CNA known for simplicity, concern for the poor and willingness for reconciliation
The fourth general elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies in 1967 caused a political earthquake in the country. The Congress, the ruling party at the Centre and in States, came in for a rude shock. Though it managed to retain control of the Lok Sabha, its majority was very thin. In eight States including Tamil Nadu, the Congress’ monopoly of power was broken. In Tamil Nadu, since that election, the Congress has not been able to capture power again. The man who was chiefly responsible for this historic event was C.N. Annadurai (1909-1969), founder of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and one of the beloved leaders of the State.
One can attribute a number of factors — rice shortage caused by the back-to-back drought spells of 1965 and 1966, arithmetic factor of political alliance, attempt on one of DMK’s popular icons M.G. Ramachandran and the anti-Hindi agitation — to the dramatic victory of the DMK. But Anna, as Annadurai was and is still called by his political followers, was the central figure in this triumph. He had remained focussed in achieving his political goal ever since he launched the DMK in 1949. And, his emergence as a principal leader in the State laid the foundation for the growth of regional parties in the State.
Born in a simple weaver family, CNA, as Annadurai is also known, had endured several deprivations in his early years. Much later, when he became a playwright, a writer and a political and social commentator, his speeches and writings had one common thread – problems of the underprivileged. It was perhaps this factor that forced him to make an electoral promise in 1967 – three measures (approximately 4.5 kg) of rice at Re. 1. Though dubbed by his political opponents as unrealistic even then, the idea caught the imagination of the people. It is no wonder that the DMK, led by M. Karunanidhi, CNA’s prominent follower, returned to power in 2006, making rice at Re. 2 a kg as one of its important electoral commitments. The DMK regime not only fulfilled its promise but also went one step further – providing rice at Re.1 a kg from September 2008 in connection with the inauguration of CNA’s centenary celebration.
After completing his studies in 1934, Annadurai was drawn to E.V. Ramasamy (EVR) or Periyar (1879-1973), who was, by then, an important leader of the Justice Party and also carrying on the anti-caste, anti-religion Self Respect Movement. In no time, he had become Periyar’s chief lieutenant. He came to be noticed during the anti-Hindi agitation held in 1938. Six years later, CNA was instrumental in the creation of the Dravidar Kazhagam, breaking ranks from the Justice Party. Soon, the differences between CNA and his “political guru” EVR came to the fore on a host of issues. In 1947, when the country attained Independence, EVR called it a black day but Annadurai described the Independence Day as a day of deliverance from the British Raj. The democratisation of leadership within the DK was another issue. When the 70-year-old EVR married Maniyammai, who was about 40 years younger to him, in July 1949, CNA left the DK and formed the DMK two months later.
In political ideology, the DMK did not differ much from the DK. The establishment of independent Dravida Nadu, which implied secession of four southern States from the rest of the country, was at the core of the DMK’s objectives, even as the party declared its commitment to democracy and socialism. But, after the India-China conflict in 1962 and the anti-secession legislation was mooted, the party gave up its demand for separation as, CNA said, the supreme task of all was to mobilise the country’s efforts “for the successful prosecution of the war against the Chinese aggression.” From then onwards, the party has been demanding for a federal set-up in the country, greater autonomy for States and less powers for the Central government. The social reform for the elimination of caste has been its ideal.
The DMK’s debut in electoral politics began in the 1957 general elections. It made a modest beginning with 15 seats in the Assembly. Five years later, the tally went up to 50 and the DMK became the main Opposition party. But, a Congress nominee had defeated CNA in the Kancheepuram constituency. However, this defeat, in a way, paved the way for him to become a member of the Upper House (Rajya Sabha) in Parliament in 1962.
The subsequent years saw the DMK growing from strength to strength. The party’s decision to give up the demand for separation made it more acceptable to different sections of society. By this time, Annadurai and many other leaders of the DMK had been aggressively and successfully reaching out to people, particularly the youth, through different mediums – theatre, cinema and Tamil press. Besides, he and his followers became more prominent for their power of articulation in flowery Tamil.
When the Central government was contemplating, in 1964-65, making Hindi the official language of the country in accordance with the Constitution’s stipulation, CNA saw it a great opportunity to enlarge the space for his party. The agitation turned violent and the Congress government’s image had suffered a severe setback.
In 1967, the DMK contested the elections along with parties such as Swatantara, Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Muslim League and won big. This had demonstrated the strength of the politics of alliance, pioneered in this part of the country by Annadurai.
Having lost in the Assembly elections in 1962, he chose to contest in the then South Madras Lok Sabha constituency in 1967. When the DMK captured 138 seats in the Assembly, the post of Chief Ministership naturally went to him.
He held the post barely for two years. But these years were eventful. Madras was renamed as Tamil Nadu. The DMK’s electoral promise of three measures of rice at Re.1 was modified into a measure of rice at Re.1 and the scheme was launched in a few places. He was extremely distressed when about 40 Dalits including women and children were burnt alive in Keezhvenmani, a village near Nagapttainam, in December 1968.
More than policies and schemes of his government, CNA came to be seen as a person who was ready for reconciliation with all sections. He observed the graces of political life and possessed a healthy respect for his political adversaries. After the election results in 1967, he called on the outgoing Congress Chief Minister M. Bakthavatsalam, who had described the victory of the DMK as the spread of a virus.
As the DMK leader, he was a democrat and encouraged second line leaders. A voracious reader, CNA had encouraged his party members to read and write a lot. Also, he spotted the talent of a large number of film artists and used their services for party propaganda work.
Looking back, it seems a miracle that a party, with a bare financial strength, could take on an established party such as the Congress and dislodge it in less than 20 years. This could not have been possible but for CNA’s qualities – simplicity, concern for the poor and willingness for reconciliation.