MOST AFTERNOONS, DMK supremo M Karunanidhi enjoys a gulab jamun with his dosa. “He doesn’t have diabetes. He is in good health, although wheelchair-bound. He scans the newspapers and bathes three times a day,” says Durai Murugan, 78, principal secretary of the party and Kalaignar’s trusted lieutenant. Seated at an Art Deco desk in his home office in Kotturpuram, Chennai, he is eager to dispel the gloom about the party’s future, ahead of what is being seen as Karunanidhi’s climactic battle with his bête noire, Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, 68, who has enjoyed a popular, if tumultuous, reign in office. The DMK, flushed down the sinkhole of corruption charges in the last Assembly polls, is wilfully hopeful of making a recovery by allying with smaller parties and attacking Amma where she is perceived to be weak—her government’s stand on prohibition, its management of the Chennai floods, and her own aloofness from the body politic, among other things. The Dravidian parties have each had their peaks and valleys and know full well that the impossible may yet come to pass in Tamil Nadu. And so, his partymen will not allow the 92-year-old artist to lay down the pen that has scripted four Assembly victories for the DMK since his predecessor CN Annadurai’s death in 1969.
His excoriating oratory and his anti-Hindi campaign may be ancient history, but DMK veterans like Durai Murugan, men of intense loyalties, find it hard to follow another leader. “MGR was my godfather. He paid for my higher studies; he even took a chartered flight from Bombay to come to my wedding. But when he floated his own outfit, the AIADMK, I stuck on with the DMK. It angered him. I explained, you are my god, but Kalaignar is my leader,” says Durai Murugan, the MLA from Katpadi in Vellore who is infamous as the man who allegedly roughed up Jayalalithaa in the Tamil Nadu Assembly in 1989.
Durai Murugan was charmed by the DMK patriarch, an avuncular politician who groomed multiple leaders to be the pillars of the party while commanding their loyalty. Those close to him were sucked into the slipstream of his life, and their fortunes, political and pecuniary, rose at a furious pace. They were assured of a permanent place and a sense of kinship in the party—unlike in Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, where most leaders are expendable tools in the hands of the supreme one. “No matter how great a leader, the party will not stand the test of time without an able, functioning second line of leaders. Look at what happened to C Rajagopalachari’s party. Kalaignar groomed us all, and has ensured that there is a succession plan,” says Durai Murugan. He has faith in MK Stalin, but admits that after Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa, there is no “hero” in the present political firmament who can assume the mantle of the mass Tamil leader.
They are the last magi of an era that lionised its political icons, from kingmaker Kamaraj to salt-of-the-earth MGR. For half a century, Tamil society has been predicated on the idea of the politician as saviour. While the youth, with their subcultures, may not suffer from the pathology of political hero worship, they are among the beneficiaries of Jayalalithaa’s populist extravaganza, from Amma canteens to gold for newly-wed brides and bicycles and laptops for students. “Amma enjoys the biggest personality cult in Tamil Nadu today,” says C Ponnaiyan, AIADMK organising secretary and a former minister. “If this was a presidential contest like in America, she would have a massive victory.” Ponnaiyan says the party expects to contest all the seats, going alone except in some regions where “friendly parties”, with whom it is in talks, could play a role. In the 2011 Assembly elections, the AIADMK had allied with ‘Captain’ Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), winning 150 out of 234 Assembly seats, while the DMDK won 29. The parties fell foul of each other and Amma stood alone in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, sweeping 37 of the state’s 39 seats. Now, in the absence of a distinct electoral issue such as the 2G scam that was the unmaking of the DMK in the last Assembly elections, the party is smug in the belief that Jayalalithaa will once again coast to victory, proving herself a worthy successor to MGR, whose decade-long rule ended in 1988, setting off a trend of anti-incumbency that neither party has thus far been able to break.
Jayalalithaa’s acquittal in the disproportionate assets case may work in her favour. With the elections shaping up
to be a battle royale, her vote share may well dip, but pollsters predict a clear mandate
On a Saturday morning, Ponnaiyan’s house in Anna Nagar is teeming with people. He has reportedly played a role in drafting the party manifesto and is a sought-after man. “We need no popular faces in the party except Amma’s,” he insists, in the obsequious manner of AIADMK office-bearers. I have a few moments with him before he leaves for the daily party meeting. Amma’s popularity, he claims, has not been diminished by the floods that affected Chennai, Kanchipuram, Tuticorin, Tiruvallur and Cuddalore, killing over 500 and displacing lakhs. “People have forgotten that there was a flood,” Ponnaiyan says. “Everything has been rectified, aid has been disbursed. A big achievement is that no communicable disease was allowed to spread.”
THE FIRST TIME Jayalalithaa assumed office, in 1991, it was a spectacular victory for the AIADMK. The AIADMK-Congress alliance won on the back of a sympathy wave after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. The AIADMK garnered a 44.39 per cent vote share, which it has never been able to best, not even in the 2011 elections in which it bagged 38.41 per cent. This time around, Jayalalithaa’s dramatic acquittal in an 18-year- old disproportionate assets case, which she hailed as a “victory for justice”, may work in her favour. With the elections shaping up to be a battle royale, her vote share may well dip, but pollsters predict a clear mandate. “We have the largest number of active members among Dravidian parties. We have started door- to-door campaigning,” says Ponnaiyan. “Contrary to the lies spread by the Opposition about her health, Amma is hale and hearty and she is expected to campaign personally in some constituencies. We want to reach the grassroots, every hamlet, every booth, while others are busy with online campaigns targeted against us.”
The reference is to Stalin, whose new-age campaign—full- page newspaper ads and social media memes—mocking Jayalalithaa’s remoteness elicited mixed reactions. The urgency of survival has pushed Stalin, 63, into touring all 234 constituencies as part of his Namakku Naame (We for Ourselves) campaign and reinventing himself as a sociable trouser-clad leader. Even if he is not the DMK’s chief ministerial candidate— not yet—he must assert his importance amidst the swelling chorus for Amma. For a party with an abominable history of thuggery and corruption, swinging the youth vote, estimated at about a crore—out of a total of 5.79 crore voters—is as challenging as it is crucial.
An alternative to the two Dravidian parties, which are viewed by a section of people as engines of tyranny, is yet to emerge. The BJP has not made a dent in Tamil Nadu and there are few probable allies in sight. The People’s Welfare Front, an alliance formed in October 2015 of four political parties—Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)), and Thol Thirumavalavan’s Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK)—has refused to align with the Congress, the BJP, the DMK and the AIADMK, while wooing the DMDK and GK Vasan’s Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC). With 72 days between the Election Commission’s announcement and the date of polling, all parties are playing their cards close to their chests. “There is no hurry,” says Vasan, who broke away from the Congress in 2014 to revive his late father GK Moopanar’s TMC. The party, which had successfully allied with the DMK in 1996 and the AIADMK in 2001, now has a small footprint, confined largely to the Thanjavur belt. The media has speculated about Vasan’s potential alliance with the AIADMK, but he is keeping his options open. The ruling party may take a hit in the flood-affected districts, he says. “People will not easily forget what went wrong during the operation, even if post-operative care was good. The doctor will be held responsible,” he says.
The DMK patriarch is an avuncular politician who groomed multiple leaders to be the pillars of the party while
commanding their loyalty. Those close to him saw their fortunes rise at a furious pace
The problem with both the Dravidian parties is corruption, says Thirumavalavan. In Tamil Nadu, it is a word that has lost its pungency. “We are anti-corruption, anti-liquor, anti-caste violence, and for transparent governance,” he says, between interviews with local TV channels at his party office—two small rooms and a backyard garden—in Ashok Nagar. Vijayakanth is close to the PWF’s wavelength, but the former actor, who attracts a chunk of Dalit and OBC votes from central and western Tamil Nadu, has decided to contest alone. This announcement, followed by contradictory claims by the DMK that he is still in talks with the party, has brought the Front’s hopes to naught. “We can certainly hope to weaken the Dravidian parties, but we cannot replace them. They have effectively polarised Tamil Nadu at an emotional level,” says Thirumavalavan, who has allied with both the DMK and the AIADMK in the past. The DMK, he says, is a more amenable partner, allowing room for regular exchange of ideas, compared to Jayalalithaa’s “kitchen cabinet”. “Other party leaders can only meet her for signing seat sharing agreements. She is not available to address any concerns of her alliance partners,” he says.
KARUNANIDHI IS AN inclusive leader, says Gnani Sankaran, a long-time political analyst, writer and journalist. He recounts a story to illustrate the key difference between him and Jayalalithaa. “In 2004, when the Jayalalithaa government, in a brazen move, arrested the powerful Kanchi seer, Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswathi, on allegations of killing temple manager Sankararaman, the media asked Karunanidhi if he would have done the same had he been chief minister. He did not say yes or no. His answer was brilliant and it came without hesitation. He said, ‘Had I been chief minister, the murder would not have happened at all.’ What was left unsaid was that he would have mediated between the Kanchi mutt and Sankararaman, who was proving to be a thorn in its flesh. The matter would have been resolved. Such is Kalaignar’s political mettle.”
Yet, in the absence of a grand coalition, the chances of the DMK coming to power are slim. “There is no anti-incumbency,” Gnani says. “If there is a hung verdict, I’d be pleasantly surprised.” Any other party aspiring for the chief ministerial post, be it Anbumani Ramadoss’ Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMC) or the DMDK, is whirling off into fantasy. Vijayakanth, the dark horse who could have challenged the supremacy of the two Dravidian parties, lost his position as leader of the Opposition after several of his MLAs defected to the AIADMK. His vote share, 10 per cent in 2009, fell by about half in the 2014 General Elections, which he contested as part of the NDA. He became a caricature, an alleged alcoholic advocating prohibition, slurring and losing control in public. His wife Premalatha and her brother LK Sudheesh are said to be holding the fort at DMDK. “Vijayakanth is but a cherry on top of the ice cream; one can do without it,” says Murugan.
A multi-cornered contest is in the interests of AIADMK, which will seek to cash in on Amma’s benevolence towards her people. Must welfare be financed by intemperance, is what the party will have to address. Revenue from the sale of alcohol, which is estimated to peak at Rs 30,000 crore in FY 2015-16, accounts for almost a third of the state’s tax receipts. “As long as they continue to get free rice and mixer-grinders, people will be happy. Men will find a way to drink themselves to death, even if the government stops selling liquor,” says G Tamizh Selvi, a 38-year-old cook who earns Rs 12,000 and works for a household in upscale Alwarpet in Chennai. She is party agnostic but will vote for the AIADMK this time in the hope that all its schemes continue. Selvi holds an Aadhaar card and marks Amma’s reign by the doles she received—she isn’t one to miss any. She is not alone. Gnani says his maid tracks every government freebie there is. So when Election Commission officials in Salem seized silver anklets stamped with pictures of Karunanidhi and Stalin a few days ago, she rushed to the TV to see if they were up for grabs.
Selvi, however, fears that Amma’s welfare raj will come to an abrupt end with N Sasikala, her companion and caregiver, eventually wresting control of the party. “She has already driven a wedge between Amma and her partymen,” Selvi rues. “I have been propelled by fate into two high profile careers,” Jayalalithaa had admitted to Simi Garewal in a rare interview. “I am really a behind-the-scenes person,” she had said. It is time she emerged in full public view to connect with her legion of supporters, as MGR so effortlessly did, and to assuage the anger that the absentee mother surely deserves.