NEW DELHI: Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) patriarch Muthuvel Karunanidhi passed away aged 95 after a brief illness at the Kauvery Hospital in Chennai earlier today. The demise of the nonagenarian political leader, who was also known as Mu Ka in Tamil, marks the end of an era in the realm of Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu.

Karunanidhi belonged to the genre of old Dravidian stalwarts like Periyar and his political mentor Annadurai, of the golden period of Dravidian politics. He will go down in India’s political history as one of the oldest political icons, elected to the state assembly for thirteen consecutive terms between 1957 and the last election in 2016. In addition to this, he had a stint in the state legislative council and was chief minister for five terms. He recently completed his golden jubilee year as president of the DMK, a position he held since July 27, 1969.

Karunanidhi had great command over Tamil in his speeches and writings, and was well known for his élan, and his fiery Tamil speeches loaded with puns and political tenor. He also possessed a razor-sharp memory and would address party cadres from the remotest parts of the state by their name.

He excelled in various fields, as a prolific writer, orator, journalist, poet, screenwriter, thinker and iconoclast, rationalist and of course as a political leader. His many powerful screenplays turned several Tamil films into box-office hits, and added to the celebrity and popularity of film stars such as MGR and Chevalier Shivaji Ganesan. He has been hailed by friends and foes alike as ‘Dravida Suriyan’ (Sun of Dravidians) for his strong convictions on Dravidian or Tamil identity politics — and as ‘Political Chanakaya’ for his political manoeuvres.

Karunanidhi believed strongly in protecting the ideals of social justice, secularism, pluralism, federal autonomy and the freedom of expression. He was a formidable force in protecting states’ rights and autonomy. In this regard, he would wage relentless struggles whenever there was a move towards the centralisation of power.

He was a vocal critic of the Emergency and challenged its imposition by various means, for which he faced a backlash with the toppling of his government in 1976.

Apart from his regional politics, he assumed the role of kingmaker in national politics with the advent of coalition governments at the Centre. His party shared power during the tenure of the V.P. Singh (1989) and Manmohan Singh (2004) governments. The DMK joined hands with the Deve-Gowda led United Front government in 1996 and also with Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government in 1999.

He was acclaimed as the leader and protector of global Tamils given his staunch support for the socioeconomic empowerment of Tamils, and for the promotion of Tamil language and culture. More recently, he was unfortunately termed the ‘betrayer/ traitor of Tamils’ for his inability to stop the genocide of Tamils in the last phase of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009.

Karunanidhi was born into the numerically minor non-Brahmin caste of Isai Vellalar (Temple Musician) in Thirukuvalai village in present-day Thiruvarur on June 3, 1924. He was drawn to politics in his schooldays, inspired at the age of 14 by the then Justice Party — a party for the rights of non-Brahmins.

Initially, he made a mark in tinsel town as screenwriter. He later embraced and finally merged with the Self-Respect Movement of the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) being led by the veteran social reformer, rationalist and iconoclast E.V. Ramasamy Naicker, popularly known as Periyar. He participated in and led the anti-Hindi agitations against the forced imposition of the language. Later, he became protégé to the veteran Dravidian leader C.N. Annadurai, who founded the DMK in 1949 — a dissident group from the DK — because of a falling out with Periyar.

After his mentor Annadurai’s death 20 years later, Karunanidhi became the political heir of the DMK and soon assumed the mantle of its leadership. As party president he steered the DMK towards emerging as a popular political front, and kept the party together when it witnessed two splits, by MGR and later by Vaiko. In 1969, he became the third chief minister of Tamil Nadu at the age of 45, again in 1989 aged 65, in 1996 aged 72, and then in 2006 at the age of 82, a total of five terms.

During his tenure as chief minister of Tamil Nadu, he pioneered various schemes for the welfare of all strata of society, especially women, religious minorities, and the oppressed sections, namely the Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes. He was bent upon implementing social engineering polices to change social equations in the public spheres.

He pioneered and passed various progressive and laudable legislations giving equal rights to women in ancestral property, and allowing anyone to become a temple priest irrespective of their caste. He carried out a widespread campaign against superstition, idolatry and discrimination of all kinds. He stood for the cause and spread of rationalism and scientific spirit.

Karunanidhi also had memorials and statues of Tamil poets and scholars erected in various parts of the state, as symbols of Tamil pride and culture. His persuasive struggle to declare Tamil a classical language came to fruition. His immense contribution to Tamil language and literature in the form of historical fiction, commentaries, short stories, plays and poems, running into over a hundred books, is known for its literary merit.

Given his long political career, his autobiography ‘Nenjukku Neethi’ (Justice to the Heart) unsurprisingly runs into many volumes straddling his personal life and the political development of the country.

Few would deny the fact that Karunanidhi tirelessly championed the cause of social justice, federal autonomy, the prominence of Tamil culture, and the protection of Dravidian/ Tamil identity, like his predecessors Periyar and Annadurai. But he went on to indulge in the politics of populism, for which both the DMK and its rival the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam are known.

He also instituted dynastic politics in the state, as seen in the dominance of members of his immediate family in the party affairs of the DMK. Although Karunanidhi did not officially declare his son Stalin his political heir, it is believed he is next in line, as indicated by his present position as working president of the DMK. It is expected that Stalin and his sister Kanimozhi, who looks after party affairs at the national level, will shoulder the responsibility of carrying forward their father’s legacy, as other family members have for now been sidelined or made politically dormant.

The power struggle or family feud may resurface given the patriarch’s demise. Karunanidhi’s death creates a political void within the DMK and in the politics of the state. He leaves behind a rich political legacy. The million-dollar question is, who will take advantage of this rich legacy, when the politics of Tamil Nadu is itself in transition now?