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M. Karunanidhi (1924-2018): A Legacy of National Relevance

The entrance to the residence of the late former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M. Karunanidhi, in Chennai, with his name in Tamil. File photo: M. Prabhu

M. Karunanidhi (1924-2018) who cut his teeth in politics as a teenager was inseparable from Tamil Nadu politics until his passing on August 7, 2018. For close to five decades, irrespective of whether he was in power or not, he was a central piece on Tamil Nadu’s chessboard. An orator who could hold his audience spell-bound, a party organiser who was among those instrumental in taking the founding ideology of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) to all corners of the State, a five-time Chief Minister – the first in 1969 - Karunanidhi navigated the tricky waters of politics effortlessly. In this article, Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi, journalist and former Tamil Nadu Correspondent for The Hindustan Times, who reported from the State for eight years from 2010 to 2018, writes on the manner in which Karunanidhi called the shots not only in Tamil Nadu but at the national level as well. Karunanidhi, he writes, will be remembered most for his federal legacy through which “he maintained and strengthened the federal structure of the country that the Constitution guaranteed”.

In August 1990, M. Karunanidhi, retorted as he always had when it came to matters that were close to his political moorings: “If English that protects us like a shield, is banished, the Hindi sword will cut us to pieces,” he asserted when his North Indian counterparts got together in an apparent move to remove English as the link language. The astute politician in Karunanidhi, who shot to prominence during an earlier phase of anti-Hindi agitation of free India in 1953, feared the re-kindled pro-Hindi campaign in North Indian States in the 1990s posed a threat to the interests of the non-Hindi speaking States. His strong message to the Union government had the desired effect and the campaign by the Chief Ministers in North Indian States fizzled out. Ever alert, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) patriarch never allowed imposition of Hindi and fought it tooth and nail and guided his party’s responses till date on the contentious and controversial issue that raises its head every now then.

It is thanks to vociferous opposition from Karunanidhi and veterans like Periyar, and C.N. Annadurai before him that so far non-Hindi speaking States have not had to make a transition to a language that disadvantaged them as compared to those whose mother tongue it was. But the pragmatist in Karunanidhi never opposed Hindi as a language, only its imposition.

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C.N. Annadurai, Chief Minister presenting the Madras State Sangita Nataka Sangam's award to M. Karunanidhi, Minister for Public Works for the best screenplay for 1966-67 at a function held at Rajaji Hall, Madras on April 22, 1967. Photo: The Hindu Archives.


Why, during campaigning for the 2014 general elections in a constituency with fair sprinkling of people of North Indian origin and Urdu-speaking people, the script-writer in Karunanidhi came up with a line, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh Isyai Apas mein bhai bhai   [Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian all are brothers] (somewhat similar to one from an old Hindi film song from Chalia “Hindu, Muslim, Sikh Isayi sabko mera salaam” ) to reinforce his secular credentials as also to drum up support of the Hindi-speaking Chennai voters.

And yet, he did not allow his pragmatism to dilute his resolve to fight for the interests of Tamil Nadu, even on the language issue and did not flinch criticising different moves to interfere with his ideology against imperialism of any kind – even language – when he criticised moves by Narendra Modi government to push the Hindi agenda. Karunanidhi described Modi as an able administrator and his friend, during the course of the 2014 general elections, thereby messaging a willingness to do business if the situation so arose. Practical and pragmatic as a politician, he never treated opponents as an enemy – other than Jayalalithaa, that is.

After DMK MLAs misbehaved with Jayalalithaa inside the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, she swore revenge. And when she became the Chief Minister, a sleeping Karunanidhi was rudely woken up from sleep at midnight and bundled into a police vehicle and dumped in prison. The enmity between the two tall leaders of Tamil Nadu, contemporaries in the film world and in politics – he as the scriptwriter par excellence and Jayalalithaa as a superstar in her own right – is well documented.

Influence on national politics

Karunanidhi chose to limit himself to Tamil Nadu though he influenced the course of national politics.

Other than Jayalalithaa, Karunanidhi maintained good relations and developed a nice rapport with leaders cutting across the political spectrum. A leader with an uncanny ability to read the public mood, Karunanidhi chose to limit himself to the geographical boundaries of Tamil Nadu though he influenced the course of national politics. Perfectly flexible and rigid on firm ideological stand, Karunanidhi showed remarkable adaptability when he managed to make the right switch in alliances at the right time so as to stay continuously in power at the Centre, along with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and with the Congress in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government headed by Manmohan Singh, with equal ease. If during the 1999-2004 NDA government, Karunanidhi managed to get the BJP leadership to put the contentious issues of Ram Mandir, Article 370, and Uniform Civil Code on the backburner as a precondition to join the coalition, with the UPA he got the Congress leadership to agree to a committed Common Minimum Programme that would guide the government at the centre.

Adept at playing brinkmanship, Karunanidhi maintained pressure on the Union government to extract his pound of flesh.

Adept at playing brinkmanship, Karunanidhi maintained stiff pressure on the Union government to extract his pound of flesh – key and lucrative ministerial positions for his party and also successively pushed for projects for Tamil Nadu.

Karunanidhi, a dependable ally

The home-grown economist that Karunanidhi was, he realised the importance of manufacturing sector to generate jobs and lobbied well to get the Union government to set up infrastructure projects and institutes of higher learning.

But when it came to coalition politics, Karunanidhi showed that he was a dependable ally unlike his “enemy” – a mercurial Jayalalithaa who proved to be unstable when it came to alliance politics. While Jayalalithaa felled the Vajpayee government within months of entering into an alliance, the DMK played along for four years before pulling out of the NDA government first, and then walking out of the coalition just before the 2004 general election. For the DMK, the BJP’s deviation from the NDA agenda for governance and its fluctuating stand on Ayodhya was the prime reason for walking out of the BJP fold, and strengthened the party’s secular credentials.

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M. Karunanidhi with Vijay Bhasker Reddy and Manmohan Singh after meeting Congress President Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi, assuring her of his party's support to form the Union Government on May 16, 2004. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

More recently, in the 2014 general elections, the DMK fought the polls on its own having stormed out of the UPA coalition after nine years in 2013, taking exception to the centre’s stand on Sri Lanka. Critics do question Karunanidhi’s baffling silence over genocide of innocent Tamils in North Sri Lanka in 2009 during the final push. This is an emotional issue that many in Tamil Nadu hold the DMK also guilty of as it was part of the central government under UPA. It could have been a significant contributing factor for his defeat in the 2011 general elections in Tamil Nadu, other than the corruption taint symbolised by the 2G Spectrum scam and an assortment of state-level corruption allegations.

After a sound thrashing at the hands of AIADMK, who won 37 out of 39 Lok Sabha seats in the State, Karunanidhi prevailed upon his party colleagues to rope in the Congress again to fight the assembly elections of 2016. And for the present the alliance stays, barring the unforeseen, as the country is in the run up to 2019 general elections.

It is not for nothing that Prime Minister Modi continued to maintain his personal relations with Karunanidhi and came calling on him on November 6, 2017 following his illness – sparking off speculations of future political possibilities, even though far-fetched. His son and chosen heir apparent, M.K. Stalin, the working President of the DMK, scotched the rumours by mounting an attack against the BJP and its government at the centre on a host of issues.

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The Prime Minister, A.B. Vajpayee, with the Chief Ministers of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, E.K. Nayanar, M. Karunanidhi and J.H. Patel, before the meeting of the Cauvery Tribunal in New Delhi on Wednesday, October 28, 1998. The Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Jaswant Singh, is also seen. Photo: The Hindu Archives / V. Sudarshan.


But even on the eve of 2014 general elections, Karunanidhi described Modi as an able administrator and counted him among his friends. Perhaps to be able to jockey for a post-poll coalition scenario given that a hung parliament was one of the possible scenarios that was being discussed at that time till the Modi juggernaut swept to power on its own with absolute majority.

Losing the 2016 general elections was something of an unkindest cut the voters dealt him.

In a political career spanning eight decades, Karunanidhi has had seen ups and downs but losing the 2016 general elections in Tamil Nadu was something of an unkindest cut the voters dealt him at his advancing age and accompanying ailments. Karunanidhi and the DMK were convinced that it was their turn to rule Tamil Nadu and Kalaignar, as he was fondly and formally addressed by his political followers and foes, was readying to occupy the Chief Ministerial chair for the sixth time in 2011 general elections. Jayalalithaa dealt a political body blow from which he could never recover.

Clearly, this was one instance in his long political career when he was done in by a cleverer and superior political strategy of Jayalalithaa, who managed to get vote against her split in different directions and won a second successive term as in incumbent – against the recent electoral history of Tamil Nadu.

Ups and downs

There were other setbacks in his political career, when Karunanidhi was dismissed as the Chief Minister on two occasions. The first one by Indira Gandhi, when the DMK chief opposed the imposition of emergency and was hobnobbing with opposition leaders. He was dismissed on charges of corruption and President’s rule imposed.  The second time, Karunanidhi became the victim of Chandrashekhar government, at that time being supported from the outside by the largest single party Congress, and was dismissed as the Chief Minister on the grounds that he had links with Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

A recent book by a top bureaucrat, S.K. Misra, former principal secretary to Chandrashekhar, asserted that Karunanidhi government was dismissed for its “proven links” with the LTTE. The book, Flying in High Winds (Rupa, pp 270) by Misra, quoted from Prime Minister Chandrashekar’s saying in his address in parliament, “I have information that the Chief Minister has gone to the LTTE headquarters not only in Tamil Nadu, but even in Jaffna, this is something very serious.”

The book also quoted J.N. Dixit, the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo from 1985 to 1989, as saying in his disposition before the Jain Commission, that except for the Congress party, all political parties in Tamil Nadu continued to support the violent activities of the LTTE against the Indian Peacekeeping Force in Sri Lanka.

But subsequently, not only Karunanidhi entered into a political alliance with the Congress party – as dictated by the ground reality as also by the alliance choice of the principal rival AIADMK.

The M.C. Jain Commission of Inquiry that probed the conspiracy angle into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi also absolved the DMK leader of any complicity in the ghastly killing of the former Prime Minister.

A staunch nationalist

As a politician and as a leader, Karunanidhi never treated political opponents like enemies and maintained personal relations and rapport with leaders, cutting across the political spectrum. Politically, at the State and at the national level, Karunanidhi displayed sagacity, rooted in native wisdom, and courage to deal with any complex issue that confronted him through his eight decade long public life.

Contrary to the image of a secessionist, Karunanidhi was a staunch nationalist and rose to the occasion when the situation so demanded.

Contrary to the image of being a man of secessionist ideas and thought processes, evidenced in the DMK’s fight for an independent Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi was a staunch nationalist and rose to the occasion when the situation so demanded. Fully engrossed in an agitation for an independent Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi endorsed the idea of dropping the State-wide protests and participate in the national war effort during the Chinese aggression of 1962.

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The Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, who arrived in Madras on February 17, 1974 on her way to Pondicherry for electioneering, being greeted at the airport by K. Kamaraj, Congress(O) leader while the Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi looks on. Photo: The Hindu Archives / K.N. Chari

Another instance that reflects his nationalistic credentials is the handing over of Kachchatheevu, an islet in the Indian Ocean, to the island-nation of Sri Lanka against the prevailing popular mood in Tamil Nadu which comes as both an example of his statesmanship and his political craftiness for which he came to be respected and feared too, by the political class across the spectrum. In 1971, when Indira Gandhi as the Prime Minister was about to take a decision on the disputed island, she sent a top bureaucrat to explain the reasons and rationale of the decision in the overall strategic interests of the country. Clearly, she anticipated a lot of resistance from Tamil Nadu and Chief Minister Karunanidhi.

“But Thiru Karunanidhi appreciated the background and the context in which the decision to hand over Kachchatheevu to [Sri Lanka] was taken. But however, he told me to protect his political turf, he would take a stand contrary to the government of India, but she (Mrs. Gandhi) should go ahead with the decision,” G. Ramachandran, who retired as Finance Secretary and was a top official at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) at that time, told me a few days before his incisive book on Indian Bureaucracy, Walking with Giants , was released in October 2013. For Karunanidhi, acting in the national interest was paramount, but it was also important to protect his own political turf in the State.

This instance, not very well publicised, goes contrary to an image of Karunanidhi as a regional chieftain championing the cause of Tamil and independent state.

This instance, not very well publicised, goes contrary to an image of Karunanidhi as a regional chieftain championing the cause of Tamil and independent state and reveals him as a true statesman acting in the larger interests of the nation along with a political dexterity he always possessed to handle the situation on the ground that existed in Tamil Nadu.

Such was his commanding position in the party that he brooked no nonsense when it came to niceties to be extended to political opponents and leaders of other political parties. Karunanidhi flew into a rage after his party MLA threw wild accusation against Indira Gandhi that she had donated a diamond necklace to the presiding deity at Tiruchendur temple. Indira Gandhi was furious and got a senior official to draw Karunanidhi’s attention. Upon investigations, the allegations were found untrue and an enraged Karunanidhi forced the local MLA who was a political heavyweight in the party to come to Assembly and tender an unqualified apology. Karunanidhi’s penchant for putting truth above perception comes through this instance, which could have won the DMK some brownie points if he allowed the accusations to linger on in public domain.

A school drop-out he was, but he never allowed his lack of formal education to become a handicap in making accurate assessments of different situations he faced as a politician, as an opposition leader and as a Chief Minister. Another official recalled how as CM during 1989-91, Karunanidhi got a series of complaints against the then District Collector of Chengalpattu, made by his own party colleague, and found them to be false. He summoned the party colleague and ticked him off with a stern warning, “de, paruda, aatchi vere, katchi vere” (hey see, party is different and government is different). The Collector is doing a good job and work with him and not against him, Karunanidhi advised the party colleague.

Early days

Having learnt his politics in the rough and tumble in the field, since he was a 14-year-old, Karunanidhi displayed amazing leadership qualities when he launched Tamil Nadu Maanavar Mandram (Tamil Nadu Youth Forum) His organisational abilities and communication skills propelled him into leadership position within the DMK, a breakaway faction from Dravida Kazhagam (DK), was formed by C.N. Annadurai in 1949. Having learnt his politics from Periyar and Annadurai, Karunanidhi rose up the ranks and knew the organisation inside out - how the party functioned, how the coalition of castes was to be managed, minorities, and how to set priorities. Most important of all, he deployed his communication skills to telling effect. Among the founding members of DMK, Karunanidhi was the treasurer of the party for a long time, during the course of which he realised the importance of keeping the money bags happy.

Having learnt his politics in the rough and tumble in the field, since he was a 14-year-old, Karunanidhi displayed amazing leadership qualities.

Karunanidhi had shot into the limelight during the anti-Hindi agitation, second phase, of 1953 that took place at Dalmiapuram, a small town near Lalgudi in Tiruchi District. The original name Kallakudi was changed to Dalmiapuram to honour a north Indian industrialist, Dalmia, who set up a cement factory. Pouncing on this, DMK orators, including Karunanidhi, mounted a campaign that the move amounted to an insult to Dravidians and demanded the original name to be restored. Karunanidhi was among the five activists of the party arrested for stopping a train.

To control more protestors, police had opened fire injuring few activists. Two train passengers hit by stray bullets died in the incident. Karunanidhi and others were sentenced to five months in prison and fined Rs 35 each. With this Karunanidhi shot into prominence and he milked the issue of perceived Hindi imposition to the hilt by exploiting the regional sentiments with emotional appeal. The third phase of anti-Hindi agitations of the mid-sixties, backed by Karunanidhi and other DMK leaders, against the then Congress led central government to force Hindi, was violent and the mood of the people turned totally against the Congress.

In the elections that followed in 1967, the DMK evicted the Congress from power and till date, neither the Congress nor the other national parties, have been able to gain prominence in the state. Both Congress and the BJP have to play second fiddle to either of the two Dravidian parties, the two poles in Tamil Nadu politics.

Knowing the popular pulse and using films to promote Dravidian ideology, Karunanidhi helped the DMK occupy the mind space of the people.

In 1959, the fiery orator in Karunanidhi led the DMK to its first victory in Madras Municipal elections. Knowing the pulse of the people and using films to promote the Dravidian ideology, and social themes and messages, Karunanidhi helped the party occupy the mind space of the people.

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The new Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi, being sworn in by the Governor, Sardar Ujjal Singh, at Raj Bhavan in Madras on February 10, 1969. Photo: The Hindu Archives / K.N. Chari


When DMK came to power in 1967, Karunanidhi became a Minister. But the first display of his astute political acumen came when Chief Minister Annadurai passed away in 1969. With his grip over party complete, Karunanidhi edged out his senior and acting Chief Minister V. R. Nedunchezhiyan and became the Chief Minister and never looked back after that.

Many achievements

Karunanidhi dominated State politics, as a leader of the government and as an opposition leader, all through his political career. After becoming Chief Minster at a young age of 45 in 1969, Karunanidhi got elected as the Chief Minister on four occasions – 1971, 1989, 1996, and then in 2006.

After becoming the CM, Karunanidhi also captured the party and held the two posts. Even today as he battles for his life, Karunanidhi remained the DMK president, 50 years after he was elected as the head of a political party – the longest tenure as a political party chief in the country. It is his ability to hold on to party colleagues, strong ideological moorings, and self-belief that he was able to keep the party together even when he was out of power for 13 years at stretch.

Among his many achievements as the Chief Minister, is how he handled the reservation issue – something that gave rich political dividends.

Among his many achievements as the Chief Minister, is how he handled the reservation issue – something that gave rich political dividends – by carving out a 20 per cent reservation out of the 50 per cent reservation already existed during M.G. Ramachandran’s rule. Karunanidhi as the Chief Minister was also pushed the VP Singh government to accept the Mandal Commission report that gave 27 per cent reservation to OBCs at the national level.

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Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, along with Murasoli Maran, calling on former Prime Minister V.P. Singh at his residence, in New Delhi on May 14, 1996. Photo: The Hindu Archives/Kamal Narang


On the Cauvery issue, Karunanidhi was the person who first moved the Supreme Court to get the Cauvery tribunal appointed to sort out the water sharing tussle between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

If Karunanidhi is to be remembered most, it is for his fight for the rights of the States. It was by seeking more autonomy for State governments that he maintained and strengthened the federal structure of the country that the Constitution guaranteed.

He was the first Chief Minister to win the right to hoist the national flag on Independence Day, something that was not allowed till then. Karunanidhi’s government had also passed a resolution in the Assembly in1974 seeking autonomy for the State. “Since then we have not deviated from the basic principles of that resolution; we continue to press our policy of autonomy in the State and Federal rule at the Centre,” Karunanidhi was quoted as saying in media reports of that time. Karunanidhi would have opposed the Goods and Services Tax (GST) as it was introduced, going by his track record on issues relating to state’s autonomy and how GST affects its tax revenues.

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The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi, seen with the Chief Secretary, P. Sabhanayagam, after unfurling the National Flag at Fort St. George on Friday, August 15, 1975. Photo: The Hindu Archives

A fighter for State’s rights and a pragmatic politician willing to give and take, Karunanidhi used his political clout at the centre for State’s economic benefit. It was under his Chief Ministership that Tamil Nadu got Salem Steel Plant, Tuticorin Port, Neyveli second mine cut. Karunanidhi managed to get these central government projects approved using the balance of power he had when supporting the Indira Gandhi government between 1969 and 1971.

An industrialist notes that Karunanidhi was primarily responsible for setting Tamil Nadu as a manufacturing hub, as he felt that it was manufacturing that created jobs and it got traction during his period, leading to establishment of Hyundai, Ford and other automotive majors’ plants.

When in the UPA coalition, the DMK blocked the centre’s move to privatise Neyveli Lignite Corporation. Later Jayalalithaa also took up the issue and bid for purchasing stake in the corporation to save the entity and its employees. On coalition politics, the situation in Tamil Nadu also forced him to be flexible as it also largely depended on which side his “enemy” Jayalalithaa tilted.

For Stalin, big shoes to fill

He has had his fair share of controversies – and even stoked – like when he questioned the educational qualifications of Lord Rama and how he built Rama Sethu a bridge linking Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka. After his remarks kicked up a storm and when Karunanidhi realised that sentiments of the people were being hurt, he withdrew his remarks.

An atheist by choice, Karunanidhi was flexible even in this.

An atheist by choice, Karunanidhi was flexible even in this. He personally did not believe in god and idol worship, but he never dissuaded his relatives from participating in religious rituals.

Controversies dogged Karunanidhi all through his political career, the single biggest charge that he promoted his family in politics and turned a blind eye to a spate of corruption charges, against party colleagues as also his own family members.

Ever since Jayalalithaa was convicted in the disproportionate assets case and sentenced to jail, the DMK leaders would try and draw a contrast that neither Karunanidhi nor his relatives were found guilty of corruption charges.

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M.G. Ramachandran, MLC, handing over a cheque of Rs. 10,000 to the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M. Karunanidhi, for the Beggars' Rehabilitation Fund on the eve of the latter's birthday on June 3, 1971 in Madras. Photo: The Hindu Archives.


But the corruption taint is a very much perception issue in Tamil Nadu, with the newer entrants into politics – film superstars Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth – trying to play to the galleries on this issue.

It was big relief to the oldest politician in the country when his daughter, Kanimozhi, was freed of corruption charges against her in the 2G spectrum case by the trial court. Though the government has challenged it in a higher court, another person framed in the case, former telecom minister and DMK’s Dalit poster boy, A Raja, always maintained that there was nothing in the case and “I will come out clean in the courts.”

As the chosen political heir of Karunanidhi, Stalin will find it difficult to fill in the shoes his father wore, as he himself admitted in a conversation with Hindustan Times , just ahead of the 2016 general elections to State Assembly. Already, he is trying to run the party and its campaign as his father has been out of active politics and day-to-day affairs owing to his prolonged illness relating to advancing age.

Karunanidhi has ensured that there is a succession plan ready, unlike AIADMK where there was no declared political heir to Amma. Karunanidhi made his choice very clear on many occasions that it was Stalin who will be the leader of the party in his absence. And he has assumed charge too, as working President and captured the party apparatus.

If he manages to keep the party together and work out key alliances, waiting for his turn, Stalin will get a chance to continue his father’s legacy.

The importance of Karunanidhi’s legacy

Why Karunanidhi’s legacy is important to be kept alive is because progressively the State government is seemingly giving in to every diktat and surrendering gains, so painstakingly achieved by the two of the tallest and most admired leaders of Tamil Nadu – Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa. And since the AIADMK is considerably weakened after the splits it has seen and its growing unpopularity puts the onus on Stalin to steer his party’s campaign. It remains to be seen if Stalin is able to keep the party and family together.

Tamil Nadu with 39 seats will be a key player in the 2019 general elections and these numbers are going to matter a lot.

Tamil Nadu with 39 seats on offer will be a key player in the 2019 general elections and these numbers are going to matter a lot, as anti-incumbency for the BJP with its governments in most States as also at the centre causing losses in terms of seats.

If the previous patterns in voting in past elections is anything to go by, it does not require a political analyst to forecast that the BJP is unlikely to repeat its stunning performance of 2104 in North India. Which is why, it would be looking at South India which together sends 130 MPs to Lok Sabha. From the BJP perspective, either it wins or teams up with the winners – either pre-poll or post-poll arrangements. This makes Tamil Nadu with its largest offering of 39 in South Indian states, a crucial State. And one that will see increasing political action as India approaches the 2019 general elections.

( Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist who spent the last eight years in Chennai, covering Tamil Nadu for The Hindustan Times newspaper. He has just retired and relocated to Bengaluru and writes about South India and all that it has to offer.

He can be contacted at [email protected] ).


Note: This article was revised on August 8, 2018, to correct a typographical error in the name of the Tamil Nadu Maanavar Mandram.

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