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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 37 New Delhi September 1, 2018

Vajpayee and Karunanidhi: India loses its great

Sunday 2 September 2018



by Mahendra Ved

In a span of 10 days, on August 7 and 16, India lost two of its titans, Muthuvel Karunanidhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee, whose contributions reflected its unity and diversity.

Their exit, albeit after age and ailment had long rendered them ineffective, marks the end of the post-independence era. If their respective legacies will endure remains to be seen.

Some obvious comparisons and contrasts: Three-time Premier Vajpayee was from India’s North and five-time Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi was from the South.

If Vajpayee exuded the charm of an erudite upper-caste Northerner, an “Aryan” if just for argument’s sake, Karunanidhi spearheaded the Dravidian socio-cultural ethos that he and his party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), turned to political advantage with a movement that remains unique to Tamil Nadu.

That it has some takers among the States in the rest of the South, seeking “Dravidanadu” underscores its appeal and political and economic potential.

Both were outstanding speakers, poets and writers who used their respective languages to great effect. If Karunanidhi erected and manned the Southern bulwark with Tamil, Vajpayee’s literary flourish and oratory skills remain unmatched to this day.

Critics derided Vajpayee’s poetry as lacking in high literary merit. But, even they would concede that he wrote from his heart, full of verve and resolve that was tempered by utmost modesty. He never wanted to rise so high as to lose touch with the ground and the people out there.

Vajpayee made Hindi language popular with the urban middle classes. But, the “rashtra-bhasha” (national language) in effect remains “raj bhasha” (State language) because of geographical limitations. Yet, it is India’s link-language spoken by the single-largest group. But, Vajpayee was not a Hindi zealot like some in Parliament who wanted, rhetorically though, the government to deploy the Army to impose Hindi on the South. Karunanidhi opposed any such coercion. Protests against Hindi sparked an agitation in 1965. Two years later, the DMK won elections and soon abolished the three language formula —Tamil and English would suffice.

A global leader of Tamils, Karunanidhi delivered the special addresses at the Third World Tamil Conference in Paris in 1970 and at the Sixth Conference in Kuala Lumpur in 1987. He penned the song Semmozhiyaana Tamizh Mozhiyaam, the official theme song for the World Classical Tamil Conference 2010 that was set to tune by A.R. Rahman.

Both were strong democrats. Vajpayee was in the first batch of Opposition leaders imprisoned and Karunanidhi, a strident proponent of federalism, was the first Chief Minister to oppose the Emergency (June 1975-March 1977) imposed by then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. Karunanidhi earned New Delhi’s wrath in the shape of dismissal of his governments in 1976 and 1991.

Both were patriots when abroad. They never attacked the leadership of the day, whether or not they supported it back home. Karunanidhi’s relations with the Congress party, that he repeatedly vanquished, remained cordial, whatever their political differences.

Brought to Parliament to counter Jawaharlal Nehru’s charisma, Vajpayee evolved as a moderate Right-winger with Nehruvian impulses of carrying others along.

But they differed on some issues. Karunanidhi refused to receive the Indian Army contingent that returned from Sri Lanka after a disastrous peace-keeping operation. Vajpayee and his party decried it.

Unlike Karunanidhi, Vajpayee supported Lord Ram’s temple in Ayodhya city. But, he decried the demolition of the 15th century Babri mosque on that disputed site in 1992.

Towards the end of the last century, their political fortunes fluctuated together. The Congress withdrew support to the I.K. Gujral Government after it refused to drop the DMK that was linked by an investigation panel to a Sri Lankan Tamil separatist group blamed for the assassination of former Premier, Rajiv Gandhi.

Although Vajpayee regained his premiership, his government collapsed again when Karuna-nidhi’s principal rival in Tamil Nadu, the All India Anna DMK withdrew support. Vajpayee lost by a single vote, but bounced back to power in the next election with DMK support.

Their oratory and love for literature did not obscure their governance and, in particular, economic reforms. Karunanidhi extended the Public Distribution System. His increasing food subsidies were coupled with efforts at gene-rating employment and encouraging industrial investment. His rivals could only continue with them.

Vajpayee deftly managed a rainbow coalition and carried out the second wave of the economic reforms. Indeed, he provided continuity to the reforms introduced by Manmohan Singh as the Finance Minister and the latter built upon them as the Prime Minister (2004-14).

The Vajpayee Government (1998-2004) focused on connectivity. The Golden Quadri-lateral project built the super-fast expressways. Sweeping telecom reforms ignited the cell-phone revolution, changing the common man’s life forever.

Vajpayee also opened the insurance sector to private players. The media sector was partially opened to foreign capital under him. He initiated the biggest indirect tax reform built on the concept of “one nation, one tax”, eventually paving the way for a goods and service tax (GST) regime last year.

Lastly, Vajpayee and Karunanidhi were both family persons—with a difference, though. The Tamil patriarch had married thrice and leaves behind a vast family. Vajpayee never married, but ignoring the conservatives in his party, lived with a family for half-a-century. That he retained his political position despite this is a rarity in India. Vajpayee had no male successor, in politics or otherwise. That his foster daughter lit the funeral pyre is something that would have surely made Karunanidhi, a strong advocate of women’s rights, happy.

(Courtesy: New Strait Times, Malaysia)

The author, a columnist for the New Strait Times, Malaysia, is a senior journalist who is currently the President of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA).

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