After Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa was convicted for amassing disproportionate wealth during her first term in office, 16 people committed suicide. One supporter jumped in front of a bus. A few hung themselves and some consumed poison. They never knew her personally. This appears to be a trend peculiar to south India — somehow, it seems unlikely any Delhiites would kill themselves if Sheila Dikshit went to jail. When MGR, a previous Tamil Nadu Chief Minister died after serving three consecutive terms 30 people committed suicide, several thousands had their heads tonsured and over a million followed his remains around till the funeral.
At least there was death to explain the manic grief of supporters in MGR’s case. But Jayalalithaa has merely gone to prison. And since politicians in India routinely make staggering comebacks, it’s a little early to write her off. Whatever one’s political opinions, Jayalalithaa’s cult status is weirdly fascinating, never more evident than at the swearing in of the next Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. Mr Panneerselvam, 63, overcome by emotion, shed copious tears for his supreme leader while taking the oath. Social welfare minister B Valarmathi broke down soon after. One by one, the entire cabinet of 30-something ministers were weeping. Even more baffling, they didn’t seem to be in the least bit embarrassed at this bizarre display of sentiment. (His swearing-in ceremony has over two lakh hits on different clips on YouTube).
Can it possibly be that Mr Panneerselvam is absolutely devastated at becoming Chief Minister? I can only make sense of it by drawing a parallel with my own life. In the unlikely event the editor of this paper was suddenly hauled away, and miraculously, I should find myself in charge — I would be weeping too — with joy. My delirious happiness in such a situation (alas, one can always dream) would make it quite impossible for me to pretend otherwise. Even if I, somehow, managed to put up a convincing show of being distraught at my boss’s bad luck, I would be called out as a pathetic hypocrite by my merciless colleagues. Mr Panneerselvam, however, didn’t need to worry that his Cabinet might regard his unabashed sorrow with skepticism, since they were all so busy weeping themselves.
The visuals of the teary Tamil Nadu cabinet were strangely reminiscent of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s painstakingly choreographed funeral: where mourners lined the streets, wailing and doubling over in apparent pain. People who did not cry were sentenced to six months of hard labour. We Indians are not known for such ostentatious exhibits of distress. Anger, maybe. The pictures coming out of Tamil Nadu, of people beating and thumping their chests in grief could be seen as hilarious if they didn’t also involve so much senseless tragedy. Suicide contagion is real, especially where celebrities are involved. Extensive or sympathetic news coverage fuels it. Political parties are skilled at manipulating the feelings of the vulnerable as the recent Muzaffarnagar riots have shown. Maybe once the new Chief Minister has finished sobbing and drying his tears, he can issue a stern message to citizens to get on with their lives. Or even appreciate the all too rare but very pleasant reminder that the laws of the land are the same for everyone, even the formidable Jayalalithaa.