A man of the people: MG Ramachandran. (Gettyimages)
A reissue of MSS Pandian's essay on MGR, three-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu, provides an insight into the power of the image. An excerpt:
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 Image Trap; MG Ramachandran in Film and Politics by MSS Pandian; Sage (Rs 645; PP162)
MGR's eventful political career was marked all along by such great devotion from his followers. On 12 January 1967, he was shot at and injured by one of his co-actors of much fame - a Dravidar Kazhagam activist - MR Radha. 'Within hours of the shooting, some 50,000 people had gathered at the hospital where MGR was taken. People were crying in the streets; shops closed...' Likewise, the reaction of his followers was swift when he was suspended from the primary membership of the DMK, on the fateful 10 October 1972, for... airing charges of corruption against his own party colleagues in public. Soon after the news reached the public, shops were closed throughout Tamil Nadu, cinema shows cancelled, DMK flag posts cut down, huge and strident protest rallies organized... Rioting... continued for no less than three weeks, despite severe police repression unleashed by the DMK government, then headed by Muthuvel Karunanidhi...
The reaction of his followers was more acute... 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. More than a hundred people attempted self-immolation...
What is significant about all this is that the majority of MGR's followers were drawn from the subaltern classes… Paradoxically, this political devotion of the subaltern classes to MGR was not because he had pursued radical economic policies during his 11-year rule. His rule saw no major structural change in the economy nor lessened the sufferings of the poor. 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.
During 1975-85, the revenue drawn from sales tax, which fell by and large on the consumer products used by the middle classes... accounted for about 60 percent of the total tax revenue of the state. The poor... were not, on the whole, affected by the sales tax as their consumption was confined to food and other bare necessitate. However, the poor contributed to the state exchequer quite heavily in terms of excise revenue... 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... 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 Rs 110 crores in 1981-82 to Rs 201 crores in 1984-85.…
If MGR's rule thrived on taxing the poor, it benefited the... landed rural rich… 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… 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.
In short, MGR's regime was one which enjoyed massive support from the poor, but served the interests of the rich.