The deaths of two veteran politicians, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and M Karunanidhi, within a fortnight in August provoke an irresistible desire to look at their lives side by side. Karunanidhi and Vajpayee share much in common: they were born in the same year (1924), were noted poets in their respective languages (Tamil and Hindi), had political careers that spanned well over five decades, were trenchant critics of the Emergency, met with every prime minister of independent India, and were rightly considered epoch makers in every sense. However, on deeper reflection, it must be considered that given their time and influence in active politics was so similar, the radical difference in the positions of power they held speak profoundly of the fault lines in our life as a quasi-federal polity.

Vajpayee, a 10-time member of the Lok Sabha and two-time Rajya Sabha MP, is almost never thought of as a “regional” leader, even though his power, drawing force and much-touted oratory skills were largely restricted to the Hindi belt, specifically Uttar Pradesh and some parts of Madhya Pradesh. By comparison, Karunanidhi – a 13-time member of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly and one-time member of the now non-existent Tamil Nadu Legislative Council – is almost always reduced to his “regional” influence, despite being an inspiration of self-respect politics to all non-Hindi states and an icon of global Tamil nationhood, solidarity and linguistic politics.

Vajpayee was a major player at the national level, having been elected prime minister no less than three times. Karunanidhi, on the other hand, could never spread his political power much beyond Tamil Nadu. Vajpayee seemed to have the ability to stake claim to India and Indian-ness much more easily than Karunanidhi, and this must be seen as a structural problem in Indian federalism that impedes non-Hindi participation at the highest level.

Region and caste

Vajpayee, from the get-go, was set to be a force in national politics, even without numbers or support. It is said that Jawaharlal Nehru, on seeing a young Vajpayee speak, remarked that he would be prime minister one day. It is striking to observe here the contrast with the fortunes of K Kamaraj, a veteran Congress leader and key figure in and after the Independence movement who, despite reaching the highest echelons of the party, was never considered a contender for the prime minister’s post given his lack of Hindi-speaking skills. That there was more certainty in a young Vajpayee being prime minister than the long-serving Kamaraj is emblematic of the alienation intrinsic to India’s political life. If Kamaraj was not confident of possessing the ability to represent all Indians, even from within a “national” party like the immediately post-Independence Congress, what chance would non-Hindi leaders and people have in the Union going forward? If Vajpayee, with a mere two seats for his party in the Lok Sabha at one point in the 1980s, was considered a politician of more “national” importance than Karunanidhi, what does that say about our construction of nationhood?

Another crucial fault line in a comparison of these two figures is that of caste. With representation being at the core of democracy, it is important to consider questions of diversity, access and power. In a caste-laden political society like India, the majority of Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes are structurally blocked from gaining representation even in the form of MLAs, let alone MPs. Legislative institutions, including Parliament – which are, in principle, more diverse than other pillars of democratic life, including the media – remain woefully closed to most of India’s dispossessed communities. In this context, it must be stressed that Vajpayee, being a Brahmin and a member of a cultural aristocracy, is hardly a democratic symbol. In contrast, Karunanidhi, of the numerically insignificant and socially marginal Isai Velalar caste, symbolises the radical possibility of representation in high office. Conversely, their castes, no doubt, shaped their power at the negotiating table to be seen as “national” figures, much as their regions did.

Vajpayee and Karunanidhi had much in common, yet there was a radical difference in the positions of power they held. (Credit: HT)

The caste difference is also not simply about representation. As many proponents of diversity would argue, the question of representation is also one of asserting viewpoints, perspectives and priorities in high places. This is, unmistakably, a massive difference between the two. Vajpayee will be remembered for his contributions to road and highway infrastructure, the Pokhran nuclear tests, the Kargil War, and possibly for his tacit role in the Ram Janmabhoomi Babri Masjid movement and his bystander politics in the face of the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat. Karunanidhi, on the other hand, will be immortalised for his support of self-respect and inter-caste marriages, his social welfare boards, specific measures to help marginalised castes, his advocacy of transgender rights and his humanitarian stance on Tamils in northern Sri Lanka. Thus, caste and region may be points of exclusion and access, but it is evident that at the core they are also questions of fundamentally different definitions and agendas of development.

Whatever one may have against either of these two leaders, it would be hard to argue that their deaths within nine days of each other has not clearly marked the end of an era. Both spent a bulk of their political lives trying to make numerous coalitions work – a quality that is less and less valued at a time of muscle-flexing strength and leadership-oriented governance.

As we move forward, it is imperative to ask more profound questions of what balance we need to achieve between our freedoms and rights in India and India’s place in the world. We also have to address the profound cracks in our federalism that are the root cause of mass alienation. It may be tempting in the present day to attribute all problems to the current dispensation, but being truthful about the reasons behind the disparate political power wielded by Vajpayee and Karunanidhi in their lives may be a good starting point to address the more serious malaise of representation in the system.

Pranav Kuttaiah is a Research Associate at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi, working on urbanisation, identity and politics.