Remembering a phenomenon

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Friend of the poor: M.G. Ramachandran at a noon meal centre at Kattur near Tiruchi.
Friend of the poor: M.G. Ramachandran at a noon meal centre at Kattur near Tiruchi.

T. Ramakrishnan

Even now, 20 years after his death, most political discourses in Tamil Nadu are not complete without a reference to M. G. Ramachandran.

It is 20 years since the death of the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam founder M.G. Ramachandran, who was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu during 1977-1987. His death has not removed him from the political scene of the State.

Even now, many political discourses are not complete without references to him. About six months ago, when disciplinary action was sought to be taken by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam against a high-profile member, a remark made by a prominent figure was that even MGR’s exit from the DMK 35 years ago did not create any dent in the support base of the ruling party. In the 2001 Assembly elections, when the AIADMK, under the leadership of Jayalalithaa, made a dramatic comeback, it promised the electorate that it would re-establish the “benevolent rule” of MGR.

MGR is called a political phenomenon by analysts mainly due to his “unparalleled success.” After he captured power in June 1977, MGR remained Chief Minister, except for a brief period, till December 1987. While in power, he lived up to his “friend of the poor” image that he cultivated over the years as a film actor.

His administration offered several freebies to the poor, and the one that is still talked about is the noon-meal scheme, designed in 1982. About 10 years later, the Central government, acknowledging the scheme’s success, made it a national programme. In 2004, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre revised it. Now, the DMK regime in the State is providing three eggs a week to students covered under the scheme.

But what is significant about MGR is that he remained almost “undefeated” throughout his career, particularly after founding the AIADMK. The only major political setback he faced was the party’s defeat in the 1980 Lok Sabha elections. Then, he had teamed up with the Janata Party, which was on its decline.

More than anything else, it was his timing in launching the AIADMK that explains his success. He had the patience and foresight to wait for an opportune moment, unlike E.V.K. Sampath who broke away from the DMK as early as in 1961 and failed to make any impression on the people.

During 1953-1972, when MGR was a DMK member, many of his Tamil films conveyed political messages, naturally in favour of his party. But it was in the early 1970s that he decided to establish himself as a political force independent of the DMK.

When he started the AIADMK in 1972, Rajaji (1878-1972) and K. Kamaraj (1903-1975), who dominated Tamil Nadu politics for nearly 40 years, were in their twilight. Two months after the AIADMK was born, Rajaji died. In the 1973 May by-election to the Dindigul Lok Sabha constituency, Kamaraj’s Congress (Organisation) finished second to the AIADMK. The Congress-O was perceived to be the major political opponent of the DMK, but after the election the message was loud and clear. The AIADMK had arrived.

MGR knew fully well that for his party to be successful, he had to position it as the main rival of the DMK. He did not waver from this position, and his successor too follows him.

The 1977 Assembly elections turned out to be unique for more than one reason. They were the first elections to the State Assembly after the demise of Rajaji and Kamaraj. The AIADMK emerged one of the principal political forces in the State, a position which it still retains. Since then, regional parties have occupied the top two positions in the State.

After the DMK became a major party in the 1960s, for the first and perhaps the only time, the Congress and the Janata Party made a serious bid to capture power in 1977. (By the time the polls were held, Rajaji’s Swatantra and a section of the Congress (O) were part of the Janata Party, while another section of the Congress-O led by G.K. Moopanar merged with the Congress of Indira Gandhi.) The Congress and the Janata Party secured 17.5 and 16.7 per cent of the votes polled.

After the AIADMK’s upset victory in the 1980 Assembly elections, the party consolidated its position as the DMK’s principal rival and cut into the support base of the national parties. MGR consciously built an image of a nationalist, even as he projected himself as a follower of E.V. Ramasami and C.N. Annadurai, the leading figures of the Dravidian movement. After MGR revived his partnership with the Congress in the mid-1980s, the AIADMK remained the national party’s ally till his end.

Today, the political scene in the State has become more complex. For the first time in more than 50 years, the tradition of single party-majority was broken in the 2006 elections. There are signs of the emergence of a third force and the parties which aim at occupying that space may find it worthwhile to study MGR.



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