The End of Tamil Nadu’s Blockbuster Politics


The End of Tamil Nadu’s Blockbuster Politics

Illustration: Akshita Monga


ven in her final hours, J Jayalalithaa didn’t leave without a dramatic twist. Cloistered at Chennai’s Apollo Hospital for over 70 days, her health updates kept veering from the wildly outrageous unofficial versions to the carefully controlled official narratives. Her final moments were no less than a thriller with rumours about death flying high, and tributes and retractions being pronounced in rapid succession. Finally, a little before midnight, when her tireless followers were spent, Amma was pronounced dead. The timing may just have saved the state from erupting in violence. Or maybe it was an abatement in the fabled fanaticism, which has fired the state for as long as anyone can remember.

In Tamil Nadu, dying isn’t part of the script. Icons are meant to live forever, to be symbols of endurance, supplication, and dynasties, and part of dinner-table conversations. And death brings an end to the suspension of the belief that the people have in their film stars and politicians. Ruffled emotions bring out uncontrollable, misdirected fears. The violence in the aftermath of MGR’s death, still vivid in the minds of those who lived through it and even those who only heard of it, bears testimony to this. The shade of fanatical adoration that’s reserved for movie starts has bled onto the fabric of Tamil Nadu’s political landscape.

But then again the lines between politics and filmdom have always been blurred here – some of the state’s biggest statesmen have transitioned from reel-life drama to the real-life drama that is politics. Be it the legendary MGR, who went on to become the hero of the AIADMK, or Karunanidhi, who began his career as a magazine editor and screenwriter, and then shrewdly wrote the narrative that drove the Dravidian dream. Jayalalithaa’s transition into this political pantheon was a movie in its own right. She went on from being MGR’s muse to a political novice, from being thrown off her mentor’s hearse to being sidelined and assaulted inside the Tamil Nadu assembly by a DMK minister, a moment that changed the course of the state’s politics. From there on, Jayalalithaa only became stronger and returned more powerful as the state’s chief minister, who exacted revenge at midnight on June 30, 2001, when the police barged into Karunanidhi’s bedroom and dragged him out of bed in full view of television cameras.

With this kind of a backstory, MGR, Karunanidhi, and Jayalalithaa, three fully fleshed out characters, became a fiction writer’s dream. Fact and fiction have mingled to create a celebrated mythology in Tamil Nadu. The stories that emerged out of this political potboiler were like a deadly two-headed Hydra – half real, half make-belief but wholly consuming. They encouraged the people to look at life through the prism of celluloid – larger than life and with massive doses of drama. It also helped that the politicians of Tamil Nadu assumed the role of some kind of modern-day Robin Hoods, who emptied the state exchequer to win the hearts of the poor. Elsewhere, politicians are always treated as though they are an anathema, people who are distant, corrupt beyond reason, powerful, and indifferent to the lives of the public. But in Tamil Nadu, politicians learned from their film careers that an actor is only as good as his fan base, and they embraced the common man. The building of temples, offering paal abhishekams to life-size cut-outs, and excessive display of emotions were encouraged. And it didn’t stop at that. Arrests were met with suicides, death with violence. And all along, the powers that be watched the spectacle that unfolded under their noses silently because they knew very well that legends are built only with hysteria and hero worship.

Jayalaithaa’s death has forced the people of Tamil Nadu to confront a new reality and the possibility of a whole new political landscape by the time the state readies itself for the next electoral battle.

The last quarter of a century has seen only two figures dominate the landscape of the state’s politics. Now one of them is dead, and the other is 93 and ailing. If all goes well, he will be 97 when the next election comes along in 2021. And though the DMK has a succession plan chalked out, it lacks a leader who will match the charisma of its patriarch and play the powerful role that the electorate expects of the party. Unless MK Stalin enacts a drama of his own and gives the people of Tamil Nadu their politics packaged in a performance.

The AIADMK too faces a similar dilemma with Jayalalithaa gone. Her successor is no enigma. When the lacklustre Panneerselvam took oath holding Amma’s photo, minutes before her death, he wept for the cameras. But he failed to inspire the manic devotion that his predecessor did. Panneerselvam, though Jayalalithaa’s pick, suffers from a big disadvantage – the unending comparison to the prodigious Puratchi Thalaivi. But he also has an advantage – he won’t have to fight an election for the next five years. Amma has already done the job for him. Her legend won’t let the AIADMK ship sink yet, but living off a name comes with a deadline.

Jayalaithaa’s death has forced the people of Tamil Nadu to confront a new reality and the possibility of a whole new political landscape by the time the state readies itself for the next electoral battle. While AIADMK’s long-term survival plan seems questionable, it’s MK Satlin who is likely to lead the DMK in the next polls. And while Panneerselvam and Stalin may both have an ace up their sleeves, Tamil Nadu politics will never be the same again.

We may have just witnessed one of the last great rivalries of Indian politics and the last of its legendary luminaries. And what an action-packed potboiler it has been. There was romance, drama, revenge, victory, defeat, and retribution. But looks like soon it will be curtains down.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the views of Arré.