From MGR to Sasikala: Why the AIADMK needs to reinvent itself to stay alive

Launched as an alternative to Karunanidhi-led DMK, the AIADMK has lost its reason for existence.
From MGR to Sasikala: Why the AIADMK needs to reinvent itself to stay alive
From MGR to Sasikala: Why the AIADMK needs to reinvent itself to stay alive
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In the birth centenary year of MG Ramachandran, the party founded by him in 1972, the All India Anna DMK, is in tatters, as it has gone into the hands of convicted criminal VK Sasikala and her equally-tainted clan. MGR’s protégé Jayalalithaa has also been convicted in the same assets case and might have been in jail but for her death.  

What we are seeing in the AIADMK is an existential crisis, a tragedy that is happening in the birth centenary year of MGR. Not founded on any ideology except what MGR vaguely called ‘Annaism’, whatever that meant, the party was run more like a mass movement of a fan club and centered on one charismatic leader.

Generational change in any grand old party, be it the Dravidar Kazhagam, the DMK or even the Congress, is natural. But none of these parties have gone into the hands of a rank outsider as has happened to AIADMK. Jayalalithaa’s personal aide Sasikala, who was not even a primary member, has taken control of the party, and her chosen man Edappadi K Palanaswami is the Chief Minister, a post once held by MGR and later Jayalalithaa.

Jayalalithaa had at least kept the party together for 29 years after MGR’s passing and built it into a formidable organisation. But now, having been projected as an alternative to Karunanidhi-led DMK, the AIADMK has lost the reason for its very existence. Jayalalithaa is no more, and the leadership of the DMK has passed on from ailing Karunanidhi to his son MK Stalin.

Why AIADMK was born

Splits are common in any party. The AIADMK itself was formed after MGR broke away from the DMK, following differences with its leader M Karunanidhi.

Ironically, MGR had no political ambitions. He was not in the DMK to begin with. He was a Congress sympathiser. It was Karunanidhi who brought MGR to the DMK in the 1960s. This led to the exit of MGR’s film rival Sivaji Ganesan who moved to the Congress.

Though he was close to Karunanidhi, MGR was devout and was attracted by Annadurai, who changed the ideology of the DMK from the atheism of Periyar’s Dravida Kazhagam (DK) to monotheism or “One God, One Community”, propounded by Kerala’s social reformer, Narayana Guru.

In plain terms, MGR was not in tune with the DK’s anti-Brahmin movement. In fact, after coming to power, MGR even proposed reservation not solely on the basis of social or caste-based backwardness but also including the poor, among the Brahmins. He dropped the idea in the face of opposition from both the DK and the DMK.

It was just a coincidence that his immediate successors, his wife Janaki and his heroine in films Jayalalithaa, were Brahmins.

When Sasikala made an unsuccessful attempt to grab power after becoming party general secretary, posters came up hailing her as the State’s first “pure Tamil” CM.  The sub-text was that Janaki was a Palaghat Iyer, while Jayalalithaa was a Mandya Iyenger, though she was originally from Srirangam.

This again is not surprising. After MGR formed the AIADMK, Karunanidhi ‘denigrated’ him as a “Malayalee”. 

Another paradox. The trust vote won by Sasikala’s proxy Edappadi K Palaniswamy the other day in the Assembly shows that 122 out of the 134 AIADMK legislators have chosen to stay with those who wield power. This happened when MGR founded the party. All 184 MLAs barring a handful like KA Krishnaswamy stayed with Karunanidhi till his government was dismissed.

Old guards like VR Nedunchezhiyan and Panruti S Ramachandran joined the AIAMDK only after MGR became Chief Minister in 1977.

It was Karunanidhi who was responsible for making MGR a full-time politician.

To begin with, MGR was happy with a cosy arrangement with the DMK, with the party cadre forming the base of his fan following. In turn, MGR allowed his films as a medium to propagate the DMK’s ideologies. Overtime, MGR’s fans far outnumbered DMK cadres who were close to him.

The DMK founder C N Annadurai exploited MGR’s mass appeal. When Karunanidhi succeeded Annadurai in 1969, he felt threatened by MGR’s growing popularity. Never mind, it was MGR who helped Karunanidhi beat VR Nedunchechiyan in the race for the CM post after Annadurai.

The tipping point was an incident that happened in a DMK conference in Madurai in 1972. As Karunanidhi was Chief Minister, he was the last speaker. However, the crowd melted away after MGR’s speech. A shell-shocked Karunanidhi decided it was time to cut the grass under the feet of MGR.

Overnight, he propped up his son MK Muthu as a star and floated his fan clubs all over the state. MGR hit back by asking for accounts and then demanding that Muthu fan clubs be wound up. Karunanidhi said MGR fan clubs should also go. MGR refused and this led to his expulsion from the party.

It was then that MGR founded his own party. Initially, he named it ADMK. Later, when there were reports that the Centre planned to ban regional parties, he added the prefix ‘AI’ to make it All India Anna DMK, though at that time the party had no branches in any other State. He could hardly be blamed. After all, Anna gave up with equal felicity the Dravida Nadu demand on learning that there was a move to outlaw secessionist parties.

Keeping the rage against DMK alive

Karunanidhi’s first term as Chief Minister from 1971 to 76 was marked by not only what Sarkaria was later to call “scientific corruption”, but also by violence and police repression.

The nascent AIADMK bore the brunt of this repression. MGR faced up to it with people’s support, as was seen by the landslide win of the party in Dindigul and Periakulam Lok Sabha elections in 1973.

Another factor was the tacit encouragement MGR got from Indira Gandhi, who never forgave Karunanidhi for denying her breakaway Congress any Assembly seat in the 1971 general elections. She ordered an enquiry by Justice Sarkaria to go into corruption charges levelled against Karunanidhi by MGR.

The post-emergency 1977 elections saw Indira being trounced and MGR coming to power in Tamil Nadu. When the Janata Party Government fell in 1979, MGR’s AIADMK joined the short-lived Charan Singh ministry.

Feeling ditched by MGR, Indira joined hands with Karunanidhi and the DMK-Congress combine swept the Lok Sabha elections in 1980 in Tamil Nadu. When Indira Gandhi returned to power at the Centre, Karunanidhi got the MGR Government dismissed on the basis of its poor showing in that election.

Holding that Lok Sabha election verdict could not be a basis for sacking a popular state government, people voted MGR back to power.

In his last days, MGR came to distrust Jayalalithaa as an over-ambitious woman. She had written to Rajiv Gandhi to make her deputy chief minister after MGR’s health failed.

Like Sasikala now, Jayalalithaa staked claim to power on the basis of her closeness to MGR. But unlike Sasikala who never held any post, Jayalalithaa was made propaganda secretary of the AIADMK by MGR in 1983, lest she be called a parallel power centre.   

MGR ruled for nine years, almost unbroken. Jayalalithaa had ups and downs. What proved to be a nemesis to her as well as the party was her association with Sasikala Natarajan. As a result, the party stands disgraced.

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