It was September 1979. India was going through a politically uncertain period.

How Biju Patnaik nearly pulled off a DMK and AIADMK merger
news Dravidian Chronicles Wednesday, April 20, 2016 - 15:00

The News Minute brings you the Dravidian Chronicles, a collection of narratives from the past on the margins of the 2016 election spotlight. Here we chronicle smaller, subtler shifts that catalyse and metamorphose the grand narratives of the electoral juggernaut.

The political landscape of Tamil Nadu may have been vastly different if former Union Minister Biju Patnaik’s master plan had succeeded. He had attempted what looks a distant dream now – the merger of the DMK and the AIADMK.  

It was September 1979. India was going through a politically uncertain period. It had been two years since the Emergency. Charan Singh was caretaker Prime Minister, having had to resign after 24 days as Congress (I)’s Indira Gandhi withdrew support to his government. Just weeks earlier, India’s first non-Congress Prime Minister Morarji Desai was forced to resign after mass defections from his Janata Party coalition. 

In Tamil Nadu, MG Ramachandran (MGR) was two years into his first term as Chief Minister. His party, the AIADMK had lent support to Charan Singh’s government. With India facing general elections once more, MGR was now in talks with Indira Gandhi.  But when a scheduled meeting on September 6thbetween Indira Gandhi and MGR failed to materialise, Patnaik swooped in. 

Biju Patnaik was a part of the Janata Party and had been a Union Minister of Steel for Morarji Desai and thereafter Charan Singh.  The former Orissa Chief Minister shared a good rapport with DMK Chief M. Karunanidhi especially following DMK’s nation-wide movement for state autonomy vis-a-vis centre-state relations in the early 1970s. On September 12, 1979, Patnaik brought up the idea of merging the DMK and the AIADMK with Karunanidhi at his residence in Madras.  When the DMK patriarch wondered whose suggestion it was, Patnaik explained that it was MGR who had wanted the merger and wanted to know Karunanidhi’s conditions.

Karunanidhi’s conditions included retaining DMK’s name and AIADMK’s flag which had Anna on it. He also proposed MGR continue as Chief Minister while Karunanidhi would be the president of the merged party.  On hearing the conditions, Patnaik hugged the DMK chief, telling him that he thought he would put forth impossible terms.

The next day Patnaik arranged for a meeting between Karunanidhi and MGR at the Chepauk Guest House. While DMK General Secretary Prof. K Anbazhagan and AIADMK’s VR Nedunchezhian and Panruti Ramachandran were present at the Guest House, MGR and Karunanidhi had a one-on-one meeting in another room. Following the two sides agreeing to the conditions, the leaders decided to convene an emergency executive council meeting of their respective parties to pass resolutions on the merger.

The next day at a public meeting in Vellore, MGR made no mention of the merger. Instead, the DMK came under attack from MGR’s ministers. The proposal to merge the two parties was as good as dead.

More than 30 years after the secret meeting, the DMK Chief at an awards function in Chennai, said it was MGR’s Cabinet Minister Panruti Ramachandran who had played spoilsport. While the one-on-one with MGR was cordial, “he left for Vellore after the meeting. I do not know what happened in the car,” said Karunanidhi, but hinted that an ‘undesirable’ person who was with MGR may have turned him away. With that, the chapter of merging the Dravidian heavyweights had closed. For Patnaik, perhaps, it was a failed attempt to put a check on the rising Congress (I).   

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