How a Tamil failed to become PM

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How a Tamil failed to become PM

Sunday, 28 April 2019 | Kumar Chellappan

How a Tamil failed to become PM

Had the DMK leader Muthuvel Karunanidhi been more broadminded, GK Moopanar, the founder of the Tamil Maanila Congress, would have been the Prime Minister of India in 1996, with the latter being the clear choice of all major Opposition parties, writes Kumar Chellappan.

The Tamils are known for their passion towards everything that is Dravidian, a term inculcated in them by the British, the colonial masters of modern India. Much has been written about Dravidian nationalism and politics by historians, especially Indologists. The concept of Tamil as a different and distinct entity was brought into the subcontinent by Robert Caldwell, an Irish evangelist who came to India in 1838 as a missionary. Caldwell was intelligent enough to understand that he could proselytise the Hindus only through Tamil, the native language. He learnt the local language and propagated the message that Tamil was not a part of the Indian system of languages that included Hindi and Sanskrit.

A missionary proposing a thesis, which was given instant approval by the then British Government, facilitated in convincing the gullible population that they were Dravidians, who were driven away from the fertile Gangetic plain by the Aryan invaders from the West. Though it was proved by genetic scientists, molecular biologists, and literary figures through scientific research that the Aryan-Dravidian division was bunkum and there was no scientific basis for the Aryan invasion theory, the Dravidian fanatics refused to see the writing on the wall and still go by their belief that they are Dravidians and do not have anything to do with the great Indian culture. They described the scientific investigation carried out by the international team of researchers drawn out from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, and the Estonian Biocentre in Tartu, Estonia, as a handiwork of the Sangh Parivar! This intransigent attitude among the Dravidian politicians has cost the Tamils big.

The selfishness of a Dravidian politician from the State cost Tamil Nadu a Prime Minister. Had the DMK leader Muthuvel Karunanidhi been more broadminded, GK Moopanar — the founder of the Tamil Maanila Congress (a breakaway faction of the Congress) — would have been the Prime Minister of India in 1996. Moopanar, a landlord from Thanjavur, was a close confidante of late K Kamaraj, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu as well as the president of the Indian National Congress. Like his mentor, Moopanar preferred to be a kingmaker than a king.

The 1996 General Elections ended in a split verdict with no political formation getting absolute majority. The Tamil Maanila Congress-DMK-CPI alliance had swept the 39 seats in the State, obliterating the AIADMK. Interestingly, the Tamil Maanila Congress was formed by Moopanar by revolting against the then Congress president PV Narasimha Rao over the latter’s decision to forge an alliance with the AIADMK for the 1996 elections. Voters in Tamil Nadu were upset over the influence wielded by the ‘Mannargudi mafia’ led by VK Sasikala, Jayalalithaa’s aide, at Veda Nilayam in Chennai. The Sasikala family, which included her nephew TTV Dhinakaran, had become a law unto themselves and the level of corruption reached sky high.

Despite Moopanar’s word of caution, Narasimha Rao chose to go with Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK in the General Elections and thus the rebellion in the Congress. The people of Tamil Nadu had been disenchanted as well as fed up with Karunanidhi because of the massive corrupt practices under his regime, and hence

voted for MG Ramachandran in 1977. When MGR died in 1987, Karunanidhi was elected  because there was no other option before the electorate. But the DMK Government led by Karunanidhi was dismissed by the Centre in 1991 because of the free run enjoyed by the LTTE in the State.

When Moopanar formed the Tamil Maanila Congress, Karunanidhi did not waste a second and forged an alliance with the new political outfit. People in Tamil Nadu had respect for Moopanar despite his image as a benevolent landlord and a man who enjoyed all good things in life. It was Moopanar’s public image and the push given by film actor Rajinikanth that led to the obliteration of the AIADMK in the 1996 Assembly Elections. The AIADMK could win just four seats, with Jayalalithaa getting defeated from the Bargur constituency.

Sources close to Moopanar said Cho Ramaswamy, Tamil Nadu’s greatest political commentator and thinker, had suggested the former not to align with Karunanidhi and asked him to contest independently in the next elections. But Moopanar, who was bowled over by Karunanidhi, joined the DMK camp. While the DMK romped home with 173 seats, the Tamil Maanila Congress won nine of the 41 it had contested. In the Lok Sabha Elections, that were held simultaneously, the DMK-led front won all 39 seats from the State. The Tamil Maanila Congress walked away with the 20 seats it had contested, while the DMK won all 17 from where it had fielded the party candidates.

“Moopanar was the real hero of that election,” reminiscences S Rameshan,  the then Chennai bureau chief of the United News of India. With no party getting absolute majority at the Centre, efforts were on to find a suitable candidate for the Prime Minister’s post. The first name that cropped up was that of Jyoti Basu, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal. Though Basu’s name was accepted by all major political outfits in the Opposition as well as the Congress, his own partymen, particularly Prakash Karat, got the proposal spiked. Basu said later that the decision of the CPI(M) not to accept the proposal was a “Himalayan blunder”. Later events proved that the veteran Marxist was on the dot. Harkishan Singh Surjeet — the then CPI(M) boss, who was behind the ‘Basu for Prime Minister’ campaign — was disappointed and suggested Moopanar’s name for the top job.

“Moopanar’s name was acceptable to all major parties in the Opposition, except to Karunanidhi. Even 10, Janpath Road, had expressed happiness over his name because of his close ties with the Nehru-Gandhi clan. But Karunanidhi remained

non-committal as well as incommunicado throughout the time when Moopanar’s name was under consideration,” said N Kalyanasundaram, chronicler of Tamil Nadu politics.

Rameshan said there was anticipation in Tamil Nadu’s political circles about the possibility of Moopanar becoming the first Tamil to get the top chair in the country. “We do not know what happened in Delhi, the centre of all political drama. When I spoke to him over the phone, Moopanar assured me that he would call me first to tell me the news. But the phone call did not materialise. When I asked him later about it, he just smiled and changed the topic,” said Rameshan.

A close aide of Moopanar, who was a prominent Congress leader, also substantiated what Kalyanasundaram said. The latter was seen in Tamil Nadu as the conscience keeper of Moopanar. Another Congress heavyweight, who is contesting this election as a party candidate, also said it was Karunanidhi’s indifference that cost Moopanar the top job. The Congress leader told The Pioneer that while Moopanar’s name was being discussed, Karunanidhi was lobbying with Chandrababu Naidu for pushing HD Deve Gowda (who did not figure in the discussion) as the Prime Minister. “Even P Chidambaram changed tact and started lobbying for Gowda’s name,” he said.

Moopanar’s name was proposed again after the fall of Deve Gowda. At that time also, Karunanidhi played a strange game of indifference and this resulted in Moopanar losing it to make it to the then 7, Race Course Road residence of the Indian Prime Minister.

Interestingly, IK Gujral, who succeeded Gowda as the Prime Minister on April 21, 1997, wrote in his autobiography, Matters of Discretion, about a meeting he had with Chidambaram on April 17. “I asked him (Chidambaram) if Moopanar was an aspirant for the Prime Minister’s office. Here I suspect that Chidambaram was not so candid. He told me that he had talked to Moopanar, but being a cautious person, he did not really make any clear statement.”

Gujral also wrote that in spite of losing the vote of confidence in Parliament on April 11, 1997, Gowda tried in vain to regain the prime ministership by ensuring discord among “high-profile individuals such as Ram Vilas Paswan, SR Bommai, and Sharad Yadav”. He also wrote about how Karunanidhi, with the help of his nephew Murasoli Maran, the then Industries Minister, persuaded Lalu Prasad Yadav to back him (Gujral) for the office of the PM. “This proves that Karunanidhi had played spoilsport on both the occasions (prior to the election of Gowda as well as after his fall) to derail Moopanar’s dreams,” said the senior Congress leader.

Moopanar’s friendship with Karunanidhi did not last long afterwards. “He was disappointed but did not show it in the open. Though the DMK-Tamil Maanila Congress alliance continued in the 1998 election, the fire in Moopanar was missing. Since then, he kept away from Karunanidhi and the DMK,” said Moopanar’s aide.

Gujral said the relationship between Chidambaram and Moopanar was no longer close or intimate. “The growing rift between the two leaders had been brought to my notice the previous day by Jayanthi Natarajan, a former Congresswoman, who too had joined the TMC,” wrote Gujral.

Gujral listed a lot of details in his memoir, which substantiate the charges made by MGR and Jayalalithaa that the grand old man of Tamil Nadu was cunningly corrupt. “We had appointed M Kalaivananm, an IAS officer, as the Chairman of the Chennai Port Trust purely on the basis of merit. On November 7, Karunanidhi sent his Law Minister Aladi Aruna to meet me, ostensibly to ensure the enforcement of the Supreme Court award regarding the Kaveri river water dispute (basically between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka). But the real motive was to seek a change in appointment of the Chennai Port Trust Chairman. I explained to Aruna that it would be highly embarrassing for the Government to revise such an order within a matter of days... Karunanidhi, to my surprise, then approached Chandrababu Naidu to persuade me to change my decision,” Gujral wrote in his book.

The same day saw Karunanidhi issuing a press statement threatening that the DMK would withdraw its ministers from the United Front Government. “The reasons given pertained to the Central Government’s handling of the Kaveri river dispute and a vague charge that the Centre is unhelpful. Jayanthi Natarajan (Minister of State for Civil Aviation) felt that the Chennai Port Trust had a lot of patronage, both financial and political, and Karunanidhi wanted to keep it under his control,” Gujral further stated.

Tamil Nadu is agog with news of the shipping and logistics companies owned by one of the many wives of Karunanidhi. There was nothing surprising in his fight with the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2004 for the Ministry of Shipping and Surface Transport, which was initially allocated to K Chandrasekhar Rao. Maybe because Rao had no ships of his own, the Telangana strongman was willing to settle for the Labour Ministry and did not utter a single word against the move to shift the Shipping Ministry to TR Baalu, a Karunanidhi supporter.

The DMK wants the Centre to bestow the nation’s top civilian award, Bharat Ratna, to Karunanidhi. The powers that be may just glance across Matters of Discretion before taking a decision. What happened later was interesting. Moopanar joined hands with Jayalalithaa for the 2001 Assembly Elections while Chidambaram floated the Congress Jananayaga Peravai and fought as part of the NDA! The AIADMK-Tamil Maanila Congress alliance swept the election. Moopanar, too, had his own problems. His name was dragged into the Indian Bank scam in which one of his confidantes played a major role. The man is reported to have swindled the bank to thousands of crores of rupees because he was holding the portfolio of finance,

which upset the patron of arts from Thanjavur. Moopanar, whose health deteriorated since he was cold-shouldered by Karunanidhi in 1996, did not live for long. He breathed his last on August 31, 2001, at the age of 70, as the unsung hero of Tamil Nadu politics.

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