On Tuesday last, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking at a political rally on the outskirts of Chennai, announced the government's decision to name the iconic Chennai Central Railway Station after MGR (MG Ramachandran, the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu.)

Without a doubt, it was a political decision aimed at appealing to a vote bank built on the name of MGR.

But is the MGR vote bank still alive, a good 32 years after his death?

"Yes," political commentator M Bharat Kumar says emphatically. "The emotions that MGR's name still evokes among a large swathe of Tamil Nadu voters is remarkable. Many of the young voters were born after MGR's demise in 1987, but make no mistake his name carries a mystique to this day in this state."

Despite enormous upheavals in the state and the problems arising out of MGR's contentious political legacy (chiefly J Jayalalithaa), his charisma seems to be undiminished, and you can still go to smaller cities and villages in Tamil Nadu and see people talking about MGR in glowing terms.

Makkal Thilagam (People's King), the sobriquet given to him during his active film days, still seems to stick firmly.

Kumar adds: "To be sure, Jayalalithaa had popular appeal, but her political victories were all built on the firm foundation left by MGR. Were it not for the fact that she was seen as a legatee of MGR, people would not have reposed enormous faith in her. What she got were surrogate MGR votes."

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Says veteran journalist Durai Karuna, who has covered the political beat since the 70s, and who has written a few books on MGR, "To understand the phenomenon of MGR one must have lived in Tamil Nadu much through from the 1960s till he died. 

"The MGR phenomenon has no parallel in the annals of Indian political history. The love and adulation he enjoys, even after his death, is phenomenal, and every politician, including his rivals understand that."

Even M Karunanidhi, his bitterest enemy, someone who was kept out of power for 13 straight years by MGR, had to swallow his pride and publicly say long after MGR's death, "MGR is my longtime friend." 

Karuna adds, "Karunanidhi understood that he cannot do politics by attacking MGR. To this day, the DMK targets Jayalalithaa and others from the AIADMK. But carefully avoids taking potshots at MGR." 

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Long-time chroniclers of Tamil Nadu politics assert that it was MGR's connection with the public that was hugely instrumental in the DMK's rise to power in the state (MGR was in the DMK before he fell out with Karunanidhi and floated his own outfit AIADMK.)

More than anybody else, Annadurai, the former chief minister and DMK founder, a charismatic leader in his own right, understood the MGR phenomenon clearly.

Three incidents serve to underscore this point:  

— The year could have been 1964 or thereabouts. Annadurai, a leader who himself had caught the imagination of the general public in Tamil Nadu, was travelling with a couple of his party workers in a car, and some locals near Tindivanam stopped the vehicle seeing the DMK flag fluttering on it.

The unassuming villagers peeped into the car, and looking at the leaders, in their starchy whites seeming important and impressive, asked Annadurai, "Ayya, neenga MGR katchhiya?" (Sir, do you belong to the party of MGR?") "Ask him to visit our village," they requested.

Anna, who was the mentor to MGR, couldn't hide his laughter, and turned to his party workers and said, "See, this is the pull and power of his (MGR's) popularity."   

— The year was 1966. The occasion was a huge DMK conference at Virugambakkam, Chennai. MGR on stage announced Rs 3 lakh as his contribution to the party (This was a whopping amount in those days.). Anna who took the mike after MGR, said that MGR can keep the Rs 3 lakh to himself. But more important to the party was the 30-lakh-plus votes that would come to the party because of MGR.

— The year 1967. The DMK, under the leadership of Anna, had just spectacularly romped to power in Tamil Nadu. A bunch of young party leaders went to meet Anna and garlanded him on the sensational victory. Anna told them that if at all somebody needed to be garlanded it had to be MGR, who was then admitted to the Royapettah Government Hospital after being shot by fellow actor MR Radha.

Anna's continuous backing of MGR was what made Karunanidhi bitter and the latter tried to plot MGR's dismissal from the party several times even when Anna was alive. But after Anna's death, Karunanidhi eventually expelled MGR from the DMK and the latter floated the AIADMK, a party that went on to do far better than its parent outfit. Then again, it is a rare thing in Indian politics.

MGR's popularity was undiminished all through his life. But it speaks volumes about his hold over the public sentiment that there was no real slip up in his appeal even after his passing away.  

Immediately after his death in 1987, MGR was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1988, a decision that was allegedly influenced by the then Rajiv Gandhi government with an eye on the 1989 elections.

Rajiv did not come back to power, but sure enough, his government's decision did work in Tamil Nadu: the Congress and AIADMK which were in an alliance at that time, swept 38 out of the 39 seats in the state.

"The decision to give Bharat Ratna to MGR was in principle wrong. But politically it paid the Congress (and AIADMK) good dividends," says K Kalaiarasi, a political analyst.

She says MGR as a politician and as a leader was always on top. But before awarding the Bharat Ratna his performance as chief minister had to be taken into account. "It is where he comes up short. He had great social vision. He was truly a man for the underdogs. His empathy for them was natural. But his good work, especially on the social sector and noon meal schemes, were undone by his favouritism, corruption and nepotism in other flanks."

But the public never really bothered about his chequered performance as chief minister. MGR was voted to power for three straight terms — a record unmatched in the history of Tamil Nadu. He won the last term from an hospital bed in the US. The overwhelming show of love and warmth for him by the general public in Tamil Nadu during the days when he was in hospital is something extraordinary.

"He knew how to control the messaging through a pliant media. He used his image from his screen days and perpetuated that myth," adds Kalaiarasi.

Karuna says, "The beauty is his image is intact even now. I go to various meetings that are held in his honour, and even today those meetings stand out for the presence of people who come as far as Malaysia and Singapore on their own. On his death and birth anniversaries, at markets and auto stands, the common public, on their own volition, put up his photo and pay tributes. It will not happen to any other leader. All other leaders' functions are propped by the parties they belonged to. His fame will live on."

The coming election will show whether this sentiment is true or not.