MG Ramachandran, popularly known as MGR, was larger than reality for the people of Tamil Nadu and the Tamil diaspora across the world. He was an overrated myth that other Indian politicians from Indira Gandhi to Rajiv Gandhi tapped to strike at the heart of Dravidian politics due to his amenable outlook towards the centre.
MGR, in the early years after his joining the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1953, was still untested and his destiny undefined. It was the DMK founder C.N. Annadurai who saw in him the potential—due to his charisma—for providing the popular outreach to the party. Along with the oratorical skills of Annadurai and literary brilliance of M. Karunanidhi, MGR soon became a strategic bridge between the party and the Tamil masses.
The party members wrote the script for this matinee idol and promoted him as the idol of the Tamil masses. After the passing away of his mentor Annadurai in 1969 and with the elevation of Karunanidhi as chief minister, MGR emerged as a crucial power centre as the party treasurer. Despite the pronounced succession of V.R. Nedunchezhiyan as chief minister after Annadurai’s demise, MGR played a key role in tilting the balance in favour of Karunanidhi. MGR knew at this stage that he had already emerged as a power centre and that it was only a matter of time before he parted ways with Karunanidhi.
In 1972, the grounds for a split were set on the moral high ground of corruption—an issue raised by MGR within the party. The Congress (I) led by Indira Gandhi worked on a perfect plot to pitch back into Dravidian politics with able assistance from the government’s intelligence wing and select leaders from the Left who were on good terms with the Congress (I).
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Karunanidhi took little time to oust MGR from the party and the rest is history in Tamil Nadu, along with the coming of age of cinema in politics. The image became the reality and politics began to fade.
After founding the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK) in 1972, MGR followed the same course for his party as the strategic bridge and public outreach vehicle of the DMK by Annadurai and Karunanidhi. He became both the engine and the vehicle of the party, with the large cadre and the cream of leaders not adjusting well to the rise of Karunanidhi as both party chief and chief minister.
MGR led the ADMK, later called the All India ADMK, with an iron fist in velvet gloves, without any ideological content, and ultimately converted the party into a fan club with his charisma and influence among the cadres and masses. Thus, the relationship between cinema and politics became a metaphor and identity for political path finders. The rise of populist politics and freebies coincided with the decline of the ideological and political content of Dravidian politics. MGR ruled as a popular leader with his characteristic influence that blinded the people from questioning the system and completely shut out the opposition—including the prospects of DMK returning to power until his passing away in December 1987. He was a phenomenon that revealed not only the glamour of charismatic power in politics but also the destructive dimension of the same charisma through the decay of politics.
Though Karunanidhi was his friend, comrade and fellow traveller, after 1969, he viewed him as a political rival. In such assumption rested his plan to name Jayalalithaa as the propaganda secretary of the party in 1982—he had taken this decision to retain the popular content of the party as well as to provide a lasting counter to the designs of the DMK leadership after him. The MGR phenomenon carried her beyond her imagination into the corridors of power and glory.
Today, the phenomenon called MGR, despite its charismatic fervour, represents the decay of politics in Tamil Nadu with the mirage that blinded the divide between the image and reality. The state has slipped to the unusual experience of the ‘death of politics’.
The MGR phenomenon combined with the image of Jayalalithaa as mother deity for the new power coterie means the focus of the party searchlight will shift from MGR to Jayalalithaa for pragmatic political ends. The legacy of MGR as one of the most charismatic leaders in Indian politics will, however, survive as a metaphor. People will always remember MGR but the new power coterie within the party will control that memory, as time and circumstances dictate the fortunes in politics.
Ramu Manivannan is professor and head-department of politics & Public Administration, University of Madras, Chennai.