When MGR turned away Indira Gandhi from contesting the Thanjavur Lok Sabha bye-poll

Stripped off her MP seat in 1978, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was looking to contest from Tamil Nadu’s rice bowl- Thanjavur with the support of then CM MG Ramachandran.
When MGR turned away Indira Gandhi from contesting the Thanjavur Lok Sabha bye-poll
When MGR turned away Indira Gandhi from contesting the Thanjavur Lok Sabha bye-poll

Over the last week, much has been written and said about Congress President Rahul Gandhi's decision to contest from the Wayanad constituency in Kerala. Critics have said Rahul is unsure of victory in Amethi and is relying on minority votes, while his party is hoping that his decision to contest from Wayanad will energise the Congress machinery in the south. Be it either reason, the Gandhi scion's nomination from Kerala comes 40 years after his grandmother Indira Gandhi was denied the same in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu.

It was the year 1979. Prime Minister Morarji Desai failed to prove majority in Parliament and had given in his resignation to President Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy. A caretaker government was tenuously in place at the Centre. Congress (I) leader Indira Gandhi had only the year before that, been stripped off her MP post. Within weeks of winning the Chikamagalur bye-election, in December 1978, the 'Iron Lady' was expelled by Parliament and arrested for breach of privilege and contempt of House. She was also battling the taint of having extended the state of emergency twice in the country. And now, when it became clear that the only way back to Parliament was a safe seat, she chose Tamil Nadu. Indira Gandhi had set her mind to contest from the state’s rice bowl - Thanjavur.

The state was then ruled by AIADMK's MG Ramachandran, a supporter of Indira. According to the book MGR, A Life authored by R Kannan, he supported her previous election in Chikamagalur both politically and financially. This time, however, Indira's decision proved to be MGR's 'waterloo moment'. While he initially welcomed the idea, a week after the plans were in place he turned her away from the constituency, forcing her to beat a hasty retreat.

What happened?

Reports from 40 years ago suggest that the people of Tamil Nadu had a soft spot for Indira Gandhi despite her 'non-democratic' actions. She was fondly referred to as 'Indiramma' and was still supposed to be the favourite of the masses. In the deep south, her alleged act of tyranny - the Emergency, was justified by MGR as an event that brought discipline and order in the country. And why wouldn't he? The Indira government had dismissed the ruling DMK in 1976, paving way for his victory.

The Thanjavur Lok Sabha seat was initially held by AIADMK's SD Somasundram but he had resigned to join the state government, leaving it vacant. He had won the seat, defeating a DMK candidate, with a margin of close to a lakh in the 1977 General Elections. And the AIADMK readily agreed to offer the seat to the Congress (I) and support its candidate in the bye-election on June 17.

It seemed the ideal seat for Indira Gandhi to make her comeback. Her advisors were skeptical that Chikmagalur where she had won in 1978 from would be problematic because then Karnataka Chief Minister Devraj Urs was opposed to Sanjay Gandhi being politically active. And Rae Bareli was not an option considering she was routed in 1977 in a crushing defeat for the Congress. Moreover, both MGR and actor Sivaji Ganesan were reportedly willing to campaign for her and their popularity amongst the public made Indira's supporters believe she would score an easy victory. But a month ahead of the election, things took a sudden turn.

"On 19 May, Indira Gandhi, MGR and Tamil Nadu Congress (I) strongman G Karuppiah Moopanar met in Delhi. The following day, newspaper reports said she would contest from Thanjavur," reads R Kannan's biography of MGR. But the same day, according to the book, MGR met Morarji Desai. "...Desai told him to choose between him and Indira Gandhi, but had no problems with his support for Congress (I). Boxed into a corner, just when the formal announcement was awaited, a day before Indira Gandhi’s visit to Madras, MGR declared that if she contested, it could give rise to a ‘serious law and order problem’ and he wanted to avert ‘another Madurai."

He was referring to the violence that broke out in the town when Indira visited in 1977. It had led to police firings as well.

According to an India Today story from 1979, "Feelings against Mrs Gandhi run high in former chief minister M Karunanidhi's DMK camp because she had dismissed their government in 1976. If the election fever were to heighten political passions there, MGR may not have been able to deal with the situation unless he had the unreserved support of the Centre which controls the para-military law and order enforcing organisations."

MGR, according to his biography, insisted that his decision was not based on arm twisting by Desai.

"On 22 May, MGR denied that there was ‘any connection or relationship’ between the decision and his meeting with Desai. He also argued that Desai could have easily stopped him from supporting the Congress (I) itself, and described the Congress (I) hand symbol as ‘this hand is the hand that feeds, that embraces, that blesses and [is the] mother’s hand'," reads R Kannan’s book.

But the damage had been done. Indira went on to contest from Medak in Andhra Pradesh and eventually become Prime Minister again in 1980. And though MGR claimed that Indira's life would have been in danger if she contested from the seat in Tamil Nadu, she was unwilling to immediately forgive him. Instead she chose to ally with the DMK, a party that had bitterly opposed her in the past. And despite tumultuous years that followed, this decision was another significant step in the forging of what would eventually become a strong relationship between the DMK and the Congress.

MGR, A Life was published by Penguin Random House, 2017. Excerpts used with author's permission. 

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute