Known as Navalar or the eloquent, Nedunchezhian was the only leader of his league, other than Kalaignar who rubbed shoulders with three generations of leaders, from Periyar to Jayalalithaa, writes R Kannan.

A black and white photo which shows Navalar Nedunchezhian and Karunanidhi sharing a laugh and smilingImage: Twitter/DMK IT Wing
news Politics Saturday, July 18, 2020 - 10:53
Written by  R Kannan

In 1943, a 19-year-old ‘Kalaignar’ Karunanidhi had invited him and ‘Perasiryar’ K Anbazhagan, students at Annamalai University to address his Tamil Manavar Manram student body’s annual event at Tiruvarur. Twenty-three years later, on 19 May 1956, DMK founder CN Annadurai, better known as Anna, would utter his now famous words, ‘Thambi vaa thalaimai thaanga vaa!’ or ‘Younger brother come; lead us!’ inviting a 36-year-old ‘Navalar’ Nedunchezhian to take over as General Secretary of the DMK.

Despite these early breaks, Navalar remained a follower of larger personalities than a leader.

In 1957, in the DMK’s first electoral contest, the Communists backed Navalar’s rival ensuring his defeat by a slender 207 votes in the Salem 1 constituency. He was in good company with poet Kannadasan. However, Kalaignar and Anna had won along with 13 others. If he had ‘failed to succeed’ as Navalar would come to rephrase electoral loss later, in 1989, as an independent, he would secure a mortifying 596 votes in Mylapore. One of the AIADMK faction leaders, Jayalalithaa, whom he had initially backed against MGR’s apolitical widow Janaki Ramachandran described him and his three former ministerial colleagues Panruti Ramachandran, S Thirunavukarasar and S Aranganayagam around then as ‘worthless’ as ‘fallen hair’.

Navalar’s life was a paradox – a man of much stature in the Dravidian movement whose highs were only matched by the many humbling moments. He could never lead and had to always remain a follower of either Kalaignar, MGR or even Jayalalithaa. He was never a mass leader. Thanks to his oratory and genteel manners Navalar commanded much respect within the Dravidian movement.

Along with Kalaignar and EV Ramasamy Periyar’s nephew Sampath, he formed the troika that was considered only next to Anna. However, his catchy oratory and seniority notwithstanding, Navalar could never cultivate a following. He was not skilled in client patronage relationships essential to build a base in any political party. This non-threatening facet of his saw him rise to leadership positions up to Anna’s time in unusual ways.

Navalar’s leadership as General Secretary in 1956, the only occasion of a democratic change in the DMK, was thus purely symbolic. Navalar was a stopgap, as Sampath and Kalaignar had initially desired the position for themselves. Sampath had even wondered if Navalar was the right choice at a time when the party was heavily engaged in agitprop and Anna had to assuage him that Navalar would be a nominal head. A low-key Navalar did not rock the boat and left Anna in command. In April 1961, Sampath quit the DMK now leaving Navalar only to contend with Kalaignar for the real number 2 position in the party. He was the de jure number 2, a position that the 1962 elections would confirm, when Navalar became the Leader of the Opposition in the Legislature with Kalaignar as his deputy leader.

If his elevation as the General Secretary was a compromise, Navalar’s rise to lead the Legislative opposition was happenstance as Anna had lost that election.

In 1969, Navalar expected to succeed Anna who passed away on 3 February simply by virtue of being the number 2 in the party. This time, however, happenstance was not enough. Could Navalar fill Anna’s big boots? Only a few like Panruti Ramachandran thought so. Many felt otherwise. Two of them were important. One, EV Ramasamy Periyar publicly backed Kalaignar as the one who had the ‘capability and talent’. The other was kingmaker MGR.

Despite these odds, a self-respecting Navalar stayed the course only to opt for discretion rather than valour and quit the race to make his rival Kalaignar’s choice unanimous. Earlier, when senior leaders like K Anbazhagan and TK Srinivasan brought news of the manoeuvres on behalf of Kalaignar for the top slot, they found a complacent and inert Navalar. Not that Navalar’s self-advocacy would have secured him the position. His reputation as a somewhat aloof and inflexible person preceded him. And he was no match to Kalaignar whose organisational skills and individual following stood beyond compare.

Navalar kept his hurt and refused to join Kalaignar’s cabinet. He now desired to lead the party as General Secretary. Again, MGR checkmated him speciously arguing that the administrative and party leadership should be vested in one. Navalar ate humble pie. He did become General Secretary but the real power had moved to the President – a post which was dormant hitherto and into which life had been breathed into for an ever agile Kalaignar who had overtaken him as the Chief Minister and the leader of the party consigning Navalar to lick his wounds.

The learned Navalar had fought hard only to remain in the same place. With no cadre or popular base, the man had proved a walkover for the Kalaignar–MGR duo. This was not his only error of judgment or humbling moment. Navalar greatly underestimated MGR’s charisma and staying power attributing his 1977 success to ‘film glamour’. ‘Times are changing. Film glamour, too, will change,’ he had prophesied.

It would be Navalar who would change and take MGR as his leader in 1978. In the AIADMK, he was now the Presidium Chairman a ceremonial number 1 position. Ironically, the Sarkaria Commission set up on MGR’s and CPI’s allegations had found that the Navalar Nedunchezhian Trust received donations abusing his official position and accepting gratification for college admission. Despite this aberration, Navalar remained a man known for his sense of straight living.

Serendipity had long deserted Navalar. But Navalar failed to read the writing on the wall assuming that his number 2 position would normally take him to the number 1 slot whenever it fell vacant. That was not to be. It was not yet a post-Jayalalithaa era. Charisma and leadership still mattered. In 1987, a twice bitten Navalar was bitten a third time, on this occasion by MGR’s widow Janaki Ramachandran who wished to succeed her late husband as Chief Minister. As the party split, Navalar backed Jayalalithaa except she was in the thrall of the Sasikala-Natarajan cabal. Quickly disillusioned, he floated his own front with Panruti Ramachandran, Thirunavukarasar and S Aranganayagam nicknamed the Front of Four. It proved more an affront than a front.

Navalar quietly went back to Jayalalithaa whom he served as Finance Minister, although it is unclear if the newer generation of the AIADMK’s adherents knew his stature or worth. It did not matter. For Navalar was no equal to any of the mass leaders and Tamil Nadu was no Kerala where aura and charisma are not part of the equation to lead the state. But then Navalar’s administrative capacities as Chief Minister were never fully tested. He was always an interim Chief Minister.

Known as Navalar or the eloquent, Nedunchezhian was the only leader of his league other than Kalaignar who rubbed shoulders with three generations of leaders, from Periyar to Jayalalithaa. And this was his undoing. Only a few in the Dravidian movement had learnt to fade away quietly rather than be humbled and humiliated by time that had long passed them.

For a child born mute and whose cry was induced with hot betel leave juice, Nedunchezhian rose to be called Navalar or the eloquent for his arresting speech and singular intonation. He made blood course through the veins of his audience when he recited poet Bharatidasan’s poetry. In his inimitable style, he described Belgium as a ‘keerai paathi naadu’ or a country as big as a spinach patch in comparison to his Dravida Nadu’s geographical contours. Yet his audience were not willing to follow him outside the auditorium. Navalar remained a niraikudam or a complete human, as poet Kannadasan described him. But history is never kind to those who fail to rise to the challenge. Navalar remains an example.

R. Kannan is the biographer of Anna and MGR.