January 22, 1988

End of an era

Print edition : February 06, 2015

Madras, February 4, 1985: M.G. Ramachandran at a public reception given to him on his arrival in the city from the United States after medical treatment. Photo: Ravi Shankaran/Wideangle

ON December 24, Tamil Nadu woke up to a rude shock; a pall of gloom descended on the eve of Christmas. The worst had happened, and millions felt orphaned at the passing of their “puratchi thalaivar” (“revolutionary leader”), Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran. It was the end of an era in the politics of the State and in the cultural-political experience of the masses.


Although a fear lurked everywhere after MGR suffered a stroke and kidney failure three years ago, the end came as a traumatic blow. It was only two days earlier that he actively participated and—voice impairment notwithstanding—made a 15-minute speech at a gala function at which Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi unveiled a statue of Jawaharlal Nehru, fulfilling one of MGR’s long-expressed desires.

MGR passed away in his sleep even as his admiring colleagues in the State government were preparing to do him the singular honour of launching through the President of India a pre-eminent educational and research institution—named “Dr. MGR Medical University”. Only the previous evening, he kept himself busy in finalising the arrangements for a public reception he was planning to give the next day to R. Venkataraman on his first visit to Madras as President.

At his suburban “Ramavaram Garden” residence, MGR took his glass of buttermilk as on any other day and went to bed around 10 p.m. An hour and a half later, his wife Janaki noticed him writhing, and called in the doctors. Soon word went out to the senior Ministers about the Chief Minister suffering a cardiac arrest, and they rushed to the Garden. For a man already battling a host of serious ailments the attack proved fatal. After trying in vain to revive him, the doctors declared MGR dead around 3 a.m. An interim Cabinet was sworn in with V.R. Nedunchezhian, the second in command in the AIADMK ministry, as Chief Minister.

The end was so sudden that it gave very little time for the authorities to get ready to deal with a calamitous situation. The news spread like wildfire and by daybreak men and women in their thousands thronged Ramavaram. Before the body of “puratchi thalaivar” could be laid for the homage of the people at the historic Rajaji Hall in the heart of Madras, teeming crowds, in a frenzy of grief, had gathered there.

Even as the mourners were battling their way to the hall, breaking the cordons and barricades, and the policemen were struggling to provide security for the President, the Prime Minister and a host of other VVIPs trooping in to pay their respects to the departed leader, anti-social elements had a field day in different parts of the city. For nearly four hours the city was virtually in the hands of lathi-wielding vandals who went about setting fire to motorcars and scooters and smashing or looting everything in sight. At least half a dozen persons died and nearly 250 were injured in police action; a hundred policemen were also hit by stones and other missiles thrown at them.

In the 26 hours when the body lay in state, some five lakh men, women and children from far and near filed past, trying to catch a glimpse of the mortal remains of the “lord of their hearts” (ithaya deivam).

What was it that triggered this extraordinary response? An uncrowned king of the Tamil film world for a decade and more, MGR was a household word long before he took the plunge into active politics. Even when the matinee idol walked out of his political home, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, largely due to a personality clash with its president and then Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi, and launched the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK) in 1972, he was conscious of the magic spell he cast on the masses, especially womenfolk.

The scorn of those who wondered what a film star would achieve in politics was soon silenced. MGR fully exploited his powerful celluloid image to attract a larger chunk of the DMK’s rank and file to his side.

Storming into power in 1977 through an unprecedented electoral victory for his five-year-old AIADMK—a feat he repeated with resonance in subsequent elections in 1980 and 1984—he adopted his political mentor, C.N. Annadurai’s philosophy (“the voice of the people is the voice of God”) and tried to relive his film personality in real life. Feeding the semi-starved, distributing clothes to the poor, caring for the destitutes, building shelters for the roofless, all earned for him the people’s special affection bordering on worship.

And what a mass idolatry it was when MGR lay in his hospital bed in Brooklyn (United States), struggling to overcome a failure of both kidneys—tackled by an against-the-odds kidney transplantation—and the effects of a serious stroke he suffered in 1984! In almost every town and village in Tamil Nadu men, women and children of all faiths offered fervent prayers for his recovery; even those who prided themselves on their rationalist ideals and atheistic background joined the supplications.

The outcome of the 1984 Assembly elections stood testimony to MGR’s immense popularity which had been boosted by the sympathy wave. From his hospital bed abroad he led his AIADMK to a smashing victory, bagging 132 seats in a House of 234; he also helped the AlADMK’s ally, the Congress, win an unexpected 62 seats, the highest after the party surrendered power to the DMK in 1967. Returning as a medical miracle at the end of a three-month period of treatment and recuperation in America, MGR resumed the leadership of the State administration and, despite his speech impairment and delicate health, went about his routine.

The sixth Chief Minister of the State, MGR enjoyed the longest innings. Though his decade-long rule is generally recognised as unexciting in terms of economic performance, he surpassed all his predecessors in office in the sphere of social welfare. The noon meal scheme providing supplementary feeding for over eight million children; free uniforms and textbooks for five millions; the free supply of footwear to the schoolgoing and the poor working mothers in rural areas; old age pensions to destitutes, the physically handicapped, widows, agricultural labour and deserted wives; doles to indigent artistes and artisans; and insurance for those in the unorganised sector—these measures provided some relief to wide sections of society even if they did not by any means transform people’s lives.

When it came to helping the weaker sections, he seldom hesitated to ignore advice proffered on grounds of fiscal prudence. In the face of criticism, he waived agricultural loans to the tune of Rs.200 crore to bring down the level of rural indebtedness. And he refused to reconsider schemes such as the supply of power to small farmers either free or at concessional rates and the free supply of electricity to hutments—which together entail an annual loss of Rs.250 crore for the State Electricity Board, which is already in the red.

For the 1987 Deepavali, MGR ordered the gift of dhotis and sarees and 2 kg of rice to every family of landless agricultural labour, at a cost of a little over Rs.20 crore. The distribution of plastic pots to the slum dwellers of water-starved Madras earned him the gratitude of those waiting in long queues.

The numerous relief schemes, critics contended, were a drain on the exchequer and they had cut into developmental schemes; but MGR’s preference often lay in responses to immediate problems. He, however, could not altogether ignore the future and that was perhaps the reason why for a long time he was reluctant to close down the gold mine the government had found in the liquor trade to fund projects.

A votary of prohibition, MGR often said that he had opted for the excise revenue only out of necessity and that he would give it up at a more appropriate time; ultimately, even in the face of continuing financial pressure, he reintroduced the dry law, although only partially, a year ago.

That MGR could charm not only the illiterate masses but also the educated urban folk was evident. Except for the first year or two when his AIADMK was yet to take root in the trade union field, the State enjoyed under his stewardship not only political stability but industrial peace and there were not many major crises for the administration to cope with. By his power of persuasion, he tackled the State-wide agitations of teachers and government employees two years ago, giving out very little in the bargain.

But the quality of government was another matter. Decision-making on key issues, especially in the industrial and development arena, became highly personalised and concentrated. Ministers and others in charge of specific portfolios and responsibilities counted for very little, unless MGR gave them some space and his ear.

MGR’s stewardship was also marked by statesmanship. A shrewd politician, he always strove to be in the good books of the Centre. Not for him a course of opposition or confrontation. He worked out cordial relations with the Centre during the era of Indira Gandhi, even during the Janata interlude, and in the Rajiv Gandhi administration.

Although heading a non-Congress government, MGR carefully avoided any identity with the other opposition leaders in the country. With a ruling party friendly with the Centre, Tamil Nadu provided the much-needed foothold in the south to the Congress.

The AIADMK sailed along with the ruling party at the Centre, both inside and outside Parliament. The Centre reciprocated by being liberal towards the State, particularly with regard to its annual plans and requests for assistance for programmes such as water supply and public distribution system.

In a significant demonstration of the closeness of the relationship, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi flew down to Madras to see the stroke-affected MGR in hospital and helped arrange for sophisticated medical treatment in the U.S. in 1984. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi adopted very much the same attitude, has spoken time and again of his confidence in and respect for Chief Minister MGR.

For all his political acumen, MGR did not appear to lose any sleep over the second-line leadership, or the problem of succession to his larger-than-life role. Its mammoth size and strength notwithstanding, the AIADMK has been essentially a one-man show.

Until his passing MGR remained the undisputed monarch of the party and the AIADMK government; he could make or mar anything without anybody challenging his actions. With total dependence on the MGR halo, the party looked to the superman for everything and most others in the hierarchy remained faceless.

Although party persons and outsiders often speak of one person or another being groomed as the successor, MGR himself did not provide any indication of his political heir — even when it became clear that his health was a matter of great concern.

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