From Cinema Screen to Chief Minister Crown
by Sachi Sri Kantha, August 28, 2023
About the contents in Part 71 of this series, I received the following thoughts from pal and fellow MGR biographer R. Kannan on June 5th.
“I read part 71 of the MGR series with much interest and, as always, found it very informative. On R.M. V[eerappan]: RMV was a strategist and a man who played a key role in turning MGR into a full-fledged politician. I have not seen anyone come close to possessing MGR’s charisma besides Jayalalithaa. On Malaikallan [movie], in hindsight, I completely agree that the source I had relied upon is dubious at best. Always good to read your writing. Keep at it.”
My response to Kannan’s thoughts, sent the following day was,
“Thanks a lot for your thoughts about the contents of Part 71. I do agree with your expressed views. But, in my view, the charisma of MGR and Jayalalitha cannot be compared equally. In one of the earlier parts, I had covered this charisma theme. Jayalalitha’s political charisma was a ‘transferred (associated) charisma’ due to her association with MGR. She didn’t generate it, on her own – like Anna or Karunanidhi or Kamarajar. It is the same with any political woman leader, who followed their charismatic kin (such as Indira – from Nehru, or Sirimavo from her husband Bandaranaike, or now Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hashina, daughter of Mujibur Rahman). Subsequently, Indira was able to achieve charisma on her own, after the 1971 Pakistan war, to liberate Bangladesh. Margaret Thatcher was an exception, because her husband or father were not politicians.”
Switching alliance from Indira to Morarji Desai
I continue the political career of MGR from Part 68 of this series. Following the electoral defeat of the Congress Party in the March 1977 General election (losing in her own constituency as well) Indira Gandhi resigned the prime minister position on March 22nd.
The electoral outcome was, Janata Party captured 295 (41.3% of vote) Lok Sabha constituencies, to Indira’s Congress Party that could manage winning only 154 (34.5% of vote) constituencies. But Indira was asked to stay on by the Acting President B.D. Jatti, until a new prime minister was chosen by the victorious Janata Party. To the prime minister position, there were three claimants – ‘old codgers’ who staked their claims with ‘freedom fighters’ label: Morarji Desai (1896-1995), Charan Singh (1902-1987) and Jagjeevan Ram (1908-1986). Compared to their ages and political experiences, MGR at 60 was relatively a novice in New Delhi. Though Indira was also born in the same year as MGR, she had the benefit of serving as the prime minister for 11 years since 1966. Eventually, Indira’s chief antagonist Morarji Desai was sworn in as the Indian prime minister on March 24, 1977.
The newly constituted Janata Party was a conglomeration of various groups who had defected from the Congress Party at various times, from its left flank and right flank. In addition, other non-Congress parties also joined the conglomeration. Totally, there were nine elements, as listed below.
1. Old Congress (opposed to Indira), represented by Morarji Desai.
2. Swatantra Party (H.M.Patel, Piloo Mody, Masani) representing pro-landlord interests.
3. Jana Sangh (Advani, Vajpayee), Hindu communalist group representing big traders.
4. Socialist Party (Madhu Limaye, George Fernandes, Dandavate, Surendra Mohan, S.M. Joshi)
5. ‘Young Turks’ – radical dissidents within Indira’s Congress party on the eve of 1975 Emergency (Chandrasekhar, Mohan Daria) with pro-Comunist leanings.
6. Congress for Democracy (CFD) of ‘Harijan caste group (Jagjivan Ram, Bahuguna) defecting from Indira Congress party, prior to the March 1977 elections.
7. Bharatiya Lok Dal – (Charan Singh) representing the rich farmer interests in North India.
8. Samyukta Socialist Party (Raj Narain – a buffoonish politico, who defeated Indira in her constituency)
9. Utkal Congress (Biju Patnaik).
The only glue which bound these diverse political elements together was the anti-Indira sentiments, for personal and political reasons. For MGR, having 19 MPs in Lok Sabha under his control turned out to be a new experience of ditching his alliance with Indira, and move his MP ‘pawns’ to a new location in the New Delhi’s political chess game. He would have hardly expected that Indira would lose the election; but as it had happened, he had to adjust to the new political reality to make his strength felt.
Excerpts from Kasturi Rangan’s report to the New York Times, dated Apr 20, 1977, are given below:
“An old movie, now being revived in theaters in Tamil Nadu, has a scene in which the hero comes bouncing down the stairs three steps at a time, swinging a stick and singing: ‘If only I can order, and my order is carried, the poor in the world never will cry.’ The hero is M.G. Ramachandran, ‘MGR’ to millions of his adoring fans. He is also the 60 year old leader of a mass-based political party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam – in English, the Dravidian People’s Party. His fans, believing that he will live up to his screen image in real life, led the voters of the state of Tamil Nadu to polling booths to insure the victory of his nominees in last month’s parliamentary elections.
The party contested 20 seats and won 19. Its poll allies, the Congress and Communist Party, secured 14 and 3 seats respectively. The opposition alliance, composed of a rival Dravidian party led by the former chief minister of the state, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, and the Janata Party, which has replaced the national Congress Party government in New Delhi, was trounced in Tamil Nadu. Together they won only four seats.
The Janata Party’s base in Tamil Nadu is not so strong as that of the two Dravidian parties. But because of its election defeat, Mr Karunanidhi’s party is in shambles. Six of his top aides resigned this week after having tried in vain to get Mr Karunanidhi ousted as party leader….”
Continued Kasturi Rangan, “Like his movies, MGR’s party was an instant hit. Mrs Gandhi enlisted his support in the parliamentary elections last month. The significant victory in this state did not help her, however, because Congress lost its majority and she lost her own election in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The Congress Party in Tamil Nadu is now uneasy about the prospects of assembly elections. MGR has turned cool toward the alliance and has hinted that his party would go it alone… To add to the discomfiture, MGR has even offered to support the Janata Party government in New Delhi. The new Prime Minister, Morarji R Desai, has welcomed the ‘unconditional’ support and used it to thwart Jagjivan Ram, who became an ally of Janata in the elections but was bargaining for the senior most position possible in the coalition government. After the pledge of support for Mr Desai from MGR’s 19 members of Parliament, Mr. Ram who has 28 backers in parliament, lost his leverage and meekly accepted the third-ranking position in the government – the Defense ministership.”
Karunanidhi’s version on MGR and Morarji Desai
In 8 chapters consisting of almost 50 pages of his autobiography, Karunanidhi had highlighted the political developments during the three months between March and June 1977 that spanned the period between th Lok Sabha elections and the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly elections. Though biased towards the activities of DMK party, Karunanidhi’s angle is worth a re-visit for his take on the behavior of MGR, Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai, as well as his then Cabinet colleagues Nedunchezhiyan, S.P. Adithan and S. Madhavan.
Excerpts from Karunanidhi, in English translation follows:
“It became a question mark whether the alliances formed by the parties for the Lok Sabha elections in March would continue the same for the State Legislative Assembly elections, scheduled for June.
During the Lok Sabha elections, MGR as the leader of ADMK campaigned against Morarji Desai that while the latter was working as a government employee was dismissed for corruption during his young days. But, after Morarji became the prime minister, he was demanded by letter from Delhi to explain the reason for such false propaganda. To this, MGR acknowledged and apologized publicly to Morarji for such an erroneous act. He did release an apology notice stating, ‘I had spoken erroneously at a election propaganda meeting, based on what another party’s leader had told that Morarji Desai, while working as Revenue Deputy Officer (RDO) was dismissed for corruption. Then, I received a letter from the prime minister’s office that such an allegation was incorrect and requesting clarification for my statement. I express apology for my mis-statement.’
This apology of MGR appeared in the newspapers of late April 1977. Whenever he provides complaints on others, he never takes responsibility on his own… He abused Morarji Desai least expecting that the latter may become the prime minister, and subsequently after Desai had become prime minister, MGR went to Delhi, met him and promised secretly that his MPs will support Janata rule without any pre-conditions.”
“I went to Bombay on April 5, 1977 with thambi Murasoli Maran, and the following day met Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) who was at the hospital for kidney surgery. Knowing that we will be going to Delhi, Naraya had given two letters through Ramakrishnan, an executive at the Indian Express newspaper organization: one addressed to me, and another addressed to Morarji Desai. In the letter to me, JP had written ‘Dear Karunanidhi, please hand the accompanying letter to Morarji Desai.’…On April 7th, I met Morarji Desai at his house. At that time, friend Madhavan (who had come to Delhi directly) and Murasoli Maran were with me. I handed to Morarji, the letter I was given by JP, while at Bombay. Morarji read it and was silent for a minute. Then, he looked at us and said, ‘I cannot decide alone on this. The Cabinet only should decide.’ I told him, I don’t know the contents of JP’s letter.
Morarji: JP had written ‘We ourselves had expressed that the cases on DMK ministers by Indira were foisted for political reasons. We need to take action appropriately.’
I left Morarji with the thoughts that while JP was sincere to his words, Morarji had opted to shift his act according to latest events…
I returned to Chennai on April 8, 1977. But prior to my return, news had been leaked to Navalar (Nedunchezhian) and a few ex-Ministers who associated with him that Janata Party leaders were not willing to continue the alliance with DMK, and MGR had promised to Morarji that his MPs will offer unconditional support to Janata Party. Friend Madhavan who had stayed with me in Delhi hotel in the adjacent room was the one who had passed these news to Chennai…
We were planning to have a Chennai sea beach meeting on April 17th. But on April 15, 1977, while I was conversing with Professor (Anbhazhagan) at the party office, we received the news that Navalar, Adithan, Madhavan and Rajaram had quite Kazhagam (i.e., DMK) and Rajaram had announced to reporters that they will initiate a new party…When I heard that the guy who forced this decision and gave support was Adithan, I could only smile.
After Anna’s death, while many including me were proposing Navalar has to become the chief minister, he was so adamant that Adithan should not be offered a place in the Cabinet. Then, almost all the DMK MLAs except a few were insisting that I need to become the chief minister, MGR was adamant that Adhithan should not be given a Cabinet position. Despite this, opposed to MGR, I did accommodate Adithan in my Cabinet…
Now when I realize the same Adithan had joined with Navalar in quitting DMK, and aiding him to form a new party, cannot I smile at these turn of events? Was this an expression of happiness? No! No! it was simply streaks of my pain.”
That Karunanidhi was a master in story-telling is an acknowledged fact. But the weakness of his stories are, he frames his stories like a ‘cry baby’ – accusing all, without any self-reflection on his deeds to those who points his fingers at. Was it Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) who said, ‘Politics is the art of compromise’. In his tussle for the prime minister position in March 1977 with Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram, Morarji Desai badly needed numbers (MPs that is), which Karunanidhi couldn’t provide to him – but MGR could deliver at that moment. Thus, what was wrong in Morarji ditching Karunanidhi, in preference to MGR? Karunanidhi also highlighted the fact that MGR had bad-mouthed Morarji in election platform, while he was siding with Indira. But, MGR was magnanimous in apologizing to Morarji, for his error. This is a metaphorical case of ‘kettle calling the pot black’. Same Karunanidhi did criticize Indira’s Emergency rule of 1975 and toppling his DMK regime in 1976, in the March 1977 election platforms that Mrs Gandhi had ousted a democratically elected government – ‘If this is not dictatorship, what is?’, only to make an opportunistic alignment with the same Indira in 1979, to spite MGR’s rule?
The plight of Karunanidhi’s DMK party in April 1977, was captured by the Ananda Vikatan’s cartoonist Mathan, as a leaking boat paddled by Karunanidhi, with four holes from which water seeps in. (Cartoon 1) The ‘holes’ shown by the cartoonist represent the splinter parties of DMK since 1972: All India Anna DMK (of MGR), Anna DMK (of Kovai Chezhian), Thazthapatoor Munnetra Kazhagam (of Mrs Satyavani Muthu) and Makkal DMK (of Nedunchezhian and his associates).
Eelam Tamil Issue
To be fair by Karunanidhi, in one of the chapters [Eela Thamilar Urimai Por – Rights War of Eelam Tamils], he had condoled the death of S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, the leader of then TULF, that happened on April 26, 1977. He had written as follows: that it was during the time, when Kazhagam was facing the issue of defection (by Nedunchezhian and his pals) he was informed about the delicate health of Chelvanayakam. Accepting the pleas of Eelam Tamils, he did arrange the visit of renowned neurosurgeon B. Ramamurthy (1922-2003) to Sri Lanka to look at the condition of Chelva. Though Dr. Ramamurthy obliged the request and did his best, eventually the Grim Reaper’s hand turned out to be stronger. To pay respects to deceased Chelva, as DMK representatives, P.U. Shanmugam (1924-2007) and Arcot Veerasamy (b. 1931) went to Sri Lanka.
Eelam Tamil issue is one specific issue in which Karunanidhi would needle and tangle with MGR, from 1977 until MGR’s death. Both will (1) offer their solicited/unsolicited advice to Indira Gandhi (until her death in 1984) and then to Rajiv Gandhi until 1987, (2) attempt to upstage each other in Tamil Nadu platforms with agitations, demonstrations, cash offer to Tamil militants, and (3) challenge their wits with Indian officials, including the law enforcement guys, RAW intelligence elements as well as media personnel. Previous Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu like Kamaraj, Bhaktavatsalam and Anna were not burdened by the Eelam issue, like MGR and Karunanidhi.
Performance of the Political Parties in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly Elections – June 1977
By circumstances, all four major parties (MGR’s ADMK, Karunanidhi’s DMK, Indira’s Congress Party (INC) and Janata Party) contested separately in the Legislative Assembly elections. Communist parties, devoid of a strong electoral base, chose convenience alignments with major parties to have a handful of their representatives elected; Communist Party Marxist (CPM) joined hands with ADMK, Communist Party India (CPI) aligned with the Congress Party. Tamil Nadu Communist Party grouped with the DMK. While CPI and CPM were considered as national parties, Tamil Nadu Communist Party was a splinter party from CPI. formed in 1973 by Manali Kandasamy
Another periodic cartoon by Anantha Vikatan’s Mathan presented the Tamil Nadu’s politics as ‘Election Circus’, where principals were engaged in their high-flying acts for public entertainment (cartoon 2). I have annotated the principals in red, and the parties they represented in black. Another MGR movie, ‘Indru Pol Endrum Vaazha’ [Live Forever like Today] was released on May 5, 1977. According to Kannan, two songs by lyricist Muthulingam, sung by T.M. Soundararajan [Ithu Naatai Kaakum Kai – This hand will protect the land; Youtube link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtn9pm0d9NA] and K.J. Jesudas [Anbukku Naan Adimai- I am a slave to love; Youtube link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VkebdgGuR5w]in this movie were used as propaganda songs for MGR. While not doubting the quality in lyrics, musical composition and impressive voices of Soundararajan and Jesudas, in my view, inferring that these two songs alone could have tilted voters to MGR’s party is somewhat illogical and simplistic. Even lyricist Muthulingam had stated the same. Foundations for MGR’s unprecedented success in the 1977 polls were laid in the 1954 ‘Malaikallan’ [The Mountain Thief] movie song ‘Ethannai Kaalam thaan Emaruvar in the Naatile’ [ For how long, these guys will cheat us?; MGR lip synching for T.M. Soundarajan’s voice, while P. Bhanumathi was riding the horse; frame time less than 3 minutes. The Youtube link for this song is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZcTnvEXe92c] penned by Tanjai Ramaiah Das and Kovai Aiyahmuthu; that continued for 23 years of MGR’s cajoling of competent lyricists Maruthakasi, Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram, Kannadasan, Vaali, Pulamaipithan and Muthulingam to capture the hearts of illiterate Tamil masses.
Voters in the 234 constituencies would decide who would become the next chief minister. Contested number of constituencies were ADMK 200, DMK 230, Congress Party 198 and Janata Party 233. Table 1 presented nearby in a pdf file, shows the statistics of the party positions in June 1977 Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly Elections. The elections were held on June 12th and 14th. The results were announced on June 15th. The percentage of votes polled by each of the four parties were ADMK 35.4%, DMK 25.3%, Congress Party 20.8% and Janata Party 16.8%. Table 1: Statistics of the Party positions in the June 1977 Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly Elections (pdf file)
MGR chose the rural Aruppukottai constituency (#204), for his third time attempt to become an MLA, but first try to be a MLA of his newly formed party. He won resoundingly winning 56.2% of the vote in comparison the Janata Party candidate, who could poll only 17.9%. The victory margin was 29,378 votes. The DMK candidate was placed fourth, polling only 7.1%. Details were as follows:
- M.G. Ramachandran (ADMK) 43,065 (56.2%)
- Muthuvel Servai (Janata Party) 13,687 (17.9%)
- Sivasamy (Congress Party) 12,075 (15.8%)
- S.M. Bose (DMK) 5,415 (7.1%)
- and 8 independents (as vanity candidates) polling <1,000 votes each.
Victory margin over the runner up 29,378
Registered electors 112,763; voters 77, 701; Valid votes 76,582; polling percentage 68.9%
Karunanidhi, for his 5th attempt to become an MLA as the DMK candidate chose Annanagar constituency (#8) in Chennai city. He also won resoundingly, winning 50.1% of the vote in comparison to Anna DMK party’s runner up G. Krishnamurthy, who polled a respectable 31.0%. His victory margin was 16,438. Details were as follows:
- Karunanidhi (DMK) 43,076 (50.1%)
- Krishnamurthy (ADMK) 26,638 (31.0%)
- Andiappan (Janata Party) 10419 (12.1%)
- Jayachandran (Congress Party) 5,258 (6.1%)
- and 4 Independents (as vanity candidates) polling <500 votes each.
Victory margin over runner up 16,438.
Registered electors 178,266; voters 86,717; Valid votes 85,974; polling percentage 48.6%
MGR’s Anna DMK party’s 130 candidates who won in is given in Table 2 (pdf file). These 130 winners included the ‘original six’ MLAs in DMK who joined MGR immediately after his 1972 expulsion from the DMK. They were S.M. Dorairaj, Munu Adhi, C. Aranganayagam, K. Kalimuthu, P. Soundarapandian and G.R. Edmund. For the record, I provide below how each of these ‘original six’ retained their constituencies.
Constituency #16 Ponneri (SC): A four-cornered contest. S.M. Durairaj by polling 31,796 votes (42.6%) won with a victory margin of 11,272 votes over the runner up DMK candidate G. Vetriveeran.
Constituency #20 Tambaram: A four-cornered contest. Munu Adhi won narrowly by polling 32,394 votes (35.2%) with a victory margin of 426 votes, over the runner up DMK candidate Pammal Nallathambi.
Constituency #105 Coimbatore West: A four-cornered contest. C. Aranganayagam, by polling 27,742 votes (36.8%) won with a victory margin of 7,349 votes, over the runner up DMK candidate B.S. Mohamed Ali.
Constituency #141 Tirupparankundram: A four-cornered contest. K. Kalimuthu, by polling 33,850 votes (41.4%) won with a victory margin of 18,090 votes over the runner up Congress Party candidate V. Palani Andi Ambalam. The DMK candidate C. Kaveri Maniam was placed third.
Constituency #153 Krishnarayapuram (SC): A four-cornered contest. P. Soundarapandian, by polling 22,561 votes (32.6%) won narrowly with a victory margin of 594 votes over the runner up Congress Party candidate P.M. Thangavelraj. The DMK candidate M. Aruna was placed third.
Constituency #218 Tirunelveli: A four-cornered contest. G.R. Edmund, by polling 26,419 votes (38.5%) won with a victory margin of 7,294 votes over the runner up Congress Party candidate Krishnan alias Nellai Kannan. The DMK candidate E. Nambi was placed fourth, polling only 8,199 votes (12.0%).
Except for these six MLAs and a handful of other politicos (such as Nanjil Manoharan – the then No.2 in Anna DMK party, Panruti Ramachandran) who made their reputations in DMK previously, majority (i.e., more than 100) of MGR’s party MLAs were rookies. Some might have been popular locally, but majority were ‘unknowns’ state-wise. They owed their success to MGR’s popularity among the masses. One of these rookies, who later made name in Tamil Nadu politics was Subbulakshmi Jegadeesan (b. 1947) who later switched her alliance to DMK in 1980, after serving as a Cabinet minister for MGR.
One parameter of popularity is the number of candidates who forfeited their deposit, by not reaching the minimal recognition of less than 8% (or is it 10%, I’m not sure) of the total votes polled. Only 2 candidates of ADMK among 200 contested lost their deposits. Comparatively 44 candidates of DMK among 230 contested lost their deposits. Of the other two national parties, 82 among 198 candidates of Congress Party, and 122 among 233 candidates of Janata Party would lose their deposits. Karunanidhi had indicated that 40 among 230 DMK candidates were detainees under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). But he had failed to provide the information, how many among the 40 MISA detainees were elected eventually. Also, Karunanidhi made a ‘dig’ at MGR, ‘Though the election results were released on June 15th, MGR withheld taking the chief minister oath until June 30th, for reasons of completing the movie shooting schedules. Nevertheless, it became evident quickly that this delay was due to Swamis, Hindu Mutts (monastery) and astrology.’ Is there any truth in Karunanidhi’s assertion?
Kannan: MGR – A Life, Penguin Random House India, Gurgaon, Haryana, 2017, 60-65.
Karunanidhi: Nenjukku Neethi [Justice to the Heart], vol. 3, Thirumagal Nilayam, Chennai, 1997, pp. 82-130.
G.K. Leiten: Janata as a continuity of the system. Social Scientist, 1980-81; 9(5-6): 14-35.
Inder Malhotra: Indira Gandhi –a personal and political biography, Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., London, 1989.
A.G.Noorani: Foreign policy of the Janata Party government. Asian Affairs: An American Review, Mar-Apr 1978; 5(4): 216-228.
Observer: India Today – a political assessment. Asian Affairs; An American Review, Jul-Aug 1978; 5(6): 333-342.
Kasturi Rangan: South India contest pulls out all stops. New York Times, Mar 16, 1977.
Kasturi Rangan: Like his films, Tamil’s politics draw the fans. New York Times, Apr 21, 1977.
Thapar: Inside the Janata Party. Economic Political Weekly, July 23, 1977; 12(30): 1165.
Thapar: The Aged Men of the Janata. Economic Political Weekly, May 6, 1978; 13(18): 745-746.