Jayalalithaa’s death: Party built on image may need to start afresh

Can the party, the largest in the state in vote base, stay together in the absence of the glue — Amma — that held it together all these years?

Written by Amrith Lal | New Delhi | Updated: December 7, 2016 12:46 pm
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On Tuesday, J Jayalalithaa was laid to rest on Marina, next to the memorial to her mentor and AIADMK founder-leader M G Ramachandran. The previous night, her party MLAs had met and elected O Panneerselvam, finance minister and the man handpicked by Jayalaithaa to hold the office of the chief minister twice when she had to step down, as the new legislature party leader. With 133 MLAs, the AIADMK government is on firm ground. However, the big question that haunts Tamil Nadu is if the AIADMK rank and file will rally behind Panneerselvam till the 2021 elections and beyond. In the past, his choice as interim CM was unchallenged because it was made by Amma herself. In her absence, will the choice go uncontested? Can the party, the largest in the state in vote base, stay together in the absence of the glue — Amma — that held it together all these years?

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WATCH | J.Jayalalithaa’s Life Journey

Dravidian parties are no stranger to splits. In 1949, C N Annadurai broke away from Periyar E V Ramasami’s Dravida Kazhagam to float DMK. Anna and his thambis (younger brothers) made the transition from being an ethnic nationalist movement that sought an independent Dravida Nadu to a party that negotiated with the new Republic from the standpoint of federalism and linguistic subnationalism. In 1967, the DMK won office in Madras and 50 years since, no party other than those claiming allegiance to the ideals of the Dravidian Movement has succeeded in forming a government in Tamil Nadu. When Anna died in 1969, M Karunanidhi took over, superseding V R Nedunchezhiyan, who was acting CM. The rumblings culminated in MGR, the popular screen face of the movement, splitting the DMK to form the AIADMK in 1972.

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The DMK was a cadre outfit that grew out of a political movement guided by a well-defined ideology. But the AIADMK was born out of a dispute over leadership and the party has never felt the need to look beyond the leader. MGR built the AIADMK around his carefully nurtured screen persona. Cinema was the vehicle Anna had chosen to take the DMK’s message to a population that was largely illiterate. The Congress led by a visionary leader from a backward caste, K Kamaraj, was a grassroots party then. The powerful anti-caste, anti-religious, pro-gender, egalitarian agenda of Periyar had until the 1940s attracted the literate population. MGR was the face of the DMK’s propaganda cinema. Somewhere in the line, the gap between the screen image and the real MGR blurred and a new phenomenon was born. People were caught in an image trap, a memorable phrase used by late political scientist M S S Pandian.

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MGR never allowed his supporters to escape the image trap. The cadre base of the AIADMK was MGR mantrams, fan clubs. The leader was the deliverer and governance was patronage. In 1977, MGR won office and never lost an election until his death in 1987. Under him, governance was envisaged as a patron-client relationship. He, of course, acknowledged the core values of the Dravidian Movement, but populism centred on the leader was his political credo. The leader, later chief minister, was projected as the benevolent super hero, apart from and above everyone, including the party. The AIADMK rewrote the political vocabulary of Tamil Nadu in favour of the supreme leader. Politics ceased to be about dialogue and debate. It was this party Jayalalithaa inherited in the late 1980s.

Read | Jayalalithaa passes away: From canteens to seeds to pharmacy, legacy of Brand Amma

 

She crafted her persona in the same mould as her mentor. She was quick to establish her credentials as the inheritor of MGR’s legacy. Party cadres, orphaned by MGR’s death, saw in her a new deliverer. She wrote the script and acted it out. Unlike MGR, she stayed aloof from her co-leaders and cadres and spoke directly to the people. Few got to know the person, they could only access the distant image. In the 1990s, she made and broke alliances according to the political climate. Her politics was not firmed by ideology. She continued with the welfarism that had been state policy since the time of Kamaraj. Both the BJP and the communists supped with her, on her terms.

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In 1987, when the AIADMK threatened to implode there was Jayalaithaa to take over. Amma’s AIADMK lacks pan-state leaders. In her absence, they may have to start afresh and many may not have the skills to do politics on their terms. It is unlikely the AIADMK will sweep polls with a 40 per cent plus vote, as it did in the 2014 general election and the 2016 assembly election. A collective leadership that can draw interest from the political capital Amma built is its best bet to stay relevant.

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The DMK has the organisational spread, cadre strength and the leadership to retain its status as a regional titan. The Congress has recall value in the southern districts, but the BJP sees itself as a potential beneficiary of post-Amma politics. Sangh Parivar outfits are active across the state, reaching out to various castes and communities. The ideological ground is being prepared to enable the BJP to spread its influence. The social pact that the Dravidian Movement had forged in the last century wherein caste and religious selves were subsumed under the umbrella identity of the Tamil is under stress. But challengers to the established players, be it an outfit like Thirumavalavan’s Dalit outfit VCK or Vijayakanth’s DMDK have failed to reshape the political imagination in the state.

Also Read | Jayalalithaa funeral: Nephew attends, niece wishes she was there

Tamil Nadu may in the coming days see the end of one-party dominance. The political space could be ripe for competing coalitions.

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