It was some time in 1967 in the state Assembly, and chief minister C N Annadurai (popularly called Anna) was not in the best of health, when ‘rival’ Opposition MLA Vinayagam said in the House, “Your days are numbered,” creating an instant furore. As his young lieutenants rose to launch their counter offensive, the seasoned politician in Anna who kept a tight leash on his subordinates prevailed over. “Yes. But, my steps are measured,” an articulate Anna remarked, silencing not only the Opposition but also his ‘brothers’ with the Shakespearean reference.
None stormed the well of the House demanding the Chair to expunge the remark then. That’s history. Pan out and return to the contemporary Tamil Nadu. Annadurai may frown if he were to lend ears to some of the debates happening now in the same Assembly, where personal attacks have pushed public welfare to the backseat. Yes. Objecting to referring incumbent and former chief ministers by their respective names and likening the Opposition leader to a comic character have only dominated the debates in the first session of the 15th Legislative Assembly. Not a good start by old standards. It was in the same House once the treasury benches and Opposition appreciated each other’s word wizardry, at times even laughing over personal attacks. So likeable were their debates that some old timers recall it even now, with pride, like 83-year-old former minister S Madhavan.
“I took over as law and cooperation minister in Anna’s cabinet. Rajaji congratulated me on assuming office. Writing a newspaper column, Rajaji said, a young, educated and enthusiastic person has taken over as law minister. Later, when I tabled the Land Ceiling Act, the same Rajaji called me ignorant (of law). The following day, when I produced a copy of Rajaji’s newspaper article in the House, it left the members in splits. That was how we had debated,” recalled Madhavan who was 34 when he was sworn in law minister in 1967.
The DMK veteran who was close to MGR and Jayalalithaa during his stint in AIADMK recollects one instance when the DMK founder advised him not to arrest a Congress MLA. “A scam was probed in my department (Cooperative) then. The name of a Congress MLA from Dharmapuri was doing rounds in connection with the scam. Anna was leaving for New Delhi. We saw him off at the airport. Shortly after, I received a call from Anna. He asked me if I was arresting the MLA. I was unaware of the arrest. Anna told me to look into the case, but not arrest,” Madhavan told DTNext, adding, how their political mentor said, “If an allegation levelled by the Opposition is true, reform, or else ignore it. Do not utter anything that will hurt the Opposition.”
Contemporary law makers would certainly be left awestruck if only they read how their political mentors had worked. Anna had made his ministers visit and consult Opposition leaders before tabling a Bill in the House. “I don’t know since when it became objectionable to address anyone by his/her name in the Assembly?” Madhavan wondered, attributing the current animosity to hate politics.
Notably, it was not just the ruling-opposition camaraderie, the statures of the Speakers were also too enviable. Even Rajaji was once shown his place by firebrand Speaker Sivashanmugham Pillai a few decades ago. “Former IAS officer Lakshmikanthan Bharati once told me how Sivashanmugham Pillai asked chief minister Rajaji to “sit down” when he attempted to overrule a point of order sought by an Opposition MLA,” said senior CPI leader and a MLA during MGR, Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi’s tenures, K Subbarayan. “Pillai curtly told Rajaji that it was his prerogative, before advising the CM to occupy his chair. The following day, Rajaji advised his members to be wary of what they speak in the House,” Subbarayan quoted Bharati as saying. Significantly, a few quote-worthy references could be drawn from recent history too. “I was an MLA during 1996-2001 period. PTR Palanivel Rajan was the Speaker. He used to recline in the chair. He would intervene and cut even minister’s (speech) short because the Speaker is the boss in the House. Will the incumbent Speaker Dhanapal ask the CM to sit down, as did his predecessors of the distant past?” he wondered, also harking back to the glorious 50s and 60s when Opposition members were so respected that even later, C Subramaniam had translated Left party MLA P Ramamurthy’s Assembly speech and included it in his biography. His comment may not be an overstatement considering that big names like V R Krishna Iyer, Nagi Reddy (CPI MLA turned Naxal) and Krishna Rao (Speaker) had decorated the Assembly of erstwhile Madras Providence, indicating that the deterioration had happened only in recent decades.
“The decline (in quality of debates) started immediately after MGR’s death during 1984-88 period. MLAs of the split AIADMK units stood on the tables and hurled microphones at each other in the House. I watched it from the last row. In the subsequent 1991-96 tenure, the culture of singing paeans for personal favours started. It continues till date,” Subbarayan says. That said; a trip down the memory lane would be incomplete without a mention of the infamous exchanges between incumbent CM and DMK ministers in the 1989-91 DMK regime when the latter party members had reportedly engaged in acts unworthy of a mention. Probably, the decline has more to do with the modern day law makers compounding their duties, at least that is what the senior comrade suggests.
“The role of the ruling party is to execute schemes and Opposition should point out the mistakes. Ruling party should remember that Opposition MLAs don’t come to praise them. Opposition should also keep people in mind more than its leaders. Otherwise, people will send members of one party from all 234 seats. Today’s politicians should keep that mind,” Subbarajan reasoned, adding that the worst part of the issue was the all pervading sycophancy indulged in by the treasury benches.
Recall Speaker P Dhanabal’s utterance in the previous Assembly, “You may speak further if you are appreciating CM’s speech or else stand down,” and it certainly does not present a good commentary of current Assembly debates.