With DMK chief M Karunanidhi in intensive care, hundreds of party workers are staying put outside the Kauvery Hospital in Chennai, bracing rain and extreme heat, often cheering “rise up and walk, leader”. A casual chat with some of them showcases what makes this fragile 94-year-old grand old man of Indian politics still an icon across all age groups.
T Murugesan, a tea shop keeper in Coimbatore, has travelled 550 km on his two-wheeler for a vigil outside the hospital for Mr Karunanidhi’s recovery. Draping a DMK flag coloured shawl, he often raises slogans recollecting Mr Karunanidhi’s achievements and exhorting him to “rise up”. He, in his mid-fifties, was drawn to Mr Karunanidhi for his role in the anti-Hindi agitation in the sixties. He recollects: “Only Karunanidhi opposed Hindi imposition. Had there been any other leader Hindi would have been imposed”.
In another area outside the hospital, Kuppusamy – a construction labourer – is seen holding placards highlighting Mr Karunanidhi’s courage to take on the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during the Emergency she imposed. He adds “He is the only leader who opposed Emergency and sacrificed his government. He told power for him is like his shawl which he wouldn’t mind throwing away if states’ rights are crushed”.
Kuppusamy’s family members, seated with him, love Mr Karunanidhi for introducing the first-of-its-kind government health insurance scheme called “Kalaignar Kaapeetu Thittam” that paves the way for quality health care worth one lakh for a family every year even at private hospitals. The scheme became so popular that even his arch rival Jayalalithaa who succeeded him did not dump it but made it even better.
Among the noise and the din, Afrin, a millennial, is quietly reciting a prayer for the DMK chief, sitting on her two-wheeler. Mr Karunanidhi’s fiery film script towards women’s empowerment and against oppression struck a chord with her. Her favourite film, the iconic Parasakthi, released close to seventy years ago that took on oppression by upper castes. “Even those days he had realised that women are not safe in worship places. That is why I like the film”, she said.
Under a flyover adjoining the hospital, a group of mothers in their forties say they are grateful to Mr Karunanidhi for his contribution to social justice that has transformed lives of their children. P Kavitha says she and her husband could not study beyond Class 12. But their children are graduates in engineering. She added “This was possible only due to the caste based reservation spearheaded by Karunanidhi. Till then college seats were cornered by upper castes”.
Perched on his motorised tricycle, Panneer, a differently-abled person, fell in love with Mr Karunanidhi during a protest by his community when he was Chief Minister. He recollected “Hearing about our protest, the wheelchair bound Karunanidhi drove to our protest venue and assured to address our issues. He was the one who coined the Tamil translation for differently-abled”. He added “I am also a disabled person like you”.
Mr Karunanidhi also took populism to a new high with colour television scheme and free rice programme. Though these came under severe criticism for draining government coffers, increasing the state’s debt and leaving little money for development, he appears to have touched every household in his five terms as chief minister and little wonder his supporters display their loyalty as he faces yet another health crisis.