CHENNAI: It was the 1977 Assembly elections that set the electoral trend for the ensuing decades in Tamil Nadu – total domination by regional parties. It was also the beginning of a non-fruitful spell for DMK, with MG Ramachandran remaining the Chief Minister until his death. The popularity MGR earned through cinema and the anti-incumbency sentiments against DMK, which was in power for two terms, helped AIADMK secure 130 seats in 1977.
The election was also significant as it was held in the backdrop of the Emergency and DMK’s M Karunanidhi was one of the few leaders to oppose it tooth and nail. Karunanidhi accused MGR of supporting the Emergency during election rallies. The AIADMK had also welcomed the imprisonment of Opposition leaders during Emergency.
It was a four-cornered contest with DMK, AIADMK, Congress and Janata Party in the fray. This also led to fragmentation of votes, and in nearly 50 seats, the AIADMK’s victory margin was less than 3,000 votes. MGR’s main poll plank was anti-corruption. He and the Congress repeated the corruption accusations against the DMK regime, and with a press that was highly censored, DMK had no means to counter the allegations. MGR also played the sympathy card as he was abruptly dismissed from the DMK by Karunanidhi, despite the former’s contribution to the party’s electoral success.
For Congress, the demise of K Kamaraj in 1975 left the party with no popular leader and by then Indira Gandhi had captured complete power in Congress. Dravidian leader EV Ramasamy also died in 1973. Kamaraj’s followers had joined the Janata Party and contested on the plank of defeating Indira Congress. Karunanidhi banked on the courage with which he opposed the might of Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. In his second stint as Chief Minister, he had also set the ball rolling for dynasty politics in the party. He promoted his son MK Muthu as his heir -- an experiment that miserably failed.
When the election results were declared, the electorate did not reward Karunanidhi for his heroic opposition to the Emergency. With 24.89 per cent vote share, the party won only in 48 seats. Congress won 27 and Janata 10. This was also the first time the Congress was pushed to a distant third in the State and since then, no national party has even achieved runner-up status in Tamil Nadu. After being sworn in as the Chief Minister, one of the first acts of MGR was to repeal the Tamil Nadu Public Men (Criminal Misconduct) Act. This law was enacted by the previous DMK regime to counter MGR’s corruption allegations against Karunanidhi and it had provisions to prosecute even the Chief Minister. MGR, despite fighting the poll on anti-corruption plank, repealed the Act with the support of Congress and CPM.
MGR faced no trouble in repealing the legislation, but burnt his fingers while touching the issue of caste-based reservations. In July 1979, his government passed an order that made all those with annual family income above Rs 9,000 ineligible for the Backward Class quota. MGR reasoned that the move was to prevent “creamy layer” from availing the reservation benefits and ensure it reaches the poorer sections. The move backfired and was met with stiff opposition from the Opposition parties. AIADMK had its worst performance under MGR in the 1980 Parliamentary polls. The party won just two of the 39 seats. By then, Karunanidhi had made peace with Indira Gandhi and faced the polls in alliance with the Congress. The alliance swept the polls winning 37 seats.
MGR realised that a significant section of the electorate was upset with his move on reservations for BCs. Within weeks of the electoral defeat, he withdrew the income limit for BC reservations. He went a step further and increased BC reservation from 31 per cent to 50 per cent. The total reservations, along with the 18 per cent for SC/ST, reached 68 per cent.
Meanwhile, in September 1979, Janata Party’s Biju Patnaik took steps to merge DMK and AIADMK as part of an effort to keep the Congress at bay in Tamil Nadu. Karunanidhi was open to the idea and MGR also initially entertained the idea. Both the leaders famously met at the Chepauk Government Guest House in Chennai to discuss the merger. However, MGR made a sudden U-turn and again started his attack on DMK putting a full stop to any merger attempt. Reportedly, pressure from Indira Gandhi was also one of the reasons for the no-deal. In hindsight, perhaps a merger of DMK and AIADMK could have actually helped the Congress? Was it a self goal for the Grand Old Party?
Some of the key achievements of MGR’s first regime was establishment of Anna University in 1978 and introduction of the 10+2 (Higher Secondary) education system by replacing the earlier PUC system.
1977 poll results
AIADMK : 130 (vote share 30.37%)
DMK : 48 (24.89%)
INC : 27 (17.51%)
Janata : 10 (16.66%)