Death of India’s Karunanidhi: U-M experts available

August 8, 2018
Contact: Mandira Banerjee

M. Karunanidhi, chief minister of Tamil Nadu, the southern state of India, and president of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party for 50 years, died Tuesday at the age of 94. During his tenure, he showed how a regional party leader can become indispensable in the national political sphere.

University of Michigan experts can comment on his legacy.

Ram Mahalingam, professor of psychology, and director of the Barger Leadership Institute, examines the relationship between power, representation of social groups and psychological well-being.

“Muthuvelar Karunanidhi, fondly known as ‘Kalaignar,’ is the last major leader from Tamil Nadu who was able to unite Tamils divided by caste, class and religion, marshaling his talents as a writer, orator, poet, playwright, actor, journalist and administrator,” he said. “This is a remarkable achievement, especially for someone who came from one of the most marginalized minority communities in Tamil Nadu.

“Through sheer charisma and oratory skills, he transcended his caste identity and moved the mind and hearts of fellow Tamilians. His legacy is his ability to expand the horizons of possible selves for people from all social strata, including me—a first-generation college graduate and a beneficiary of his reservation program in higher education.”

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Sriram Mohan is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication Studies. His research focuses on political communications, particularly religious nationalism in digital India.

“Karunanidhi was a master orator and gifted writer whose talents were instrumental in both spreading and shaping the secular and rationalist ideals underpinning the movement,” he said. “He has also been a crucial figure in national politics over the last three decades, having allied with both the BJP and the Congress.

“He weathered accusations of corruption and nepotism, and often used wordplay and wit to elude charges of hypocrisy and blatant opportunism. His detractors have also argued—not incorrectly—that he presided over the dilution of the radicalism of the Dravidian movement, succumbing to the seductions of power and pressures of electoral politics.

“Kalaingar is likely to be remembered for his commitment to socioeconomic justice—pushing for land reforms, allowing non-Brahmins to become priests in temples, setting up a welfare board for the transgender community, among others. He also represented one of the strongest challenges to successive central governments’ attempts to impose their will on the states, championing federalism and ensuring its continuance in both letter and spirit.”