MG Ramachandran, aka MGR, the matinee idol and former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, continues to be an irresistible presence in Tamil Nadu’s political space. The 104th birth anniversary of MGR, who died in 1987 and was fondly called Puratchi Thalaivar or Revolutionary Leader by many, was celebrated across the state on January 17. It was also an opportunity for many politicians from different parties to cherish and flaunt their memories and proximity with the late actor-turned-politician, who was probably one of the most influential film stars of South Asia as well as the only actor whose political career continues to survive even after three decades.
President of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) MK Stalin has always been careful in his remarks about MGR, the arch rival of his late father M Karunanidhi. It was MGR’s tussle with Karunanidhi that forced the former to create a new party, AIADMK, in 1972.
Even as Stalin would fondly recall his personal connection with MGR, he would be extra cautious when it comes to MGR’s governance or schemes.
In a meeting held at Dharmapuri a few days ago, Stalin said, “I am a great fan of MGR. I used to miss classes to watch his films. It was Karunanidhi who brought MGR into films. MGR used to make sure that nobody would call Karunanidhi by his name; that is the kind of respect he had for Kalaignar.”
Kamal Haasan, another film star who entered politics recently, has been claiming the legacy of MGR ever since he floated his party. Haasan’s party, Makkal Needhi Maiam, having contested on almost all seats in the state during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, gained about a 2% vote share.
While it remains a fact that it is not easy for film stars to convert their fame into votes, aspiring politicians or chief ministers like 66-year-old Haasan are also seen by the public as personalities who entered politics as a “post-retirement plan”, after completing decades in acting.
Haasan has memories with MGR to cherish, like how he grew up on the legend’s lap and was very close to him though not involved in politics along with him. His political slogan “Naalai Namadhe” is inspired by the title of an MGR film, he would say. Recently, Haasan accused the AIADMK of forgetting MGR and his ideals. After releasing the documentary ‘Kaalathai Vendravan’ at MGR’s residence at Ramapuram in Chennai, he said, “MGR’s photographs in ADMK posters are becoming smaller day by day. I share MGR’s dreams and goals and so I can claim his legacy.”
The AIADMK has been vehemently resisting anyone who tries to appropriate MGR’s legacy, be it alliance partner BJP or principal opposition DMK.
MGR and Jayalalithaa are two icons of AIADMK who formed successive governments in Tamil Nadu. While no one is claiming Jayalalithaa’s legacy, every party now wants to associate itself with MGR’s name and politics.
It was only Jayalalithaa’s image which was prominent in the party until her death. After that, the party has been facing an identity crisis and the elections ahead are not going to be easy for it.
While the AIADMK is partially pleased at the way everyone is praising its founder MGR, it is concerned that this could bring political gains for rivals.
Chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami, while speaking at one of the events held in Chennai as part of MGR ‘s 104th birth anniversary celebrations, said, “It is a fact that even people launching new parties have to use MGR’s name.” Last month, while paying homage at MGR’s memorial in Chennai on his death anniversary, he pledged not to allow opponents to appropriate MGR’s legacy. When the BJP used pictures of MGR in its campaign videos, juxtaposing them with Modi and party state president L Murugan, AIADMK minister Jayakumar was quick to react. He said, “Use pictures of your own leaders. Why do you use our leader’s? MGR was the founder of AIADMK and he would always want only AIADMK to be in power.”
Arunan, author of ‘MGR- History of actors becoming chief minister’, observed, “Appropriating MGR’s image helps in anti-DMK politics. MGR termed Karunanidhi an ‘evil force’ to build a negative image around him. So BJP, Kamal Haasan, whoever wants to take on DMK uses MGR’s image. DMK understands that it will gain nothing by criticising a leader who is dead. Therefore, they talk only about the warm and cozy relationship that Karunanidhi and MGR shared in the early days. It is ADMK who is in a fix now, so it is trying to bring back its founder leader.”