevertheless, he was not sanguine about its long-term prospects. Sharing of power was one thing, but what about the sharing of sovereignty?

At the same time, the question of power could not be ignored. Federalism was not only desirable as an ideal, it was also useful as a bargaining point to secure state interests with parties at the centre. This was something that Annadurai had made clear in a speech to the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, when he asked the ruling Congress to consider the DMK as “sappers and miners” who had made the case for a federal polity and thereby cleared the way for the state government to demand better growth prospects for Tamil Nadu. Karunanidhi went several steps further. He carried the battle into the union government—forging electoral alliances with the Congress, and offering strategic support, when required, to ensure fulfilment of key DMK demands.

This eminently pragmatic approach, problematic at the best of times, reached its limits in 1999. In order to save his government from J Jayalalithaa’s machinations, Karunanidhi assented to an alliance with the BJP, a party whose politics and ideology went against everything the DMK stood for. Sadly, this alliance continued through the terrible months of 2002, when BJP-ruled Gujarat burned and thousands of Muslims were killed. Karunanidhi is believed to have regretted that decision later—no doubt, he saw the limits to pragmatic reason, and the importance of keeping alive an expansive vision of federalism.

A crucial aspect of such a vision has been political decorum: Karunanidhi was exemplary in his conduct towards fellow chief ministers. With his southern compatriots for instance he continued to negotiate over contentious issues, such as the Cauvery problem with Karnataka, the Mullaperiyar dam in Kerala and the sharing of Krishna waters in Andhra Pradesh. He also made sure that he remained in conversation with others, notably those who were as invested in federalism, such as the chief ministers of West Bengal.

Karunanidhi’s writings helped make Tamil a marker of a secularism that was as much cultural as it was constitutional. It is another matter that this putative Tamilness has not made for equal and just relationships in economic and social realms: Dalit assertion for instance has been met with hatred and violence on the part of the dominant castes. The other danger is that “Tamilness” could morph into a convenient fiction: the AIADMK’s J Jayalalithaa sought to embody this attribute in her person, as if she were a lone warrior out to protect state autonomy in the face of the union government’s machinations. It is clear though that she deployed it to mask a self-serving politics, underwritten by endless corruption and open support for crony capitalism.

Be that as it may, the question is whether Karunanidhi’s vision of federalism will continue to animate his followers. Not much can be expected from the ruling AIADMK—in order to remain in office, its leaders have openly chosen to accept the BJP’s protection and at a time when that party is bent on centralising authority, be it in the realm of education or taxation or even legislation. In this context, it becomes all the more important to foreground the democratic aspects of the federal idea. Even if this does not mature in the state of Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi’s vision and legacy are open to claimants elsewhere.