George Bernard Shaw would go on record saying, “An election is a moral horror, as bad as a battle except for the blood; a mud bath for every soul concerned in it”; and the 1967 election in the state of Madras falls into that category. Not only for changing history and the ways we live but also for all the dramatic incidents that were linked with it, making it a very noteworthy poll.
If an election here should be remembered for the historical value it’s 1967. It was the fourth assembly elections held in Madras state and in a way the last as well. For it became Tamil Nadu state thereafter. Elections change lives, careers and sometimes history as well. 1967 changed all three. The defeated were shocked about losing as much as the winners were stunned about triumphing.
But it was a decisive vote especially in a time when longtime foes joined hands. DMK’s mentor Periyar was campaigning for their rivals and even calling Anna and his friends names. Their star campaigner MGR had been shot in the neck. And it seemed rather effortless for the ruling Congress with a huge cadre base, star campaigners and deep pockets to prevail.
Anna refrained from the contest. In the previous election, Congress had drawn up a carpet-bombing strategy, putting up endless resources against the visible leadership of DMK and adding to it intense campaigning by union ministers and nominating powerful candidates. Even Anna had lost in his home town. Not wanting an embarrassing defeat this time Anna opted to campaign only. In some constituencies, DMK could not find candidates to fight the elections against Congress heavyweights.
Kamaraj, the towering warlock of the Congress, was returning to home turf in politics after great roles on the national scene. Kamaraj had presided over the 68th session of the INC at Bhubaneshwar. Soon thereafter, Nehru died and he played a pivotal role in getting the prime minister seats for both Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi. That an uneducated non-Hindi politician could be respected so much in the corridors of parliament was unthinkable. Kamaraj was at the crescendo of his career and fate was smiling for a fall was waiting around the corner.
While some said he was spending too much time campaigning in other constituencies rather than his own, he reassured them: “I can lie down and yet win.” A student leader Srinivasan, aged only 25 but who had participated in the anti-Hindi agitations, was the only person DMK could find to oppose the veteran who was choosing prime ministers for the country.
While Congress was suffering from a problem of plenty, DMK had to do with limited resources. But a shrewd strategy of getting together enemies of the Congress under one umbrella worked. Ironically, heading the list was Rajaji whose Hindi introduction and caste-based job schemes gave the initial impetus for the Dravidian movement to grow. Rajaji was now on his own with the Swatantra Party. Anna persuaded him to join hands. The Communists in India had split after the Indo-Chinese war and each faction joined either side.
Meanwhile, not to be outdone, the Congress roped in Periyar for whom the DMK had left the president seat vacant for long. Periyar had been the mentor for most of the DMK men, had forged their Dravidian principles, but now embarrassingly he got onto the Congress stages and campaigned against the DMK.
Other than personality clashes, there were two main issues to the fore. Hindi agitations had taken many lives in police firing. And there was hunger everywhere when Bakthavatsalam — an uncharismatic chief minister struggled to fill Kamaraj’s shoes and mismanaged a famine. In a trendy pledge, DMK ran the election with the slogan “three measures of rice for Re 1” (post-election they gave a third of it.) MGR, who the DMK thought of as a star campaigner to draw crowds, was shot in the neck and incapacitated by a fellow actor in a personal squabble. The crestfallen DMK was surprised to find the poster of an injured MGR getting them more votes in sympathy than the actual person himself. Both Congress and DMK used film stars for electioneering. Movie mogul SS Vasan produced a film in his Gemini studio as a campaign tool for Congress using Shivaji Ganesan.
The election was split into three days of polling. The results came as a shocker. The entire cabinet except one lost. The kingmaker Kamaraj had been humbled by 1,000 votes. DMK had harvested a bonanza of 179 seats. Something they did not expect.
While Kamaraj’s career and the future of Congress in Tamil Nadu were on a decline after this election, Anna would resign his Rajya Sabha seat and take up the CM post for a short-lived stint till cancer got him.
Thirty years back when the Justice Party, the distant precursor of the DMK had been decimated by Rajaji’s Congress, some Congressmen boasted that “Dravidianism had been buried”. The winning chief minister Anna, known for his long memory and witty quips, would comment: “What you buried that day was not a corpse, but a seed”.
— The writer is a historian and author