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Tamil Nadu Polls: Why Jayalalithaa Continues to ‘Haunt’ Caste Ties

Jayalalithaa’s political genius lay beyond just defying male domination and the surge of disadvantaged castes.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Image of J Jayalalithaa used for representational purposes.
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My finest impressions of the J Jayalalithaa Phenomenon is not of the couple of press conference encounters I had with her or by the dramatic TV grab of her being thrown off the hearse van carrying the body of her former co-star and political mentor, MG Ramachandran (MGR). It was during a long, vain wait for her arrival at an election rally in suburban Chennai in 2004 that I witnessed the magic of the AIADMK supremo who would have turned 73 this week had she been alive.

I returned after waiting for a couple of hours where her followers and admirers, evidently far more patient than I was, stood in the scorching sun as she took her own time for a series of public meetings through Tamil Nadu’s capital city.

I saw Brahmin priests accompanied by women in nine-yard sarees (a telltale caste feature) waiting with aarti plates for her — which is strange if you recall that the origins of the Dravida movement that gave birth to the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam were in the anti-Brahmin, atheist, rationalist movement led by 'Periyar' EV Ramaswamy Naicker, and eventually by the patriarchally-dominated Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) led by Muthuvel Karunanidhi.

Jayalalithaa’s Political Genius

Not far from the priests, a fake orchestra singer on a stage lip-synched to songs from old Tamil movies starring the late MGR. These were not any old film numbers but ones that carried messages of empowerment, freedom, social justice and equality. These were ideologically loaded songs that eventually changed the social and political landscape of the state.

The political genius of Jayalalithaa lay not just in defying male domination and disadvantaged caste surge as an upper-caste Iyengar woman, but also in the astute way in which she managed interest groups, economic aspirations and social equations in Tamil Nadu.

Her charisma, her looks and her English education were incidental to the piece, though it rang a bell somewhere among her voters mesmerised by her punchline: “Makkalal naan, makkalukaga naan.” (I am here because of the people. I am here for the people).

Karunanidhi, meanwhile, had pushed ahead with his cadre-based party feeding on Tamil sentiment, anti-Hindi posturing, Dravida machismo, affirmative actions and coalition building — being the other formidable force in the state's see-saw politics. His alliance with the Congress and communists formed a left-leaning platform that could be challenged only by the Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK.

So, what happens to politics in a state in which two bitter rivals passed away after the last election, leaving a double vacuum, as it were? That is what makes Tamil Nadu fascinating this year.
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The Sasikala Factor

The shenanigans of the fractious AIADMK groups on ‘Amma’ Jayalalithaa's birth anniversary on 24 February 2021 is the main course, but certainly not the only dish, for political gourmands watching Tamil Nadu. A veritable sambar-like stew of wannabe parties based on caste, movie personalities and ideologies stand in various shades of posturing and ambitions wanting their piece of pie.

In the politics of vacuum-filling, pre-poll alliances as well as post-poll opportunism are likely to be visible in Tamil Nadu this year.

In this flurry, it is a small matter that Jayalalithaa was finally convicted on a corruption charge soon after her death, along with her long-term aide VK Sasikala who is now trying to be a new nucleus in the shifting sands of Dravida politics.

Sasikala, or ‘Chinnamma’, as her followers call her in Jayalalithaa’s mould, is amply endowed with money and machinery — as her long, noisy and orchestrated welcome processions showed when she drove to Chennai after four years in a Bengaluru prison, recovering from both her conviction and COVID-19.

What looms is the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP is trying to make inroads into Tamil Nadu in alliance with the AIADMK, hoping for a foothold in the confusion created by the double-vacuum. But he must contend not only with the Sasikala factor but also the barely concealed EPS-OPS rivalry within the AIADMK between Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami and his deputy O Panneerselvam. We effectively have at least three factions. Sasikala is technically with the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) formed by her nephew TTV Dinakaran while she was in jail — but defiantly flew the AIADMK flag as she drove out of prison, never mind her expulsion by the EPS-OPS twins. Her signal to AIADMK cadres: “Prepare to rebel for me. I will be there to take care.”

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Caste in Tamil Nadu is Now a ‘Fluid Factor’

Given Tamil Nadu's long history of opportunism and impromptu reasons for hugs and punches on the fly, this means more fracas ahead than you would see in a jallikattu bullfight in the state's rural belt.

MK Stalin, DMK's great inheritor, is hoping that his hard work, the AIADMK's divides and the sheer power of anti-incumbency factors, would catapult him to the chief minister's seat his father Karunanidhi held for long years. He is already leading a coalition that includes the Congress and the Left parties and the breakaway MDMK led by Vaiko. But the relationship status of the coalition is complicated. Stalin works hard but his father's shoes are not easy to fill on an increasingly difficult terrain.

This is not the same semi-starved state in which the DMK stormed to power in the 1960s, promising Tamil pride and cheap rice.

The past two decades have seen Tamil Nadu produce emigres by the thousands, working in places as far-flung as Nairobi, Jakarta and the Silicon Valley. Mushrooming engineering colleges have shifted freebie promises from rice to mixer-grinders and laptops for students. Cheap labour from Nepal and Bihar has replaced the better-employed locals working for everything from the World Bank to Hyundai and Infosys.

Politics within disadvantaged caste groups jostling for goodies and influence has increased.

The Pattali Makkal Katchi led by Dr S Ramadoss has shifted its king-making tactical alliance from the DMK to the BJP-backed AIADMK, hoping perhaps to produce a new CM from within. Movie star Vijayakanth's DMDK is keeping its options open. A coalition of castes is trying to snap out of the Scheduled Caste (Dalit) status to Vanniyar-like (‘lower’ Kshatriyas) Other Backward Caste (OBC) status, blessed by Modi.

Caste has now become a fluid factor in Tamil Nadu.

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Should Tamil Nadu Shift From Politics of Caste to One of Better Governance?

As that happens, Kamal Haasan's centrist Makkal Needhi Maiam is trying to emerge as a ‘middle class’ party leading a 'Third Front' in alliance with the Aam Aadmi Party — and given his personality and increasing urbanisation of Tamil Nadu, you never know.

Has the time come for Tamil Nadu to shift from the politics of caste to one of better governance? 

Probably not, but it will leave an impact for sure. Kamal even met Rajinikanth last week, evidently to seek support, though the ageing superstar's political wishy-washiness contrasts his dramatic acts of bravery on screen.

What we can say at this juncture is that we have a series of minor storms brewing in the cyclone-prone state. Given the parliamentary system of elections, Tamil Nadu may witness not just pre-poll alliances and possible post-poll ones but also some realignments that are driven by the outcome of the state assembly elections. Winning margins and post-poll narratives will drive such realignments.

Picture a Chennai with shaken coconut trees and twisted lamp posts after a cyclone and map it to politics. Expect a welter of allegations, accusations, shifting loyalties, viral videos, mounting promises and money gushing for votes like tides in the Bay of Bengal on a stormy night. This is going to be an interesting year in Tamil Nadu.

(The writer is a senior journalist who has covered economics and politics for Reuters, The Economic Times, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He tweets as @madversity. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

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