Cover Story

Jayalalithaa: The Mother of All Battles

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A smug Jayalalithaa parachuting into constituencies, Stalin in damage control mode, smaller parties turning up the heat. V Shoba watches the great election circus in Tamil Nadu

TENS OF THOUSANDS brave the afternoon sun, lockstepped and sweat-drenched under their green party-issue caps, roaring and waving at TV cameras as though they were plucked from their mundane lives for just this moment. Their hours-long wait is nearly over, with moments to go before Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa lands in Alichikudi near the town of Virudhachalam on a hastily-conjured helipad. The commentator scurries off with a final exultation for Amma, suspending his real-time account of her journey from Poes Garden to the venue of her second public meeting ahead of the Assembly elections—in Tamil Nadu’s Cuddalore district. Instead, a jaunty welcome song composed for the occasion pulsates from the speakers. An old woman sweeps the stage one last time, lingering a tad longer in the cool blast from the air conditioners. A party functionary wipes down with his handkerchief the chair and table from where Amma will read out a prepared speech about her government’s munificence. The 13 candidates from Cuddalore, Ariyalur and Perambalur districts that the AIADMK chief will shortly introduce spring to attention as she strides past with a nod and takes the stage. All is perfect. A little push from the universe and Amma could forever rule over Tamil Nadu. For a magical moment, one is inclined to forget that this is mere spectacle, orchestrated like a bad play without wit or humour. Where the protagonist is a benign mother, but her voice does not touch an emotional octave.

The story of the death of emotion in Tamil electioneering runs parallel to the political trajectory of Jayalalithaa, who turned the Dravidian tradition of powerful oratory on its head. She did not inherit her benefactor MGR’s easy charm or ability to turn a dithery voter. Words were not her weapon of choice. Her larger- than-life persona and a carefully cultivated aura of mystery made up for that. At any rate, a heapful of biryani and a few hundred rupees could just as easily pull a crowd. As for the votes of the unwashed masses—they could be rustled up like so many idlis in the hearths of Amma canteens, or won over with a shiny new mixer-grinder, if only by putting a strain on the exchequer. In the Burkean parlour of Tamil Nadu’s welfare discourse, where no party can hope to have the last word, Amma’s has been the one booming voice. “I have delivered not just what I have promised but much more,” she reminds the people in Virudhachalam. She goes on to stomp on the sole poll plank that her adversaries—the DMK and a third front constituted of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), the Left parties, Vijayakanth’s DMDK, Vaiko’s MDMK and the Tamil Maanila Congress—have been employing against her. She will abolish liquor, but in a phased and realistic manner, she says, stressing that her government, if re-elected, will set up de-addiction centres across the state. People seem to swoon at this, although the blistering heat that killed two at the rally may have played a role.

Around this time yesterday—10 April—workers hollered across scaffoldings that would hold up massive cutouts of Amma throughout the grounds. A tailor relentlessly sewed scalloped stage skirtings from yards of green satin in preparation for the mega event. R Munisamy, a cucumber seller, found himself richer by hundreds of rupees and hoped to make a killing serving 5,000 policemen on the day of the rally. “An event like this, it costs tens of crores. The DMK’s meetings pale in comparison,” said an AIADMK party functionary. “We have contractors for everything from food, water and decoration to transporting people from across the state.” As we chatted, a safari-suited man who claimed to be in charge of security eyed me suspiciously. “You are not welcome, not now,” he said, walking over from behind the stage where he was helping MC Sampath, Minister for Commercial Taxes and Registration Department, review security arrangements. “We may invite everyone to our housewarming, but would we ask them over to watch the construction process?” he asked. “This is the Chief Minister’s dignity we are talking about.”

The current popularity of subaltern prince Vijayakanth is an unknown. His vote share is said to have fallen and his incoherent speeches and ludicrous manifesto have become the butt of jokes

This is the same Chief Minister who suffered the indignity of being convicted in September 2014 in a disproportionate assets case. She managed to emerge unsullied after her exoneration by the Karnataka High Court in May 2015 and has since strengthened her position by launching new populist schemes. There are more of them in the offing, she confirmed at her Chennai and Virudhachalam meetings, unravelling her manifesto bit by bit. “It is unlikely that there has been any erosion in her vote bank. She is not trying anything new and is not unduly worried. She is simply going through the motions of campaigning,” says AR Venkatachalapathy, a writer and a social historian. In the 2011 Assembly elections, the AIADMK alliance, which then included the DMDK, swept to power, winning 203 of the total 234 seats, with the AIADMK alone securing a simple majority. Further emboldened by her party’s triumph in the 2014 General Election in which it won 37 out of the 39 Lok Sabha seats and a 44.3 per cent vote share, Jayalalithaa is virtually going it alone this time around, allowing small alliance partners like the Tamil Maanila Muslim League and the Tamil Nadu Kongu Ilaignar Peravai to contest a mere seven seats.

But perhaps even Amma fears a hung Assembly in case the vote swings in favour of the third front, says political commentator Gnani Sankaran. “How else do you explain the fact that she has insisted her alliance partners contest under the AIADMK symbol? This is just so that in the event of a hung Assembly, they cannot switch sides. Every seat may count if votes get split,” he says.

SHOULD A SECTION of people, especially Dalits and first- time voters, prefer the third alternative to the Dravidian parties, it may become a giant rock in their shoe. “By voting for the third front, you are voting against Amma and ensuring that the DMK does not win,” says Venkatachalapathy. The People’s Welfare Front—an alliance of parties that until recently was likened to a sack of potatoes—made up of the VCK, the MDMK and the Left parties, has not just held up well, it has also managed to rope in Vijayakanth—as chief ministerial candidate— and GK Vasan. Like MK Stalin, who is trying to redeem the DMK, it has toured the state over the past few months to touch base with voters. “Our leaders are accessible and down-to-earth. They speak well and don’t just take recourse to rhetoric; they highlight real issues,” says D Ravikumar, a senior member of VCK and a Dalit writer. The party is contesting 25 seats, 17 of which are reserved constituencies. This is the first Assembly election in which VCK has got real visibility. “We have always wanted a coalition government in Tamil Nadu that can address the concerns of all sections of society,” says Thol Thirumavalavan, the party leader who has matured into an astute and respectable politician. He is, arguably, the most credible face in the third front after Vijayakanth, a former actor who, since making his electoral debut from Virudhachalam in 2006, commands a following in rural pockets across Tamil Nadu. Thirumavalavan, whose outfit draws the Dalit vote in the northern districts, will contest from Kattumannarkoil in Cuddalore district, a reserved constituency that has been his stronghold, although the incumbent MLA is from the AIADMK.

The current popularity of subaltern prince Vijayakanth, meanwhile, is an unknown, considering speculation about his diminished vote share from a peak of 10 per cent, his often- incoherent speeches and his party’s ludicrous manifesto, which promises a Rs 45 cap on petrol prices and rooting out weeds from farmland, among other things. It doesn’t help that he is perceived to be an alcoholic preaching prohibition. “Who is not sick in Tamil Nadu?” asks R Elangovan, a 43-year-old grocery store owner in the town of Ulundurpet in Villupuram district from where Vijayakanth is set to contest. “If Jayalalithaa, Karunanidhi and Vijayakanth are all sick, then the sickness must be politics. At least Captain (Vijayakanth) does not swindle away money for his own interests.”

Like Elangovan, many AIADMK loyalists in Ulundurpet are rethinking their allegiance, hopeful that the third front, which has a clean image, will deliver better governance. An important junction for buses plying on the Chennai-Trichy highway, Ulundurpet now finds itself at a political crossroads, with the Dravidian parties, the DMDK and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) within headbutt range of one another. At a street corner news stall plastered with AIADMK posters, AK Veeramani, a 39-year-old newspaper agent who voted for Amma the last time, says he won’t repeat his “mistake”. “There are no job opportunities. Youth from villages in the constituency such as Kiliyur must either come to town to sell flowers or fruits or move to Bangalore permanently. A paper factory was promised but never set up,” Veeramani says.

A magnet for the powerful OBC vote, AIADMK can’t afford to seem overtly sympathetic to the Dalit cause at a time when rising tensions and violence between the communities mar the social fabric of Tamil Nadu

Though water is a precious resource in these parts, sugarcane is the major crop. The harvest is in progress and the roads are dotted with precariously over-laden mini-trucks. Today, however, they are outnumbered by mini-buses and SUVs festooned with party flags and pictures of Amma. The AIADMK is once again fielding incumbent MLA R Kumaraguru, who runs a college and a school in town. “He has shored up support by giving away clothes and gifts for Pongal and Deepavali, but there is some disappointment among voters. Ask anyone under 50 and they will tell you they want change. They may take the government’s money and freebies, but they will vote with their hearts,” says R Kandaraj, a 25-year-old advocate, his voice dissolving in the din of Kumaraguru’s first rally of the season. Near the bus stop, a crowd-for- hire, in white-and-green saris, waves the two-leaves symbol and loudspeakers blare laboured verses about Amma’s golden rule. The candidate, with the accomplished air of someone who has just jumped through several hoops to get here, waves and smiles and spins a good yarn about working for his constituency. It cannot be a dazzling prospect, not with Vijayakanth threatening to wrest this Dravidian fortress.

IN NEIGHBOURING KALLAKURICHI, a reserved constituency where over 50 per cent of voters are Dalits, many families that live in stifling poverty look up to Amma as their saviour. “If it wasn’t for her government, people like me would go hungry,” says T Anbarasan, a 36-year-old farm labourer who earns Rs 300 a day. Since losing his wife to oral cancer two years ago, he has relied on Amma’s schemes to bring up his two daughters, 14 and 16. “Amma has given them bicycles and laptops. When the time comes, she will pay for their marriage. Tell me why I should vote for anyone else,” he says, dressed in a mud-splattered veshti amidst the blinding whites of the partymen thronging the streets of Kallakurichi on 9 April. The high command has sounded the war cry and the candidate, A Prabhu, begins canvassing for votes today with a Ganapati puja in the long, tunnel-like campaign office. The patter of crackers outside sets the tone and the room bursts into cheers as if on cue. All eyes are on Prabhu, who, at 32, is perhaps the AIADMK’s youngest candidate. Just when I wonder if he could transcend the morass of propaganda—to borrow Martin Luther King Jr’s term—to take up issues facing Dalits, a partyman thrusts in my hands an envelope with Rs 1,000 inside. When I decline and get up to leave, a photographer with a leading Tamil magazine follows me outside. “Everyone needs something,” he offers with a knowing look. This is especially true in districts like Villupuram and Cuddalore, which are among the poorest in the state. They are also home to a sizeable Dalit population.

“For a long time, the AIADMK has believed that they can purchase the Dalit vote without attaching any real value to it. Dalits are a commodity to them, a section of society to whom they won’t even grant citizen status. People are slowly waking up to this realisation,” says VCK’s Ravikumar, who was elected from the Kattumannarkoil Assembly constituency in 2006. Ravikumar has refrained from contesting this time for want of campaign money. “I don’t want to be a burden on my party. We do not have crorepati members. We are struggling even to buy campaign material,” he says. “I will wait to contest the Lok Sabha elections.”

The VCK, which began as a humble anti-caste outfit, has seen tremendous growth in the northern districts over the past few years, says Tamil writer Joe D’Cruz, who, interestingly, was shunned by anti-caste publishing house Navayana for expressing his approval of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Their cadres are intensely loyal. They have a thirst for liberation. Money or not, they will continue to work,” he says. K Silamban, the Kallakurichi secretary of the VCK, admits, however, that when it comes to voting, “many of our own people forget the work we have done”. I run into him on the hot, empty streets of Rishivandiyam constituency, which elected Vijayakanth to the last Assembly when he contested along with the AIADMK. A VCK team is here to investigate the suspected rape and murder of a Dalit schoolgirl. Politics will have to wait, says Silamban; the family comes first.

The AIADMK, which has fielded Kadir Dandapani, a relatively obscure name, in the constituency, is banking on winning. “Vijayakanth is no longer a force here. He hasn’t fulfilled his pre-poll promises. He did build a computer centre but shut it down in a few months,” says Rani Chellapullai, 49, at a roadside shack outside a private school in Rishivandiyam town. “It is no longer easy to fool rural folk. They will only give you one chance. Then you have to pack up and go to another constituency,” she says, swearing to support Amma this election. The town wears a cheerless look, with most of the electioneering happening on Pagandai Koot Road, about 20 km away. “It does not matter who we vote for. Corruption will not end. But Amma has the administrative muscle to ensure that when you bribe a partyman, your work gets done,” says R Sekar, a 31-year-old sugarcane farmer and a Dalit who cannot find a bride because Rishivandiyam, he says, has fallen in stature in the eyes of neighbouring towns.

A magnet for the powerful OBC vote, the AIADMK cannot afford to seem overtly sympathetic to the Dalit cause, especially at a time when rising tensions and violence between the communities mar the social fabric of Tamil Nadu. Early this year, when Modi addressed a pre-poll meeting in Coimbatore—in the heart of the Kongu belt that has witnessed much bloodshed between the Dalits and the Vellala Goundars—he tried to capitalise on this void by projecting the BJP as a Dalit-friendly party. His party is trying to make inroads into Tamil Nadu but it lacks people-friendly faces. Vanathi Srinivasan is touted to be among the few probable wins for the party, contesting from Coimbatore (South), an industrial hub that voted for the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, bucking the Amma wave. The party, however, only finished a close second in the Coimbatore Lok Sabha constituency, winning just one seat, that of Kanyakumari.

As is to be expected, all parties are taking the direction of least resistance, but not without small revolts. Even as Stalin tours the state in a desperate bid to connect with and win back voters, the DMK, which has given away 41 seats to the Congress, is struggling to quell infighting among party leaders. Whatever the outcome, this election comes with a silver lining: the promise of prohibition. It is enough to make the women of Kattumannarkoil in Cuddalore district, a temple town 25 km from Chidambaram, smile again. R Puratchidasan, a 27-year-old salesman at a medical store, says most men here fritter away a large chunk of their income at Tasmac outlets. “With no disposable income, all other business stagnates,” he says. P Karthik, who sells biscuits, candy and bread from a cart next door, butts into the conversation. “It is not like I have any customers,” jokes the 49-year-old. “On most evenings, if you stand at the street corner, you can see the vegetable store owner throwing unsold produce to the dogs. This could all change if you shut down the liquor shops.”

Now that Amma has joined the chorus against alcohol, are women more inclined to vote for her? L Kalaiselvi, 36, who sells flowers outside the Narayana temple, answers using folk artiste Kovan’s subversive song—it got him arrested for sedition— criticising Jayalalithaa for treating Tasmac bars like temples. “If you don’t hail her as a goddess who gave you life, she will kill you,” Kalaiselvi trails off, slightly off-tune. It may be an exaggerated parody of Amma’s stranglehold on Tamil Nadu, but it also mirrors the worst nightmare of the DMK and the third front: another sovereign term for Amma.