On February 3, 1969, Tamil Nadu witnessed over 15 million people – an unbroken world record – participating in the last journey of former chief minister Conjeevaram Natarajan Annadurai. This was unprecedented, considering that he had been in power for less than two years and his party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), espoused a secessionist ideology at least until the early 1960s. Annadurai’s funeral procession signified the consolidation of the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu. Five decades later, if the DMK and its offshoot, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), continue to dominate Tamil Nadu politics, the credit must only go to Anna, as he was popularly known.
When Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy ‘Periyar’ took over the reins of the Justice Party in 1939, it had already met its political death at the hands of the Congress. Rising instances of corruption involving party members, perception as a British collaborationist, and elite background of its top leaders contributed to the Justice Party’s defeat in the 1937 elections. Believing that electoral politics would invariably lead to ideological compromises and collapse of the Dravidian movement, Periyar turned the party into a social outfit for spreading his radical ideas. In 1944, the Justice Party, now renamed Dravidar Kazhagam (DK), formally opted out of electoral politics.
Periyar’s ideology was a deadly combination of anti-Brahminism, iconoclasm, socialism, ethnic pride and racial chauvinism. From 1940 onwards, he also advocated a separate ‘Dravida Nadu’. Throughout this period, Annadurai, an English professor with impeccable oratory skills, continued to be Periyar’s trusted lieutenant.
However, Periyar’s support for Dravida Nadu, his promotion of iconoclasm, and opposition to the “Aryan North” – a byword for Congress-led Centre – continued to be a cause for concern. In the early days of Independence, south India was unified under Madras State, which also included large parts of Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada-speaking areas. Periyar’s call for secession only created more fear among the non-Tamil population, while his fervent iconoclasm potentially isolated the deeply religious Tamil masses.
Perhaps, Annadurai knew the pitfalls of such extremist ideas. However, many believe he waited for the opportune time to split the DK. The opportunity arose when his mentor, who was already nearing 70, married a 32-year-old woman, Maniammai, in 1949. However, the real reason may have been his differences with Periyar over electoral politics.
Anna had already fought and lost a municipal election in 1935. Even before he formed the DMK, he rued the lack of Opposition in the post-Independence Madras legislature, hinting he was not averse to electoral politics.
For Annadurai, poll politics was a means to an end. It provided him the platform to implement necessary socio-economic reforms through legislation. In May 1956, seven years after splitting from DK, the DMK decided to contest the 1957 polls. Interestingly, this decision too was by a secret ballot!
A 2018 book, Tamil Characters: Personalities, Politics and Culture by AR Venkatachalapathy, noted that Annadurai used active politics to promote Periyar’s ideology but made it more palatable for the masses. This meant that controversial aspects of Periyar’s messages like secession and iconoclasm had to be tamed for wider acceptance.
The shrewd Anna used the 1962 Sino-Indian War as a pretext to drop the DMK’s already nominal idea of secession. “In our anger against the Congress party, we should not commit the mistake of slackening our efforts against the foreign invader,” he said, supporting the war effort. In later years, the DMK espoused greater autonomy for linguistically carved states, thus becoming the torch-bearer for federalism in India.
Anna, who had a way with words, appropriated a phrase from Tamil literature, “Onre Kulam, Oruvane Devan (one community, one god)” to turn Periyar’s iconoclastic atheism into ethno-religious monotheism. In fact, as noted by Venkatachalapathy, Anna famously proclaimed that his party would neither break Ganesha idols nor any coconut in his worship.
Annadurai’s biggest moment came in the run-up to the 1967 polls, as the DMK tied up with Chakravarti Rajagopalachari – a Brahmin and a rival. Despite having clashed during the 1939 anti-Hindi riots, electoral calculations triumphed over past rivalry. Perhaps, he might have taken a cue from Vladimir Lenin’s idea of “temporary compromise”. It is said that Anna himself was shocked by the scale of the DMK’s victory. Yet, the outcome also proved that the DMK was no longer an untouchable in state and national politics. Moreover, by opting for an alliance, the party also showed its commitment to electoral democracy.
If not for Annadurai’s pragmatism, the Dravidian movement would certainly have ended up in the abyss of history. To his credit, he utilised universal adult franchise to shape the socio-economic destiny of Tamil Nadu. Moreover, he demonstrated that regional entities could continue working within India’s federal structure. Call it the “Annadurai effect” or something else, Karunanidhi, MGR and Jayalalithaa took “coalition dharma” miles further. Between 1971 and 2009, national parties had to form a coalition with at least one of the two ‘Kazhagam’ to sweep the Lok Sabha polls in Tamil Nadu.
Fifty years after his passing, Annadurai remains a political icon, just like his mentor and three successor chief ministers. But the problem begins here. Anna is likely to have a lesser recall value than Karunanidhi. Similarly, MGR and ‘Amma’ Jayalalithaa are the likely symbols who can deliver votes for the AIADMK. Tamil Nadu’s culture of hero worship keeps adding new icons to the Dravidian pantheon. Unsurprisingly, Karunanidhi’s autobiography holds a pivotal place in the DMK’s official history while Annadurai’s collected editorials remain incomplete. Perhaps, Periyar’s fear of the Dravidian movement collapsing under the burden of electoral politics was not too far-fetched.
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