Crusading Congressman

Print edition : September 15, 2001
G.K. Moopanar, 1931-2001.

G.K. MOOPANAR, 70, who passed away in Chennai on August 30, will be remembered for his commitment to secularism and cultural pluralism. It was Moopanar's firm opposition to communalism and religious bigotry that motivated the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), which he founded in 1996, to vote against the confidence motion moved by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre in 1999 and break ranks with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) when it allied with the BJP. In joining hands with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) for the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections in May 2001, Moopanar seemed to signal that the BJP's "communalism" was a greater threat to the polity than the "corruption" of the AIADMK.

Moopanar was one of the two Congressmen who had direct connections with the Congress lineage of K. Kamaraj. (The other survivor is N. Ramasamy Udayar of Salem, who is in his 80s.)

Moopanar cut his political teeth under Kamaraj, who handpicked him to build up the Congress in Thanjavur district in 1965 when the Left movement and the DMK were rising. Moopanar was hardly 25 then.

Moopanar was a Congressman first and last. Although he broke away from the party in 1996 protesting against Prime Minister and Congress president P.V. Narasimha Rao's decision to align with the AIADMK, he was a Congressman at heart. Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who visited Chennai on August 31 to pay her last respects to Moopanar, claimed that "he never quit the Congress, and his heart was always with the Congress, " and that he was the "standard-bearer of the Congress flag" all his life.

Moopanar commanded the confidence of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Between 1980 and 1988, when Moopanar was general secretary of the All India Congress Committee (AICC), both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi sent him on several trouble-shooting missions. These included the displacement of certain Congress Chief Ministers, which he accomplished with finesse. He kept a low profile when the Congress was under the stewardship of Narasimha Rao, with whom he did not get on well.

A crusader against untouchability, Moopanar made the Puthiya Tamizhagam and the Dalit Panthers, the two Dalit parties, the TMC's allies in the Third Front that he formed to contest the Lok Sabha elections in 1999. He thus gave them the credibility denied by other mainstream political parties. Dalit Panthers convener R. Tirumavalavan recalled how during the campaign for the byelection to the Nellikuppam Assembly seat in February 2000, Moopanar asked a crowd at a public meeting "What do you have in your hands?" The people, waving pictures of their leader, replied, "Tirumavalavan". To this, Moopanar gave the riposte, "You have him on a piece of paper. But I have enshrined him in my heart." The crowd cheered.

N. Sankaraiah, secretary, the Tamil Nadu State Committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), writing in the September 1 issue of Theekathir (the CPI-M newspaper) about Moopanar's simple words against untouchability, quoted a speech he made at a convention in Neyveli that touched the core of the problem. Moopanar told the gathering: "All of you (Dalits and people belonging to other communities) watch films together in cinema halls. You travel together in buses. You work in work places without showing any differences. But once you return to your villages, you remember your castes and get engrossed in hatred and enmity. You fight one another. You should think whether this is right."

Former Chief Minister and DMK president M. Karunanidhi acknowledged the fire-fighting role that Moopanar played during the bloody caste clashes in southern Tamil Nadu in 1997.

Karunanidhi noted that his 40-year friendship with Moopanar was not affected by party-based or ideological differences. The former Chief Minister called him a humane person. "His love and affection for my family members will continue to linger in my heart," he said.

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa recalled how Moopanar never got angry or used harsh words, a "rare quality" among politicians. She added that when she met him in hospital in mid-August, he said, "we will take a joint decision on the coming local body elections."

R. Nallakannu, secretary, State Council, Communist Party of India (CPI), observed that although Moopanar was a religious person, he fought religious fanaticism.

It was reportedly at Moopanar's insistence that the Karunanidhi government banned Al Umma and the All-India Jihad Committee involved in the serial bomb blasts in Coimbatore in February 1998 which claimed more than 50 lives.

Moopanar was a heavy smoker for several decades but gave up the habit some time ago. Instead, he took to chewing betelnut and cloves. It was clear from January 2001 that his health was failing. Hectic parleying with the DMK, the AIADMK and other parties for several weeks before the Assembly elections in May 2001 put further strain on his health.

Moopanar's decision to partner the AIADMK attracted a measure of criticism since it seemed to go against the raison d'etre of the founding of the TMC: to fight the AIADMK. So much so that senior TMC leader P. Chidambaram parted ways with Moopanar and founded the TMC Democratic Front.

Moopanar was born on August 19, 1931 at Kabisthalam village in the composite Thanjavur district, the rice granary of Tamil Nadu. He belonged to a family of landed aristocracy that owned vast tracts of fertile land. His father R. Govindasamy Moopanar was a Congressman. The family patronised music, arts and literature. Moopanar himself was president of the Tiruvaiyaru Sri Thyaga Brahma Mahotsava Sabha from 1980 until his death. This Sabha conducts the annual Thyagaraja music festival at Tiruvaiyaru, the saint-composer's birthplace.

Moopanar first met Kamaraj and Jayaprakash Narayan when they called on his father Govindasamy Moopanar at his home at Sundaraperumal Kovil, near Kumbakonam, in 1951. Kamaraj was then TNCC president. Moopanar became the president of the Thanjavur district Congress committee in 1965. When the Congress split in 1969 Moopanar continued with Kamaraj. After Kamaraj's death on October 2, 1975, the two Congress factions in Tamil Nadu merged in 1976. At the merger function, Indira Gandhi announced that Moopanar would be the president of the unified TNCC.

From then onwards, his rise in the Congress was swift. He was TNCC president from 1976 to 1980, and again in 1988-89. He was a puissant AICC general secretary from 1980 to 1988. He was a Rajya Sabha member when he died. Both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi offered him ministership but he declined.

He even shunned the Prime Minister's post offered to him in April 1997 after the fall of the United Front government led by H.D. Deve Gowda. In a volume titled Makkal Thalaivar Moopanar, published by a TMC leader in August 2000, former Union Minister R. Dhanushkodi Adityan has recalled that CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet declared that "Mr. Moopanar is the best and first choice" for the prime ministership. West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu seconded the choice. Moopanar declined the offer.

Moopanar's humility and amiability were striking qualities. He knew partymen at all levels by name. He supported the education of hundreds of poor students by paying their fees. He donated money for various good causes but never sought publicity for these acts. In the affairs of the Congress party, he was hard to fathom. He would never reveal his mind to anybody, especially to the media. His approach in the party was one of forging a consensus by holding protracted discussions. Ultimately, he did not realise his ambition of bringing back "Kamaraj rule" in Tamil Nadu.

The TMC feels orphaned with the death of Moopanar. The party quickly tried to steady itself when at a meeting of its legislators, Rajya Sabha members and leaders on September 1, Moopanar's son G.K. Vasan was elected TMC president.