The prince of populism

Tue 17 Jan 2017

One the most charismatic of India’s modern leaders, Marudur Gopalan Ramachandran, or MGR, was only the second actor-turned-politician after Ronald Reagan who managed to take centre stage. Yet, unlike Reagan, MGR was god on earth in his own right, conjuring up crowds on a par with Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, his mentor C.N. Annadurai (Anna) and Indira Gandhi.

Poverty forced him out of school after the third grade, but the man had no need for formal schooling for few could read the masses as he did. MGR owed his fame to his prepossessing looks, swashbuckling, and generosity — both calculated and often innate, and his parent Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). None before or after has been deified like MGR.

The DMK years

From the mid-fifties when his hero status had become secure, an involuntary group of image-makers — scriptwriters and lyricists — spun stories of his fight for justice, invincibility and acts of kindness towards the poor, morphing the reel with the real. Such a concerted effort was made possible as MGR was socially conscious and politically committed as none other.

By 1962, MGR and the DMK, a party full of promise, had become interchangeable. Ironically, in 1944, MGR had turned down the lead role in DMK founder Anna’s propagandist play, wary of jeopardising his career. The last-minute replacement, the 17-year-old V.C. Ganesan, would be known as ‘Sivaji’.

In 1953, a decade after his refusal, MGR would be putting his career on the line for the DMK. The man who changed his heart, M. Karunanidhi, scriptwriter, mesmerising orator, organiser and politician, could hardly have known that his initiate would take him on one day. The duo had come together for MGR’s debut movie as hero in Rajakumari (Princess, 1947). Their friendship and collaboration, and later feuding, would lead to history in both films and politics.

MGR’s aura was such that Anna himself had to on occasion defer to the crowds’ craze for his star disciple and halt his speech. Anna knew that MGR was akin to an elephant deferring to the mahout, yet always conscious of his elephantine power. But others were not as confident and the party split in 1961 also because of this.

In the 1967 elections, posters of a wounded MGR — shot by his screen rival M.R. Radha — helped to bring down the Congress Goliath. Anna sent in his Cabinet nominees for MGR to vet.

In 1969, Anna’s death saw MGR play kingmaker and being rewarded with the party’s third-highest position, treasurer, courtesy Mr. Karunanidhi, the new Chief Minister. But then they began to drift apart. In the 1971 elections, MGR was rebuffed when he sought an explanation as treasurer for the way campaign funds had been distributed in certain cases. Mr. Karunanidhi’s son’s film career at this time made MGR tetchier.

The AIADMK era

On October 8, 1972, MGR publicly charged that the DMK had deviated from Anna’s ideals, had become corrupt, and asked its functionaries and Ministers to table their accounts. In return the party expelled him. The Anna DMK came into being on October 18, 1972 (rechristened AIADMK in 1976). Surprisingly, the party, with film fans as its base, attracted many degree-holders and professionals to it as well. An alarmed Congress leader K. Kamaraj famously said on November 8 at Thiruvathipuram in Vellore district that the two Kazhagams were “barks soaked in the same pond”.

When the ADMK won the 1973 Dindigul parliamentary by-election, DMK leaders downplayed it as “film glamour” that would pass. They were wrong. In 1977, voted to power, MGR surprisingly pressed Dravidar Kazhagam’s K. Veeramani to act as a go-between to reunite the Kazhagams. Janata Party leader Biju Patnaik stepped in on his own in 1979 towards the merger. MGR, however, had a change of heart at the last minute.

MGR’s first term was idealistic. His fetish for cleanliness saw government moving at a snail’s pace even as he enforced prohibition in a draconian manner, introduced an economic ceiling for reservations, and dreamt of rural development.

In 1980, his defeat in the parliamentary polls saw him roll back prohibition and the economic criteria upping reservations to its current level. This time he ran a loose administration and favoured liquor barons who in turn bankrolled the party. But this period is best remembered for MGR’s ingenuity in expanding the midday meal scheme feeding, over the years, close to 69 lakh children, pensioners and destitutes among the elderly. Its success led to a slew of other novel welfare measures. The vision to partner the private sector in education would transform the State forever.

While cultivating and funding the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and its leader V. Prabhakaran, he also helped balance the DMK’s shrill demands. MGR held the line on Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue but his influence over Prabhakaran was greatly overrated.

In 1982, he inducted Jayalalithaa — his former leading lady with whom his relationship was both intense on and off screen — into the party after a nearly 10-year hiatus. Jayalalithaa drew large crowds next only to MGR, but the importance he accorded her peeved senior leaders. In September 1983, senior Minister S.D. Somasundaram quit the party and levelled serious corruption charges against MGR. A heartbroken MGR responded to the “baseless” charges, asked: “Would he prosper?”

In October 1984, as he took ill, the control of the party slipped away. His third term saw him adopt a see-saw approach to an ambitious Jayalalithaa and her rival faction. In 1986, infighting saw the party lose the local body elections to the DMK. The abolition of the Legislative Council and the disqualification of 10 DMK legislators showed the ailing Chief Minister’s growing intolerance for dissent.

The MGR legacy

MGR laid the foundations for a transformed Tamil Nadu that came to be known as a welfare State. His freebies and subsidised schemes made him the darling of the masses. While the human development index showed promise, all this welfare and — arguably a culture of dependency — came at a price, with more than three-fourths of the State Budget going into subsidies. And half the State remained below the poverty line after his 10-year rule.

Whenever MGR’s political stock appeared low, providence helped draw sympathy and support to him. Despite the scandals that dogged his years in power, his whittling down of the Dravidian ideals by his temple visits, his image as a clean man or a Dravidian leader could not be dented.

R. Kannan is the head of office of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq in Basra. His ‘M.G. Ramachandran: A Life’ is slated for publication in June.


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