Era Sezhiyan, 94, is one of Tamil Nadu's oldest politicians from the Dravidian era. He became a Lok Sabha member before the age of 40 and has keenly observed the political scene in the state for close to seven decades. A powerful writer, Mr Sezhiyan tries to recapture the history of the Dravidian movement and how it has served or failed Tamil Nadu.
How would you analyse the rise of Jayalalithaa in a Dravidian state despite her being a Kannadiga and a Brahmin?
I have an instinctive feeling that all the major states of south India are together called Dravidam. The language has similarity and so do the people. To strengthen this thought, our national anthem has a line “Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Maratha, Dravida, Utkala Vanga”. There is no special mention of the four states individually but they are collectively mentioned as “Dravida”. So it is not a wonder for me to see a Kannadiga or a Malayali ruling Tamil Nadu.
Does the popularity of Jayalalithaa show that the people of Tamil Nadu do not care for labels such as “outsider” and “Brahmin”? MGR, too, won against Karunanidhi’s campaign that, being a Malayali, he was an outsider?
Tamil Nadu people were forward-thinking. There was less of caste or feeling of outsider in the old days when all they wanted was good leaders in power. Tamil Nadu was for federalism but also for a lot of autonomy. Being federal does not imply liaison with caste and creed politics. Moreover, there are so many castes within a caste and I would urge our future generations to get rid of these labels. Our leaders surpassed that stage long ago. To quote, I would remind the union of Aringar Anna with Rajagopalachari and Quaid-e-Millath in 1967. Caste is just a vague notion and the cheap stunts of lower-level political persons has brought us now to where we are on caste and community.
In your 90 years, you have observed several political leaders from close quarters. The Dravidian movement ousted the mighty Congress in 1967. What led to that Congress debacle?
Don’t make me young. I’m 94 years old. The Congress had a good reputation among the people. The names of Gandhi and Nehru made them so strong it could win in most of the states. In Tamil Nadu, Kamaraj rendered remarkable service and brought smiles to the lives of the needy and poor, adding more value to the Congress. In Tamil Nadu, Anna became a symbol of revolution and gained the status of a leader. The crowd was attracted to this party when MGR and Karunanidhi joined hands. The charisma of MGR and the speeches of Karunanidhi were vital in creating such an impact among the people as to muscle out the mighty Kamaraj.
In early signs of freebie politics, it was clear Annadurai and his DMK caught the imagination of the middle class and the poor with the promise of cheap rice and equal opportunities for the marginalised and so on. What were the promises that gave the Tamil Nadu voter the confidence to elect Annadurai?
Mainly it was cheap rice. Second, it was eradication of corruption. Apart from those, movies created a huge image for the party.
Would it have been better for the people and the politics of Tamil Nadu if Anna had lived longer?
Surely it would’ve been better to have leaders like Anna and Nehru even now. MGR somehow added a pearl to Anna’s crown, but in case of Nehru, his heirs ruined the name of their forefathers.
When you recall Karuna-nidhi succeeding Anna, what strikes you the most? Karu-nanidhi’s competence and drive, or do you think he was just too smart and outplayed seniors like Sampath and Nedunchezhiyan?
Karunanidhi was smart. He changed the posting hierarchy and gave Annadurai’s post to Nedunchezhiyan. But Karunanidhi called himself president and represented the party as CM candidate. This irked both MGR and Nedunchezhiyan. Unlike Nedunchezhiyan, MGR was not silent. He asked for details of party funds and accounts justifying his position as treasurer of the party. He was suspended and the party issue soon became a public issue. MGR had the people’s support and hence began a new party Anna DMK and renamed it as All-India ADMK.
Why do you think MGR backed Karunanidhi to succeed Annadurai?
Annadurai was a renowned leader. It is well known that MGR started his political career with his party. He had similar principles like Anna and Periyar. He named his party as Anna DMK thus recognising Anna as his leader. He did not compete much with Karuna-nidhi for the leading post in DMK. He started his own party.
MGR and Karunanidhi were buddies, friends to start with. What led to their estrangement?
It was mainly due to the suspension of MGR from the party, as mentioned.
How did followers gravitate towards MGR? Was there any ideology behind their decision or was it just their love for their matinee idol?
Mainly because of his charisma people flocked to him.
How much of Dravidianism and Annaism did MGR follow? Why did the people so strongly and blindly back MGR against Karunanidhi despite the latter swearing every now and then that he was the greatest practitioner of Periyar’s Dravidianism and Annaism?
There is no Dravidianism or Annaism. In case of MGR, it is mostly because of the person and not the party. I need not mention well-known politicians struggling to get recognition from the masses due to their failure in being able to instil faith among the public and even among their party members.
How sincere are Dravidian politicians in following and practising Periyar’s ideals of social equality, women’s empowerment and overall development?
I should rate them low as women were ill-treated within the Assembly itself. Overall development was best only during the MGR reign. Most of the members were lacking in education and thus the execution of sensitive reforms was a complicated process. I strongly believe that a degree taken at the convocation is not education in itself, but the actual knowledge gained from studies. When true learning blooms, there will be progress towards peace and prosperity, which is the need of the hour.
Are you disappointed at the dilution of Dravidian ideals of social equality, women’s empowerment, etc, for the sake of family considerations, sycophancy and high corruption?
When selfishness takes over, politicians and leaders do not perform. Too many other considerations like personal welfare of their ministers and close party followers come into the picture. If you look at the history of Indian politics, you will see a progressive decline in standards everywhere. Maybe, we were luckier than other states as we had leaders who also did things for people. We are far from achieving Dravidian ideals, but to achieve them we must first educate our people. Only then will we see real progress. People also tend to get the leaders they deserve.