In the run-up to the Tamil Nadu elections, his name and legacy still cast their spell on voters and political claimants
M.G. Ramachandran, or MGR (1917-1987), founder of Tamil Nadu’s ruling party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), and Chief Minister for an almost unbroken period of 10 years (1977-87), is back in the public discourse.
List of claimants
Kamal Haasan, veteran actor and founder of the Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM), has joined the list of claimants to his legacy. Rajinikanth, another veteran actor, and who has planned to launch his party in a month, declared in early 2018 that he aspired to revive “MGR rule”. His admirers are expecting him to replicate a “Dindigul-type” of performance in the 2021 Assembly election, just as MGR’s AIADMK, in its maiden attempt within months of formation, scored a spectacular victory in the 1973 by-election to the Dindigul Lok Sabha constituency; it surpassed the Congress (Organisation) led by former Chief Minister K. Kamaraj and pushed the then ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) to the third spot.
About two months ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party sought to appropriate the MGR legacy when his images were used in the promotion material of the “Vetrivel Yatra,” a roadshow by the party’s State president, L. Murugan. Last week, even DMK president M.K. Stalin rendered a few lines from a 1965 MGR film to lash out at Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami. MGR’s 33rd death anniversary was observed yesterday, December 24, and there is a generation of people in the State who have not seen him. Yet, MGR’s name continues to cast a spell on voters.
There is a school of thought that the former Chief Minister’s following among people in Tamil Nadu has been a myth. In the later part of his rule, there were critics who described his style of functioning — both in the government and in the party — as “highly personalised” and “feudal”. As far as his style of working was concerned, there was always an element of unpredictability.
A stress on welfarism
If MGR joined hands with the Indian National Congress in the March 1977 Lok Sabha elections, three months later, in the Assembly elections, he could dump the Congress party and go with the Communist Party of India (Marxist), an adversary of the Congress at the all-India level. Likewise, he sought to implement the concept of a creamy layer in July 1979 by prescribing an annual income limit of ₹9,000 for the Backward Classes to be eligible for reservation in education and public employment. After his party faced a drubbing in the Lok Sabha election in January 1980, he not only withdrew it but also hiked the quantum of quota for the BCs from 31% to 50%; also, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are entitled to 19% reservation. As proof of his ability to shock his party colleagues and the public alike, MGR axed 10 Ministers at one go in 1986.
Despite his regime getting embroiled in several controversies of corruption such as illegal diversion of rectified spirit to Kerala and allegations of kickbacks in the purchase of foreign ships, the dirt did not stick. The AIADMK founder is best remembered for his government’s noon meal scheme for children and his emphasis on welfare economics, which, according to some of his Ministerial colleagues, was a reflection of his “identification with the poor”. The stress on welfarism sustained MGR’s image of being the champion of the poor, the oppressed and the vulnerable sections of society, including women. MGR had assiduously cultivated such an image even from the early days in the film world. His successor, Jayalalithaa, had, for sometime, dabbled with market-led and neo-liberal policies focusing on growth. But electoral debacles made her realise that welfarism was a powerful political tool and should not be overlooked.
Though MGR broke away from the DMK, whose emphasis on iconoclasm, atheism, and ethnic and regional identity was well known, he was clear from the beginning that he should not be seen as one more representative of that set of political values. Without making any radical departure from the State’s known stand on issues such as the two-language formula, he made a nuanced shift from the DMK’s approach. Initially, he presented himself as a nationalist and later, as a believer, as borne out by his government’s centenary celebrations for C. Rajagopalachari (“Rajaji”) and Subramania Bharati, both prominent figures of the freedom movement, as well as his visits to the Mookambika temple, Kollur, in Udupi, Karnataka.
Comment | MGR, the prince of populism
The two traits helped him widen the AIADMK’s political base, as he targeted the vote bank of the national parties, the Janata Party and the Congress, which together had secured around 34% of votes in the 1977 Assembly election. Jayalaliathaa, with her felicity with several languages, was never seen as a parochialist, despite her strong stand on issues such as “Hindi imposition.” She had all along portrayed herself as a god-believing Hindu. Former Electricity Minister Panruti S. Ramachandran, who was a key person in all the three cabinets of MGR, strongly disputes the contention that MGR was an autocrat, while emphasising the point that “in the Cabinet meetings, he would seek the views of every one of us before taking any decision”.
More than all these, MGR, while in power, was virtually invincible and his political bête noire, M. Karunanidhi, could become Chief Minister only after his death. Charisma was not the only reason behind his success as MGR banked on a combination of factors to keep himself politically relevant. This is why Mr. Haasan and others have realised that MGR’s mojo can fetch them a rich electoral dividend.