AIADMK leadership crisis

Withering leaves: AIADMK's leadership crisis

Print edition : November 19, 2021

M.G. Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa at the Madurai conference of MGR fans’ associations in July 1986. Senior AIADMK leader Rm. Veerappan looks on. Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives

Edappadi K. Palaniswami and O. Panneerselvam, the co-coordinator and coordinator of AIADMK respectively, during an election campaign in Theni district of Tamil Nadu on March 27, 2021. Photo: G. Karthikeyan

V.K. Sasikala, Jayalalithaa’s confidante, at MGR Memorial House in Chennai on October 17, 2021. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

The AIADMK, which steps into its 50th year in 2021, is now a pale shadow of its former formidable self. The party founded by the charismatic MGR is creaking under the weight of rivalries at the helm even as confusion and disillusionment reign among its cadres.

The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which has ruled Tamil Nadu for 30 years since the Dravidian movement entered the portals of power in 1967, is celebrating its 50th anniversary, but amid fading hopes and rising frustration within its ranks.

The din and bustle usually associated with any golden jubilee celebration are conspicuously absent. In a situation of hope, the party cadres would have marked the event by garlanding portraits of the party’s founder-leader and matinee idol M.G. Ramachandran, popularly known as MGR, and his successor and fellow film star Jayalalithaa, known as ‘Amma’; distributing sweets among the public; and blaring evergreen numbers from MGR-Jayalalithaa starrers in all nooks and corners of the State.

Even the party’s silver jubilee celebration in 1997, a year after it lost the Assembly elections to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the other Dravidian major, was a carnival. But today, the commemoration has been reduced to a ritual of sorts with little enthusiasm. Disillusionment is widespread and palpable among the grass-roots cadres, who have been the party’s mainstay since its inception and are now largely ignored.

Founded by MGR on October 18, 1972, after he was dismissed from the DMK following personal differences with his long-time friend and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, the party is today a pale shadow of its glorious former self and seems to be heading for an irreversible fragmentation.

MGR and Jayalalithaa, who were both revered and feared by their followers, ran the party with an iron fist. In fact, the party had a distinct culture of absolute subservience to the leadership, which kept it intact until the death of Jayalalithaa on December 5, 2016, after a prolonged illness. As a result, there was no second line of leadership and her passing not only created a vacuum at the helm but plunged the party into chaos and confusion. It seems to be rudderless under the twin leadership of Edappadi K. Palaniswami and O. Panneerselvam, the co-coordinator and coordinator respectively.

Also read: AIADMK in crisis

V.K. Sasikala, Jayalalithaa’s confidante, picked Palaniswami to lead the party after her political ambitions were dashed following her conviction in a disproportionate wealth case, in which Jayalalithaa was accused No.1. Earlier, whenever Jayalalithaa had to demit office for reasons concerning the case, she made Panneerselvam the interim Chief Minister. Caught in the choppy power politics of the twin leadership are the party’s cadres and functionaries, who remain staunch MGR fans and Amma loyalists. Both the Dravidian majors survived many splits and desertions. The key difference between the two is that while the DMK remains largely rooted in Dravidian ideology, the AIADMK has been dependent on the charisma of its leadership. The party, as such, has no specific ideology, although MGR had claimed that his party’s guiding philosophy was ‘Annaism’, which in his own words was a blend of capitalism, socialism, communism, and so on.

The top two leaders who are running the party now are known only for their commitment to Jayalalithaa and not to whatever little ideology that was left in the party. Under their leadership, the party failed to win the 2021 Assembly elections after ruling the State for 10 years. Battered by a slew of corruption charges and facing a plethora of legal issues, the party is also creaking under the weight of the rivalries at its helm.

MGR and the DMK

The AIADMK, known only as the ADMK in its early days, was the first party to come to power in any State within just five years of formation. And perhaps no leader other than MGR could have achieved such a phenomenal ride to success in the political history of any State. (A few years after MGR’s ascent, the Telugu film star N.T. Rama Rao followed in his footsteps by floating the Telugu Desam Party in 1982 and winning the Assembly elections the next year.)

To achieve this stupendous feat, MGR carefully constructed his image on the silver screen and patiently waited on the sidelines of politics from 1952, before emerging as a leader. The incidents that preceded and followed his ouster from the DMK and the birth of the ADMK were dramatic.

After he joined the DMK in the early 1950s, MGR adopted C.N. Annadurai, the party’s founder who would later become Chief Minister, as his political mentor. Since then, both the DMK and MGR were mutually beneficial to each other: the party used his celluloid fame to propagate its ideas and he exploited the party to nurture his political ambitions and develop a strong base of fans.

Those who have closely watched his cinematic and political careers are well aware of the symbiotic relationship he forged with the Tamil people, primarily through cinema. His clean image, both on and off screen, has not waned to a large extent. Through his films, MGR reached out to the subaltern classes, who saw in him their messiah, and those who were averse to the DMK’s radical social reforms, which they feared would erode their conservative cultural and religious order.

The DMK’s success story itself was, among other socio-political factors, the result of its leaders’ handling of the media and cultural platforms. Both Annadurai and his ‘younger brother’ M. Karunanidhi were great orators, writers, journalists and playwrights from their schooldays. That made their transition to the newly emerging medium of cinema smooth. It was through their new tool that they propagated their fiery political messages.

And MGR’s screen persona was the icing on the cake.

The Dravidian leaders succeeded in generating a sense of Tamil identity and nationalism among the people, taking Tamil Nadu politics in a new, unique direction. In the 1967 Assembly elections, Annadurai exploited MGR’s popularity to the hilt to boost the electoral prospects of the DMK, which was already on the upswing thanks to the anti-Hindi agitation and rising popular resentment against inflation and the Congress’ rule. The party ran an aggressive campaign and in the midst of it, a shocking incident took place. On January 12, 1967, MGR was shot by fellow actor M.R. Radha at his residence following a dispute with regard to a film project and admitted to hospital.

Also read: No room for a third front in Tamil Nadu

The DMK used this personal spat between the two actors as campaign material through hundreds of posters that carried pictures of a wounded MGR in hospital with a heavy bandage around his neck. The party won a landslide victory and MGR won his Assembly seat from his hospital bed without campaigning directly.

S. Semmalai, organising secretary of the AIADMK and five-time member of the Legislative Assembly, told Frontline that the poster featuring MGR was instrumental in the DMK’s victory. He said: “It was MGR who took the DMK to the grass-roots. His films took the party and its ideology to the masses by showing the DMK flag and symbol. He even acted in a film where his character was called Udhayasooriyan (rising sun, which is the DMK’s symbol).”

The Congress, which had been in power since Independence, was dethroned despite presenting before the people a line-up of tall leaders such as K. Kamaraj.

Annadurai became Chief Minister on March 6, 1967, but died of oesophageal cancer on February 3, 1969. The DMK had already cultivated a strong second rung of leadership in V.R. Nedunchezhiyan, who was named by Annadurai as his successor; Karunanidhi; MGR; and a few others. Annadurai’s sudden demise triggered a power struggle between Nedunchezhiyan and Karunanidhi, which the latter won with MGR’s strong support. MGR was subsequently made party treasurer.

Having become the DMK treasurer, which positioned him just behind Nedunchezhiyan, who was general secretary, MGR emerged as an indispensable power centre within the party. It is to be noted that MGR did not support the candidate his political mentor had identified as his successor (Nedunchezhiyan). The DMK easily won the 1971 Assembly elections, which were advanced at Karunanidhi’s instance as he wanted a public referendum on his leadership and governance.

Rift with Karunanidhi

Soon, the first sign of fissures between the two friends, who were equally powerful and influential, surfaced. MGR thought he was being sidelined in the party, while Karunanidhi was worried that MGR was becoming too dominant. As treasurer, MGR had demanded that the election expenditure accounts of the party and the contestants should be submitted to him. But they were submitted to the party executive committee.

Semmalai, a staunch MGR loyalist from 1972 and former Minister in Jayalalithaa’s Cabinet, said that Karunanidhi was “jealous” of MGR’s growing popularity, although it was “MGR who had made him Chief Minister”.

Another factor that caused a rift in their relationship was Karunanidhi’s attempt to launch his son M.K. Muthu in films. MGR was unhappy and thought it was being done to counter his popularity in cinema, even though he actually launched Muthu’s entry by clapping the board during the shooting of his first film, Pillaiyo Pillai.

Minor and major irritants widened the rift and the growing mutual suspicion snowballed into a crisis within the party.

An ambitious MGR did not want to remain just a MLA in a party which he believed had won the elections because of his charisma. At the same time, he did not want to quit on his own. From mid-1972, he started building up a case within the party. In public meetings he did not conceal his disenchantment with the party leadership and accused senior Ministers of corruption.

On October 8, 1972, MGR addressed two public meetings—one at Thirukazhukundram and another at Lloyds Road in Chennai, then Madras—in which he openly criticised Karunanidhi for allowing corruption and lifting prohibition. He said: “It is against the principles Anna taught us.” Political historians claim that there was more to these unsavoury developments than met the eye. Within the party, a few seniors who nursed personal grievances against MGR reportedly wanted him out. It was believed that Nedunchezhiyan was one of them, as he was unhappy with MGR for supporting Karunanidhi in the battle for the Chief Ministerial berth after Annadurai’s death. Sensing trouble, K. Anbazhagan, a senior leader, wanted the issue to be sorted out by Karunanidhi, and a majority of the functionaries endorsed this suggestion.

Also read: Deepening divide

At a meeting of district secretaries on October 9, 1972, the party decided to suspend MGR from the party. It issued a show-cause notice to him seeking his explanation and regret. Leaders such as Murasoli Maran, K. Rajaram, P.U. Shanmugam, Anbil Dharmalingam and Rm. Veerappan, who wanted to prevent a split, met MGR at his residence and held talks. Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, the patriarch of the Dravidian movement, who was asked to mediate, requested MGR to opt for a truce and asked him to express regret for his accusations against the party and its leaders. He reportedly said that it could be a win-win situation for both MGR and Karunanidhi. But MGR politely refused and told him that the issue was not in his hands any longer.

As there was no response from him, the disciplinary proceedings were referred to the executive council, which, on October 12, endorsed them. As conciliatory talks also collapsed and MGR stubbornly refused to express regret, the general council on October 14, 1972, expelled him from the party. All 277 council members who attended the meeting, out of the total of 310, unanimously endorsed the decision. Later, at a public meeting, Karunanidhi termed the decision as ‘painful’. On October 16, Sathyavani Muthu, a DMK Minister, accused MGR of “attempting to convert the DMK into an MGR fan club”.

Birth of ADMK

MGR founded the ADMK on October 18, 1972. P. Kannan, a former Member of Parliament representing Salem and close associate of Jayalalithaa, once told Frontline that the issue could have been easily sorted out had MGR and Karunanidhi met and discussed it. He said: “Those who were to be gain from their differences did the damage. Karunanidhi grossly underestimated him.” When MGR founded the ADMK, only a few leaders joined the party. Initial membership records of the ADMK showed just a handful of recognisable names, such as K.A. Krishnaswamy, who was expelled from the DMK along with MGR, Kalimuthu, Munu Adhi, Musiri Puthan, and S.D. Somasundaram. Later, senior DMK leader Nanjil Manoharan joined it.

Initially, Karunanidhi was able to retain almost all senior colleagues and managed to keep the party intact. But the ADMK’s historic win in the Dindigul Parliamentary byelection in 1972—where Maya Thevar won with a difference of more than 1.14 lakh votes, pushing the DMK to the third spot behind the Congress—and its victory in the Coimbatore West Assembly byelection, swelled the new party’s political fortunes, leading to a significant erosion in the DMK’s rank and file.

MGR continued his blistering campaign against the DMK and Karunanidhi for another four years, and the defining moment for which he had assiduously worked came when the Assembly elections were held in Tamil Nadu on June 10, 1977, more than a year after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had dismissed the government of Karunanidhi, who had staunchly opposed the Emergency (which MGR supported).

In the bitter battle of ballots between the friends-turned-foes, MGR won and became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

Despite gross inadequacies in administration and his political compromises, such as aligning with the Congress led by Indira Gandhi, MGR remained in power until his death in 1987. His iconic image was intact and his successor Jayalalithaa capitalised on it to become Chief Minister in 1991, 2001, 2011 and 2016. (After MGR’s death, Jayalalithaa and his widow Janaki Ramachandran, who was Chief Minister for 23 days, fought over the succession issue, which Jayalalithaa won.)

MGR was a shrewd politician. Whenever the need arose, he showed no qualms in compromising on the ideologies he claimed to have imbibed from the Dravidian school of Periyar and Annadurai for his political exigencies. His political perspectives, despite his stint in the Dravidian school, did not have clarity. His centre-right orientation in politics and some of his administrative decisions he took were in sharp contrast to the image he had projected on screen.

Also read: `De-ideologisation of politics is the tragedy of Tamil Nadu'

Unlike Karunanidhi and Annadurai, whose governance revolved around the self-respect and social reforms movement, MGR carefully distanced his governance from any debatable issues that sought to usher in radical changes in the rigid and existing social order. He confined himself to welfare schemes, such as the noon meal scheme, and strengthened the public distribution system, which he believed would free the poor from hunger.

His first stint was relatively corruption-free but saw poor administration and little infrastructural development. His primary goal upon taking office was not to take forward the long-term development programmes initiated by his predecessors, though he maintained the ecosystem Karunanidhi had created in the administration. In 1980, MGR enacted a law fixing an income limit for backward classes to get reservation benefits, which boomeranged. He abrogated it after his party got a drubbing in the 1980 Parliamentary election.

His regime also saw heavy-handed police action against protesters, which led to several deaths. Under the ruse of curbing naxal operations, many youths were killed in villages in the northern districts. Eight farmers were shot dead during farmers’ protests organised by the Narayanasamy Naidu-led Tamilaga Vivasayigal Sangam, seeking reduction in electricity tariff. The police shot and killed a few fisherfolk in Chennai when they protested against a government scheme.

Connect with people

MGR’s connect with the Tamil masses was unprecedented, and its reasons are yet to be explored in detail. He achieved the difficult task of changing the perception of politics despite his quixotic ways. (On one occasion he asked his fans to carry a knife for their safety. On another, he told them to tattoo his party name and symbol on their forearms.)

He won elections from hospital beds with ease: first when he was shot by M.R. Radha and later when he was admitted to a hospital in the United States for a kidney transplant.

MGR’s impact within his party was also enormous. He was so confident that he would be the party chief forever that he had framed a by-law, since amended, which enabled all card-holding members to elect the party leadership. No other political party has such a clause that grants the cadres the privilege of electing their leader. Jayalalithaa retained the clause but the present twin leadership amended it.

Also read: Scripting Dravida cinema

Semmalai said that while MGR was a phenomenon, Jayalalithaa was a bold leader who had the party under her thumb.

He said: “The disadvantage of twin leadership is its delay in taking a collective decision on vital issues. One cannot dismiss the popular perception that in the prevailing political scenario, the party needs to be aggressive, for which a strong, single leadership is inherently essential. If at all such a concept of having a single leadership is to evolve tangibly, it must happen only through consensus.”

The lingering shadow of MGR’s legacy is still being sold to the new generation, keeping up the hopes that the party he founded will remain intact. Despite the AIADMK’s recent rightist leanings, the existence of this offshoot of the Dravidian school of politics is seen by progressive sections as vital for Tamil Nadu so that the State continues to resolutely resist the pernicious influence of right-wing ideologies.

Jayalalithaa’s rise

Jayalalithaa’s takeover of the party after MGR’s demise added a new element of authoritarianism to the organisation, which saw her demand complete subservience from her cadres. She encouraged sycophancy and brazen displays of servility, and her leadership was characterised by whimsical and impulsive decisions. In contrast, MGR had a strong line-up of senior leaders who were treated with respect and decorum, while Jayalalithaa preferred non-entities who readily prostrated before her.

MGR did not name Jayalalithaa as his successor although he made her the party’s propaganda secretary. However, he removed her from that post once after learning that she had been responsible for some disturbing developments within the party, and nominated her to the Rajya Sabha just to keep her away from the State unit of the party. Even after he took ill and spent time in the U.S. for treatment, he avoided meeting her.

As co-stars, MGR and Jayalalithaa had a love-hate relationship. In fact, after she took over the party, she aggressively marketed her own image and tried to eclipse MGR’s legacy. During the 1996 election campaign, the AIADMK put up life-size cut-outs and giant-size posters of her all over the State, while MGR’s image was virtually absent. The party received a heavy drubbing in the election, after which she was forced to project his image in subsequent campaigns.

When MGR died, she staked a claim to the party leadership with support from some junior Ministers in MGR’s Cabinet like S. Tirunavukkarasu and a few MLAs. However, senior leaders such as P.U. Shanmugam, C. Ponnaiyan, Muthuswami and Rm. Veerappan fiercely resisted her attempt and asked Janaki Ramachandran to take over the mantle. Kannan, who was once suspended from the party by MGR for floating the Jayalalithaa Peravai, said: “For those seniors, it was preposterous to even think of a Brahmin woman and one-time heroine to head a Dravidian party.”

Also read: Jayalalithaa’s legacy

It became a fight between Janaki Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa, who backed the candidature of Nedunchezhiyan for Chief Minister. Janaki Ramachandran was asked by the then Governor to form the government, but it could survive for just 23 days.

When a confidence motion was moved in the Assembly on January 28, 1988, there was bedlam. The violence resulted in the dismissal of the Janaki government, and the AIADMK split into the Jayalalithaa and Janaki factions.

The State went to the polls in 1989, which the DMK won. The Jaya faction fared well while the Janaki group was routed, following which the latter withdrew from politics. In February 1989, the two factions merged and Jayalalithaa became the party’s general secretary. The two leaves symbol, which had been frozen, was restored to the party.

The Sasikala factor

In January 1991, the DMK government was dismissed on unsubstantiated charges. In the Assembly elections held in May in the wake of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, Jayalalithaa scored a landslide victory and became the Chief Minister.

But contrary to expectations, her government was corrupt and she was charge-sheeted later along with Sasikala in in a case relating to acquisition of wealth using state power.

Political observers blame Sasikala and her family, who had occupied Jayalalithaa’s Poes Garden residence since the mid-1980s, for all her political misfortunes. They said that Sasikala’s family virtually controlled her residence and the party and emerged as a ‘shadow power centre’ within the party. After Jayalalithaa’s death, Sasikala was elected as interim general secretary on December 29, 2016.

Also read: AIADMK vs AIADMK vs BJP

But on February 7, 2017, the then caretaker Chief Minister Panneerselvam launched a ‘dharma yuddham’ (dharmic war) against Sasikala. It marked the beginning of yet another faction feud within the AIADMK.

Even as Sasikala was getting ready to take over as Chief Minister, the Supreme Court on February 14, 2017, upheld her conviction in the wealth case and sent her to prison for four years. Before going to prison, she made Palaniswami the Chief Minister, kicking off yet another internal feud.

The party characterised by ideological bankruptcy and hero (and heroine) worship plunged into an existential crisis with the departure of Jayalalithaa from the scene. In Jayalalithaa the party had a strong leader, a factor which kept it intact. Now, under the twin leadership of Palaniswami and Panneerselvam, who lack the kind of charisma enjoyed by MGR and Jayalalithaa, the party is on shaky ground.

In the absence of Jayalalithaa, who always kept a distance from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the two leaders are seen as dancing to the tunes of the BJP and the Centre, a historic irony for a State that saw a regional force challenging the authority of the Centre and emerging as one of the pillars of federalism over five decades ago.