By Saarthak Anand
Considered one of the most important Chief Ministers in the history of Indian democracy, his charisma and popular connect remain unparalleled. When the 101st birth anniversary of Marudur Gopalan Ramachandran was celebrated by the AIADMK earlier this month, the appeal that the party founder’s name continues to wield among the Tamil Nadu masses did not go unnoticed.
Popularly known as MGR and Makkal Thilagam (people’s king), he is by no means the only Tamil film star to have tried his hand at politics. He is, however, undoubtedly the most successful. MGR’s party never lost an Assembly election under his leadership. He is also behind the entry of another superstar, former CM J. Jayalalithaa, into politics.
From cinema to politics
Ramachandran’s was a carefully constructed and propagated image. Most of his roles were picked from the lives of the everyday people. From the farmer to the fisherman, MGR made sure that he projected himself as one with the “proletariat”. Furthermore, a significant number of his movies spoke of the Dravidian ideology. This is why common people were drawn to identify with him, even before he had broken away from the DMK.
He had an illustrious film career spanning more than four decades. While he went on to star in more than 130 movies, MGR had joined the Congress when his film career was yet to take off, and he was playing only small-time roles. What had attracted him to the Grand Old Party was his belief in Gandhian ideals. Over time, however, he came under the influence of C.N. Annadurai, who himself had scripted and acted in a number of Tamil plays. In 1953, MGR joined Annadurai’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam(DMK). By this time, he had established himself as a superstar in Tamil cinema.
Founding the AIADMK
After his mentor Annadurai’s death in 1969, Ramachandran became the DMK’s treasurer, while M. Karunanidhi took over as CM. In 1972, as it became increasingly obvious that Karunanidhi preferred to have his first son M.K. Muthu succeed him, MGR floated his own own party which he named Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, later renamed All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (AIADMK).
It was widely believed that the DMK split would work to the advantage of the Congress which, under Kumaraswami Kamaraj, was expecting to win the lion’s share of the anti-DMK votes. Things, however, turned out much differently as the AIADMK swept the 1977 Assembly polls, and MGR became the first movie star to occupy the CM’s chair. He was to occupy the post till he passed away in 1987, remaining invincible to death.
Marudur Gopalan Ramachandran’s charitable work only added to his popularity. It is said that no one left his house with an empty pocket. He had even divided a Rs. 6.7 crore property owned by him in two halves; one part went to a school for the deaf and the mute, and the other to a women’s college.
Drawing parallels with today’s aspirants
One of the primary reasons that the former CM was able to spread the roots of his party with such incredible success was the presence of his fan clubs. Existent across the state, they were invaluable in mobilising cadre for the party as fans became party members. Superstar Rajinikanth, who has announced his decision to contest the next Assembly elections, is banking on a similar strategy.
Kamal Haasan—another actor who has taken the political plunge—has been seeking to benefit from MGR’s legacy. His particular brand of politics, although unclear at present, seems more related to the former CM’s Dravidian ideology, unlike Rajinikanth’s “spiritual politics”. He is calling his upcoming state-wide political tour as “Naalai Namathey” after an MGR movie. The reference to the movie starring the Ramachandran is no coincidence. Haasan admitted as much recently. “If the memories are about him(MGR), so be it… We have given his name as they are good memories,” he had said.
For both Rajinikanth and Haasan, the timing could not have been better. With the passing away of Jayalalithaa and an ailing Karunanidhi’s retirement from active politics, a vacuum currently engulfs Tamil Nadu’s political arena. A successful career in cinema is, however, far from sufficient to ensure sustainable political success, as fellow actor Vijayakanth would tell them. His Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam(DMDK) garnered more seats than the DMK in the 2011 Assembly polls. The party’s popularity, however, fizzled out quite soon, with Vijayakanth unable to save his own deposit in 2016. As a matter of fact, he had been preparing the ground for his political career through his fan associations a good ten years before actually entering the electoral field.
Chaos in the party
Today, the party Marudur Gopalan Ramachandran had founded and nurtured lies in disarray, with rival factions fighting for his legacy. While Tamil Nadu CM E. Palaniswami and his deputy O. Paneerselvam distributed biryani at his birth-anniversary celebrations, governance has been left on the back-burner. Leaders of the rival faction have been plagued by corruption charges. Who fills the state’s political void remains to be seen, but what is becoming increasingly clear is that thirty years after his death, MGR carries an elephantine relevance in Tamil Nadu.
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