If there is something everyone dreams of but that’s really elusive in politics, it could be the chief minister’s chair. VR Nedunchezhiyan was thrice the acting chief minister and the number two in the cabinets of four chief ministers but the principal post always dodged him.
Born as Narayanaswamy almost around the time Justice Party was peaking, he renamed himself as Nedunchezhiyan, a name used by Pandya kings. Atheist parties did not offer much future to those with religious names (those like MG Ramachandran overcame that by personal charisma). But credit to him, till his last breath, Nedunchezhiyan was a staunch atheist. In fact, he studied Hindu epics fervently and in-depth to find moral and societal errors in them. He was known as Navalar (‘the eloquent’) for he was the Dravidian movement’s star orator. Ironically, as a child, he was late to speak and was subjected to many rural medicines. Then till university days, he used to stutter and overcame that. Even much later, he could not pronounce certain Tamil syllables.
He started taking interest in anti-Hindi agitations during his student days at the politically active Annamalai University. Nedunchezhiyan would see his mentor Anna first during an anti-Hindi meeting on Madras Marina. He was mesmerised by Anna’s simple oration. He would invite Anna to speak amidst his varsity students. Over three days, Anna, staying with Nedunchezhiyan in his hostel room, stunned the audience with extempore speeches in both English and Tamil. This led to a lifelong friendship.
While in his teens he was brought into the Dravidar Kazhagam where he even imitated Periyar in growing a beard and wearing similar dresses. This was noticed by the cadre who called him ilanthaadi (young beard). But when Periyar married a very junior associate many walked out of the association in protest. It is said even Periyar believed Nedunchezhiyan would not go with them and was sorely disappointed.
And then started his rapid ascent in politics.
Nedunchezhiyan was made deputy general secretary of the foundling DMK. He had not touched thirty yet. Within DMK, his was the meteoric rise to the number two position but there he stayed. In 1956, at the Tiruchy conference, the hope of grabbing legislative power was within reach and within a decade, he was called to head the party.
In his eloquent words, Anna welcomed him: “Thambi vaa, thalaimai thaanga vaa” (Come brother, take the lead). Providence that he didn’t believe in seemed to have paved a path for him. To others, it seemed his master’s degree education was much in respect, for Anna used to call him the walking university.
In hindsight, it is clear that Anna, who had been elected to parliament, wanted Nedunchezhiyan to hold the seat warm till his term was over. In 1962, fate smiled again.
Nedunchezhian entered the legislative assembly and became the leader of the opposition because Anna had lost the elections.
But the speed with which Nedunchezhiyan rose in the party hierarchy was also his undoing. He did not have time to build a base for himself. He had no cadre nor supporters. He wrongly assumed the leadership would come to him by virtue of being next in line. But it was not to be so.
From deputy general secretary he rose to be general secretary thereafter and then rose to be the chairman of the party’s general council when the DMK captured power in 1967.
In 1969, Nedunchezhiyan functioned as the acting chief minister for six days after Anna succumbed to cancer. Navalar expected to succeed Anna as he was the number two in the cabinet and party but he was no match to Karunanidhi whose organisational skills were exemplary. And more importantly, Karunanidhi had the support of the biggest vote catcher and by virtue of it the kingmaker MGR. MGR would organise a lunch for legislators in his house and sway them to support his choice. Nedunchezhiyan quit the race to make his rival Kalaignar’s choice unanimous.
MGR’s support for Karunanidhi deprived Nedunchezhiyan of the CM mantle. But he had his sweet revenge. When the superstar rebelled, it was he who drafted a show-cause letter to MGR and his suspension from even the primary membership of the party. In a Marina beach meeting, with more than 1,00,000 in the audience, he announced the expulsion of MGR from the DMK.
However, just three years hence, sensing the shift in the political winds, he had to join MGR and he once again became number two in the cabinet. While MGR was in New York undergoing treatment, Nedunchezhiyan was the acting Chief Minister for three months. He would do it once again when MGR died. But the CM chair in permanence eluded him.
That he came so close to the pinnacle of power without any supportive clique is surprising.
That how critical and important the support of a loyal cadre base in an organisation is must have dawned on him when once a rival quipped, “not even his shadow stands behind Navalar”.
— The author is a historian