Kannai katti kollaathae, kandathai ellaam nambaathey/Kaakkai kuyilaay aagaathae thoazhaa/Thaadigal ellaam Taagooraa, meesaigal ellaam Baarathiyaa/Vaeshathil aemaaraathae thozhaa.
(Don’t be blinded, don’t believe all that you see/A crow can’t turn into a koel, comrade/Are all bearded men Tagore? And the ones with moustaches Bharathi?/Don’t be fooled by disguises, comrade!)
So crooned Anandan, a character modelled on MGR, in the Mani Ratnam film Iruvar (1997) while rebelling against his parent party. Iruvar was a layered take on Tamil politics, especially the succession battle within the DMK in the late 1960s and the rise of MGR as a charismatic politician following the founding of AIADMK in 1972. With assembly elections round the corner, politics in Tamil Nadu is in a flux: Too many actors crowd the script with no director seemingly in charge. The scene also has its share of pretenders and disguises that it may seem tough to figure the real act.
Until recently, and for near five decades, politics in Tamil Nadu has revolved around three charismatic figures, who claimed the legacy of the Dravidian movement: DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi defined one pole of state politics while MGR and Jayalalithaa occupied the other end. MGR left the arena in 1987, Jayalalithaa in 2016 and Karunanidhi in 2018. The upcoming elections are also a battle for their legacy even as parties, who have so far been in the political periphery, sense an opportunity to reshape the consensus forged by the Dravidian movement. So far their leaders have only projected themselves as showboats by dressing up in veshti and angavastram and discovering and endorsing local traditions and festivals such as Pongal and Jallikkattu. This reductionism, wherein a powerful idea of federal politics, regional identity, linguistic pride and social justice is acknowledged through guest appearances and cultural references, perhaps, stems from a misunderstanding that all politics in Tamil Nadu is mere spectacle. Spectacle is a key part of Tamil politics of course; but it is that and much more.
On Wednesday, the AIADMK-led government hurriedly inaugurated a memorial for former chief minister J Jayalalithaa at her burial site on the Marina beach. The inauguration coincided with the end of the prison term of Jayalalithaa’s aide, V K Sasikala, who had been convicted in a corruption case along with her boss. Clearly, the current AIADMK leadership including CM Edappadi Palaniswami did not prefer the presence of Sasikala at a function meant to memorialise Jayalalithaa’s legacy. In fact, Palaniswami, who was hand-picked by Sasikala to lead the government, had said there was no space for the latter in the AIADMK. Sasikala, once chinnamma to the AIADMK cadres and deemed the mother figure for the party after the death of Jayalalithaa, was left to fend for herself in prison though her nephew, TTV Dhinakaran, has kept her claim to Amma’s legacy by floating his own outfit. Sasikala’s last public act before leaving for prison was to visit Jayalalithaa’s burial site — her thumping at the grave was interpreted by Sasikala’s followers as pledging to “overcome hurdle(s), treachery and (the) plotting” (against her). The very same site had earlier witnessed another spectacle, when then CM and confidant of Jayalalalithaa, O Paneerselvam, visited the site and seemingly sat in meditation before staging a revolt against Sasikala. His rebellion failed, caused a split in the AIADMK and eventually, the anointment of Palaniswami as CM by Sasikala. In the past four years, friends have turned foes and enemies have become allies as savvy politicians, driven, of course by self-interest and preservation, and, perhaps, some nudge from the ruling party at the Centre, held the AIADMK together to complete a full term in office. But with Sasikala out of prison, it is unlikely that the Palaniswami-led AIADMK’s claim for Jayalalithaa’s legacy would go unchallenged in the elections. And that may produce its own share of spectacle, and even influence the political dynamic in Tamil Nadu.
In fact, spectacle and ideology have gone together in the making of the Dravidian movement, right from the days of Periyar E V Ramasami. The self-respect agenda of Periyar, with its emphasis on social justice, Tamil identity, atheism etc, established itself as the dominant political narrative in Tamil Nadu by holding public campaigns that bordered on the spectacle. His follower, C N Annadurai, found a powerful medium in the idiom of cinema, again exploiting its potential for the spectacular and its scope for melodrama. When the DMK split after the passing of Annadurai, the AIADMK under MGR focussed more on the spectacle aspect whereas the DMK under Karunanidhi, who scripted some of the most powerful propaganda films with MGR as hero, stressed on ideology. In fact, the two leaders knew their strengths and focussed on them to win public support. Both the DMK and AIADMK invested heavily in building a welfare state and furthering Tamil identity. In the process, Tamil Nadu, despite sending 39 MPs to Parliament, became a “marginal” player in national politics for most part of the last half a century, but this “marginality” has also been the reason behind its rise as an industrial powerhouse and helped it to stay strong as a secular society.
Any new entrant who wants to break into Tamil Nadu politics will need to acknowledge this legacy of the Dravidian parties, and build on it. Rajinikanth had sought to transcend it by presenting himself as an ideological alternative to the Dravidian parties and claiming to offer a vague agenda that he described as “spiritual politics”. If Rajinikanth did not openly challenge the political inheritance of Periyar, Hindutva outfits attacked his legacy as anti-Hindu and anti-national. Around the same time, the state BJP had sought to build a narrative around the popular deity, Murugan, with its Vel Yatra, which flopped. Soon, the seasoned actor recognised that challenging established political outfits wasn’t as easy as pulping villains on screen. With the pandemic in full swing, he announced the end of his flirtation with electoral politics.
The other superstar of Tamil cinema, Kamal Haasan, though claiming to challenge the Dravidian parties, has, in fact, stayed on course with the Periyar legacy. However, his politics, like his recent films, is focussed so much on himself that his script, which has interesting poll promises such as salary for homemakers, has been pushed to the background. After all, politics, like cinema, needs not just a hero with good intentions but also a good script, support cast and an efficient crew to succeed.
The DMK has recognised this fact, that the polity is now far too fragmented for any single party or leadership to dominate. It has so far been accommodative of allies, which presently includes the Congress, Communist parties, and the Dalit outfit, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK). There are, of course, a set of fire-breathing heroes, whose radical rhetoric and vision satisfy a niche audience but lack the organisational muscle or political nous to influence an election — for instance, the Naam Tamilar party leader Seeman. They spice up the spectacle but have little impact on the final outcome. The fact is that voters have a transactional relationship with political parties and tend to see through the disguise.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 29, 2021 under the title ‘Staging a new act’. Write to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.