Reflections on C.N. Annadurai on the 99th anniversary of his birth. Office was but an instrument for him to better the lives of others. Burning the midnight oil one night, he beckoned a ministerial colleague to say: ‘People are expecting a lot from us. We should not disappoint them.’
“There cannot be a more expansive heart than mine; they can’t find one.”
This was the remark of C.N. Annadurai, founder of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and later Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, in the wake of E.V.K. Sampath’s exit with his supporters in the spring of 1961. Those who knew him could not agree more with him: such was his all-encompassing fondness and caring for others.
Sampath would henceforth refer to his erstwhile leader as “Mr/Comrade Annadurai,” much to the distress of many to whom the short “Anna” or “elder brother” most aptly described him. In his epitaph eight years later, Sampath would address Anna as “My elder brother!” and pithily portray the nation’s tribute to Anna’s unique attribute of affection: “Is there anything that can equal your conquest of the hearts? Oh! Victorious warrior, flags are flying half-mast in the whole of India, saluting your affection.”
Anna was neither god man nor film star. Yet his record funeral cortège illustrated how his triumph was collectively savoured. Ironically, as a young boy, the crowd-shy Anna would prefer the quiet Puniyakotteeswarar to the bustling Varadaraja Perumal temple in his native Kancheepuram. But his adult life would be inseparable from the masses — even outside India. In 1965, Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew observed on Anna’s visit there that only Nehru had drawn such crowds before. Anna’s visit to the United States as Yale University’s Chubb Fellow in 1968 would evoke a similar reception. If Tamils felt hugely possessive of him, others were also fascinated by the phenomenon he was.
A magical orator and compelling writer, Anna’s gifts were greatly accentuated by the kudumba paasam or ‘family affection’ he breathed into his environment. His DMK was akin to a large family where all were his younger siblings. Consequently, Anna and his associates displaced priests in life cycle rites and shared both the celebrations and tribulations of the party’s families. Even as Chief Minister, Anna would be seen effecting rapprochements between estranged couples or reuniting families. Nothing else could be expected from the one who observed: “Since one mother’s womb cannot take us all, we are born to several mothers.”
Anna’s guru, the crusty reformer E.V. Ramasamy ‘Periyar’ (EVR), advocated that social emancipation should presage political independence. Such was the plight of the socially oppressed and the poor in the south and even Swami Vivekananda would remark on the caste cruelty in this region. Unlike the iconoclast leader, however, Anna, the genteel disciple, chastised Aryanism, caste, ritualistic religion, unethical pontiffs, feudal landlords, and the heartless rich in a much more acceptable manner. Doors hitherto shut to the movement opened to him. EVR and Anna re-worked and redeemed Tamil identity and self-respect, their powerful interpretation of caste precluding any class analysis.
EVR termed India’s Independence a “dark day.” Anna openly demurred. Further differences led to his parting with his teacher in 1949. Left to chart an independent course Anna described his DMK as a “graft mango plant” of the original Kazhagam. He made the parent Kazhagam’s Dravida Nadu (“Independent South”) demand territorial, making it open to all in the South irrespective of their origins or caste.
Metamorphosing from a thalapathi (general) of the radical EVR brigade into a more seasoned arignar, or scholar, Anna crafted and employed an array of strategic propaganda tools for his DMK. Thus, public meetings and party organs, representational as well as issue-specific agitations, and the cinema (cinema houses were just making inroads into rural areas) drove the party’s message relentlessly. Anna’s exploits as scriptwriter pioneered the Dravidian movement’s exploitation of cinema. As early as 1947 he collected a fee of Rs. 12,000 for his avant-garde film Velaikaari (Servant Maid), released in 1949, the year of DMK’s founding. Importantly, as Anna intrepidly sought and mentored talent, a gifted set of lieutenants like ‘Kalaignar’ M. Karunanidhi and matinee idol M.G. Ramachandran came to his aid.
The party’s smart formula for growth — cinema — rapidly engulfed a whole genre of enthusiastic youngsters who knew little about its sacrifice, ideals, or struggle. This appeared to some to dent the party’s gravitas; indeed detractors claimed that Anna’s all-forgiving nature and reluctance to impose discipline had further led to the erosion of the party’s values.
Dissidents left the party in 1961 even as Anna magnanimously acknowledged any personal shortcomings. The separatist Dravida Nadu demand had become central to the division, with the dissidents foreseeing a brighter future for the party without it. Poet Kannadasan, a dissident leader, recorded that Anna feared “shocking” the cadres by reneging on the party’s central rationale before preparing them. He needn’t have. To most party men he was the only rationale for their adherence to the DMK. Anna’s and the DMK’s rise would lead to the 16th constitutional amendment (1963), proscribing any advocacy of secession. Yielding, he emphasised nonetheless that the factors driving the demand were still present.
His pragmatism was vindicated when only four years later the DMK was voted to power in Tamil Nadu, heralding the arrival of regional parties. “The political wave that ushered the DMK to power felled people without reference to their stature or dignity,” a gracious Anna noted on K. Kamaraj’s defeat.
Office was but an instrument for Anna to better the lives of others, although quite a few of his siblings had already begun to view it as an opportunity for personal enrichment. Burning the midnight oil one night, he beckoned a ministerial colleague to say: “People are expecting a lot from us. We should not disappoint them.”
Regretfully, his term was brief and death prematurely claimed him in 1969. Anna exhibited maturity and responsibility as Chief Minister. While fiercely defending his party’s ideology in the U.S., a once-separatist Anna refused to comment on foreign affairs as it was the prerogative of the Centre. He made pre-university education free for all without sufficient means — even those from the higher castes (transcending his own belief in affirmative action on behalf of the socially disadvantaged). He also took pride in the fact that his DMK successfully fielded minority caste candidates and expressed approval that caste was slowly withering away. It would therefore have distressed him to see caste being cemented in subsequent decades by various processes and forces, including those that espoused the social justice agenda.
Politically, Anna stood for federalism and democratic socialism. In this regard, the inability of all-India parties to form governments without support from regional parties, and economic liberalisation and its attendant foreign direct investment and privatisation have indeed brought in a semblance of decentralisation on the ground. In systemic terms, however, the Centre remains omnipotent, and provisions for resource and fiscal allocations, among other issues, remain unsatisfactory for the States. More importantly, the gulf between the two Indias at the human level — one the beneficiary of a liberalised economy, the other not so fortunate — keeps widening. Anna would have advocated liberalisation with a human face.
His exhortation to his thambis therefore rings more true now than ever before: ‘Go to the people/Live among them/Learn from them/Love them/Serve them/Plan with them/Stand with what they know/Build on what they have.’
But these words appear antiquated in today’s context where power, paraphernalia, and pelf are the new measure of success, over service and sacrifice. Anna would also be sorry that sycophancy, cronyism, and superstition have rendered ‘self-respect,’ the proud precept of the Dravidian movement, mostly a thing of the past. Furthermore, public life no more attracts the bright, the honest, and the competent. The discerning middle classes are generally apathetic to public career and electoral participation. The sincere party worker, the cerebral outsider, and anyone with a genuine interest to serve should be welcomed by the party leaderships, but they are not. In contrast, Anna identified and fostered party work, talent, and class. In remembering the man whose only fault was accumulating the love of the masses, his thambis and thangais (younger sisters) will hopefully wish to emulate him in every respect.
(The writer is a civil administration official with the U.N. Mission in Kosovo. He is currently working on a biography on Anna.)
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