A century of power politics

An up close look at the rise of Tamil Nadu’s mainstream parties that have dominated the state’s politics since the sixties

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A century of power politics
J Jayalalithaa

The recent imbroglio in Tamil Nadu over the arrest of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader, Sasikala Natarajan and the installation of her proxy candidate, EK Palaniswami as the next Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu has consumed more pages of newsprint in the last few weeks than any national news in recent history. However, very little or no space has been devoted to the rise of the two mainstream parties of Tamil Nadu which have dominated its politics since the 1960s and were born from the same crucible of political power, Dravidian identity politics.

The Beginning

The Dravidian movement began in the first quarter of the 20th century with the term ‘Dravidian’ being employed to denote the ‘native’ non-Brahmin residents of Tamil-speaking regions of the Madras Presidency. The movement’s initial thrust was against the alleged Brahmin domination of government posts in the colonial government. It was based on the then prevalent lingo-ethnic division theory of dividing Indians into Indo-Aryans and native Dravidians based on the languages spoken by them. Thus, speakers of Northern, Eastern and Western Indian languages were labelled Indo-Aryans while speakers of South Indian languages were classified as ‘native’ Dravidians.

Using this theory to enthuse their cadre, the leaders of the Dravidian movement founded their first political outfit, the Justice Party (South Indian Liberal Federation) in 1917 after a series of meetings under its precursor body, the Madras Dravidian Association.

The Justice Party, helmed by the trio of C Natesa Mudaliar, Theograya Chetty and Dr TM Nair, won its first victory in the first legislative council election of the Madras Presidency held by the British in 1920. Though the victory was partly due to the Indian National Congress’ boycott of the election, the Justice Party soon emerged as the main political alternative to the national party in subsequent elections. However, its square defeat by the Congress in the first legislative assembly elections held in 1937 forced its new leader, ‘Periyar’ EV Ramasamy to take stock of the situation and correct its downwards course.

Periyar began his innings as a social reformer who led the Vaikom Satyagraha for the Congress but later left to begin a new movement called the Self-Respect Movement in 1925. The movement aimed to encourage the cultivation of self-respect among all members of society including the backward classes. He was a fierce rationalist opposed to all signs of the Hindu religion, calling for boycott of its gods and goddesses. Thus, he came to deftly spearhead an anti-Hindi agitation against C Rajagopalachari ‘Rajaji’’s government for its compulsory introduction of Hindi in the schools of Madras. The three-year long movement ended with the move’s withdrawal in 1940 and the rise in Periyar’s stock as a Tamil leader.

Periyar ditched the Justice Party and formed the Dravida Kazhagam (lit Dravidian Organisation) in 1944 to push for Dravida Nadu, a separate country for the Tamil people. Periyar tried to controversially align his organisation with the Muslim League led by M A Jinnah. The latter enthusiastically supported the move to trifurcate India into Pakistan, Hindustan and Dravida Nadu. However, the move was scuttled by nationalist leaders resulting in the formation of Madras State amalgamated into the Indian nation in 1947. However, the Dravida Kazhagam succeeded in enforcing social reforms like entry of lower castes in temples and more reservations for them.

The great leap and division

Periyar was soon eclipsed by the rise of a new radical leader, C N Annadurai who formed his own political outfit, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1949 to continue the fight for Dravida Nadu despite independence. The new party continued the policies of its predecessors including the vociferous opposition against ‘imposition’ of Hindi resulting in agitations in 1948-50 and 1965, which helped catapult it to power for the first time in 1967 as an alternative to the Congress.

DMK attracted hordes of film personalities right at its inception with M Karunanidhi, the noted scriptwriter being one of its founder members. Later, matinee idol, M G Ramachandran joined the party in 1953, lending the party his on-screen popularity. Many other actors and film technicians followed it for its pro-Tamil leaning which still hinged on the demand for Dravida Nadu as an idea. The idea was finally dropped in 1963 when the Nehru government declared secessionism as an illegal and punishable act.

Annadurai’s tenure as Chief inister was unfortunately cut short by his premature death in February 1969; however, he achieved great success by allowing self-respect marriages which did away with dowry and other Brahmanical practices, began the first subsidised rice scheme and renamed the state as Tamil Nadu just a fortnight before his death. His popularity rose to such heights that his funeral, the first of a Tamil CM to die in office, was attended by the largest crowd in the state’s history complete with drama, pathos and hero worship which continues to be re-enacted at the death of Tamil leaders, the most recent being Jayalalithaa.

Annadurai’s death however sparked a power struggle within the party between Karunanidhi and V R Nedunchezhiyan, the senior-most DMK leader. However, Karunanidhi won the Chief Minister’s post with the help of MGR and other supporters. Importantly, MGR, himself an MLA, had also become a larger-than-life leader due to a dramatic assassination bid on him just prior to his election in 1967. Thus, the stage was set for a future conflict between the two titans.

This conflict came to the fore in 1972 when ‘Kalaignar’ Karunanidhi sought to install his eldest son as the next leader prompting MGR to leave the party and form the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).

MGR worked on the fortunes of the new party by acting in popular movies which enhanced his political stature enough to win the 1977 elections. It also helped that AIADMK came closer to the Indira Gandhi-led Congress and petitioned for the DMK government’s dismissal on charges of corruption which was enacted in 1976 by Indira Gandhi.

MGR era and beyond

The bitterness between the two parties and MGR’s rising popularity ensured that Tamil Nadu remained firmly in the grip of the two Dravidian parties. MGR won three successive polls, one in 1977 and the other in 1980 and 1984, the last one despite not being able to campaign personally. Apart from the personality cult built around him, his populist schemes aimed at the poor gave AIADMK enough power to last till his death in 1987.

AIADMK was the first Dravidian party to have installed a minister in the Union cabinet in 1979 in the short-lived Charan Singh government. However, this strained its relations with the Congress which led to the Congress-DMK alliance for the parliamentary elections held in January 1980, which swept the polls. Indira Gandhi vengefully sacked MGR’s government however the move boomeranged on the alliance leading to its loss in the state elections held in May 1980. Following this began a period of the Dravidian parties routinely switching/ditching alliances with central parties at will and being wooed by national parties and alliances for their stranglehold over Tamil Nadu.

MGR’s death led to the installation of his wife, Janaki Ramachandran as the Chief Minister. However, the party was divided into two factions, one headed by Janaki and another by his acting colleague and protégé, J Jayalalithaa. The in-fighting intensified after the central government dismissed Janaki-led government in January 1988. The move gave the DMK a clear victory in the 1989 state elections. However, it also turned the factional fight in Jayalalithaa’s favour with the two factions uniting under her leadership.

Jayalalithaaa deftly allied with the Congress to become the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for the first time in 1991. This was the first of the many switches between AIADMK and DMK that Tamil Nadu has witnessed in the last three decades. It was also during the 1991-96 term that the fortunes of Jayalalithaaa and her close aide, Sasikala Natarajan rose drastically, best reflected in an ostentatious wedding of Jayalalithaa’s foster son. However, it also led to various cases of corruption being filed against them. On December 7 1996, Jayalalithaa and Sasikala were arrested on non-bailable warrants and tried for the misuse of government office and accumulation of disproportionate assets to the tune of Rs 66 crore. The case ran through various courts for 20 years during which AIADMK rose and fell from public favour and participated in various governments at the centre. The DMK continued to function under members of the Karunanidhi’s wings, albeit with a rise in intra-family feuds due to Karunanidhi’s age. The feuds came to a temporary end recently, with the rise of Karunanidhi’s third son, M K Stalin as the working president of the DMK.

DMK had its fair share of corruption cases as well, like the 2G scam allegedly enacted during the tenure of the UPA I government in 2008.

Currently, Tamil Nadu has the AIADMK ruling the state under EK Palaniswami who rose to the position after a huge row within the party between Sasikala ‘Chinamma’ and O Panneerselvam, the caretaker CM. The party’s crisis ended temporarily with the arrest and surrender of Sasikala in the disproportionate case on February 14, 2017 and the temporary decimation of Pannerselvam faction. However, going by the state’s political past, this seems to be the lull before the bigger storm arises with the rise of a new supreme leader.

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