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Why Film Stars Make Bad Leaders: As Rajinikanth Enters Politics, Remember MGR’s Misrule

Through his films, M.G. Ramachandran built a popular persona as a friend of the poor – just like Rajinikanth. He enjoyed political support on the strength of his personal popularity, and as chief minister, he remained above scrutiny despite creating a brutally repressive anti-poor state.

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Perhaps, the best way to begin the incomparable success story of Marudur Gopalamenon Ramachandran (popularly known as MGR) and his politics is to begin with his funeral. When MGR died as the longest serving chief minister of Tamil Nadu, in the early hours of 24 December 1987, Madras city witnessed one of the world’s largest funerals. No less than two million people, including several who had travelled long distances from remote villages, formed MGR’s funeral procession. Countless young men tonsured their heads; a Hindu ritual usually performed when someone of the family dies. Thirty-one of his desolate followers, unable to contain their grief, committed suicide.

The reaction of his followers was more acute—and, in a sense, morbid—when he suffered a paralytic stroke in October 1984, and was flown to Brooklyn in the United States for treatment. At least 21 people immolated themselves or cut off their limbs or fingers as offerings to various deities, praying for the ailing leader’s life. According to an estimate, out of the 79,000 roadside temples found in Tamil Nadu, 27,000 sprung up during MGR’s illness.

Out of the 79,000 roadside temples found in Tamil Nadu, 27,000 sprung up during MGR’s illness.

What is significant about all this is that the majority of MGR’s followers were drawn from the subaltern (lower) classes. A sociological study of the MGR fan club members published in 1980 found 73.4 per cent of MGR fans to be earning less than 400 per month.

Paradoxically, this political devotion of the subaltern classes to MGR was not because he had pursued radical economic policies during his 11-year rule. A detailed study of the means by which the Tamil Nadu state had raised its resources and the manner in which it had expended them demonstrated clearly that the AIADMK government under MGR taxed the poor (and the middle classes) to profit the rich, especially the rural rich.

In 1975–80, the share of revenues from excise in the total tax revenue was only 1 per cent. In 1980–81, the AIADMK government, going back on its election promise, relaxed the prohibition on liquor consumption. This led to a sharp increase in the excise revenue. In 1980–85, it accounted for a substantial 13.9 per cent of the total revenue of the state. The fact that about 80 per cent of the excise revenue came from country spirits, such as arrack and toddy, which were widely consumed by the urban and rural poor, showed that it was them who paid the bulk of the excise revenue, which almost doubled from 110 crores in 1981–82 to 201 crores in 1984–85.

On the contrary, the policies pursued by the MGR regime allowed the wealthier classes to remain more or less untaxed. Direct taxes, such as land revenue, agricultural income tax and urban land tax, which by their very nature fall on the rich, accounted for a meagre 4.6 per cent of the total tax revenue of the Tamil Nadu government during 1975–80. This further declined to a mere 1.9 per cent during 1980–85. Significantly, the revenue from direct taxes accounted for a hefty 15.5 per cent of the tax revenue in 1960–65.

If MGR’s rule thrived on taxing the poor, it benefited the rich, especially the landed rural rich, through public spending.

If MGR’s rule thrived on taxing the poor, it benefited the rich, especially the landed rural rich, through public spending. In all, during MGR’s rule, the subsidy to the agricultural sector in the state added up to 200 crores every year. It benefited mostly the pumpset-owning rich farmers who had organised themselves into a powerful lobby under the banner of the Tamil Nadu Agriculturists’ Association (Tamil Nadu Vivasaigal Sangam) and pursued, on and off, the path of agitational politics.

The structural consequence of such lopsided economic interventions is glaring. There was economic misery all round for the poor in Tamil Nadu. Well, over 40 per cent of the people in the state continued to languish below the officially defined poverty line and over time, the situation did not improve. ‘Between 1972–73 and 1983, the rural male unemployment rate in Tamil Nadu showed an increase of 86 per cent which was much higher than the 17.8 per cent for the country as a whole, while the urban unemployment rate, over 1977–78 to 1983, increased in Tamil Nadu when it decreased at the All-India level.’

Such structural imbalances were, however, accompanied by a number of populist economic schemes, the most important one being the chief minister’s Nutritious Meal Programme, which was launched with much fanfare in 1982.

This and similar schemes of smaller magnitude were essentially calculated political investments made by the MGR regime with hardly any structural consequence for the economy. They were substantially financed by the poor themselves through tax revenue and had very little consequence in redistributing income and wealth from the rich to the poor.

Likewise, the common people had very little to hope from the sphere of politics as well. Over the years, MGR’s government acquired the distinction of being a brutal police raj.

During the late 1980s, the press throughout India carried reports of how the police were combing the North Arcot and Dharmapuri districts in northern Tamil Nadu and hunting down activists belonging to the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). From 6 August to 28 December, the police killed 15 defenceless CPI (ML) activists in cold blood. In June 1981, they killed another four of them in the safety of police custody. All of them paid with their lives for taking up the cause of farm labourers in these dry and backward districts, and for defying a few unruly and violent landlords. MGR defended his policemen in public without any compunction.

Police brutality became part of everyday reality for the poor in Tamil Nadu. A telling example is the case of the lock-up deaths in the state during MGR’s rule. The data from 1977–81 shows that once every 10 days, an undertrial died behind bars. The fate of the convicts was also more or less similar.

This unchecked police rule in the state was granted legal sanction by the passing of the notorious Tamil Nadu Prevention of Dangerous Activities of Bootleggers, Drug Offenders, Goondas, Immoral Traffic Offenders and Slum Grabbers Act (1982). A unique invention of the AIADMK government, it was popularly known as the Goondas Act. Under the Act, the district collectors were given the power to detain anyone whom they suspected to be a potential violator of the law for a whole year without trial. The Act was used by the Tamil Nadu police to detain about 50 people on an average every month.

The reality of MGR’s rule being such, one would expect the subaltern classes, given their position as victims, to have refused assent to MGR’s politics. That is theory. In actuality, however, MGR enjoyed a stable, if not growing, popularity among the poor in Tamil Nadu throughout his tenure in office and earlier as well. The party founded by him in 1972, the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK), polled a third of the total votes in every election and his followers, as we have seen, exhibited almost a personal bond with him. Thus, their political behaviour certainly did not conform to their actual interests and their objective life situations.

The Image Trap: M.G. Ramachandran in Film and Politics

SAGE Publications

Written by M.S.S. Pandian, (Late) Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

ISBN: 9789351500667

2015/ 196 pages/ Hardback: Rs 675

Excerpted with permission from SAGE India.

If you’d like to understand the full extent of how MGR engineered immense political success despite the inherent contradictions between his popular image and his policies, read the rest of the book The Image Trap by M.S.S. Pandian.