Jayalalithaa, MGR seized mentors’ legacies illegitimately, Sasikala could do the same

The obituaries and elegies have been written. The sound bites of gushing praise are now part of Youtube’s archive of public memory.

The post-J Jayalalithaa scenario is unfolding slowly and surely. While DMK and sections within AIADMK wait eagerly for something to go wrong, posters on the wall have already declared that Chinnamma, mother’s younger sister, as Sasikala Natarajan, is the new centre of the party. As one party leader’s poster reproduced by The Hindu alerts us, what Sasikala inherits is not just the absence of Jayalalithaa but also two other icons of the party, MG Ramachandran (MGR) and CN Annadurai.

To understand Jayalalithaa’s magic, we have to take stock of this legacy of absence. Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Jayalalithaa’s rule is the inverse relationship between the surfeit of images of the leader and the layers of secrecy and security that separated her from everyone else, most of her party leaders included. Her images were everywhere. Arguably, she is the chief architect of Tamil Nadu’s world famous “cut-out culture.”

From freebies to disaster relief materials, commodities and services provided by the state government quite literally bore her stamp. At the same time, few other governments at the state and central levels worked so hard at policing the media. In the past five years, the defamation law became a routine administrative tool for regulating the media. An alarming 200 odd defamation cases were booked against those who were critical of her government, including established journalists with impeccable credentials. More recently, the condition of her health was the most closely guarded secret in the country. Not surprisingly, there were innumerable rumours and conspiracy theories on everything related to her, from her health to family and friends, the real reasons for the arrest of the Kanchi Shankaracharya, and so on.

A file image of Sasikala and Jayalalithaa. PTI

A file image of Sasikala and Jayalalithaa. PTI

A file image of Sasikala and Jayalalithaa. PTI

The paradox of the iconic leader being absent and hyper-visible simultaneously is directly traceable to fan cultures of south India, which have had a crucial role to play in the rise of Jayalalithaa and also MGR before her. Fans of south Indian stars perform an impressive range of activities within cinema halls premises as well as outside. Except the odd visit to a shooting location or the residence of the star, the average fan acts in the name of the star but almost never in the presence of the matinee idol. The centre of fan activity is the missing star, whose absence is visually compensated by the surfeit of images: posters, cutouts, tattoos, rings, watches, pocketbooks — you name it, fans have already thought of it.

When the AIADMK was established by MGR, after his expulsion from DMK in 1972, the new outfit was little more than an extension of the actor’s numerous fan clubs. During the careers of both leaders, expressions of political support were barely distinguishable from obsessive and excessive reactions and performances of devotion typical of fan activity. In south India and elsewhere, fandom is nothing if not over-the-top. The “cult of leader worship” that Jayalalithaa is said to have inaugurated is evidence of the parallels between fandom and mass politics in this part of the country. No doubt, AIADMK raised the bar (and height of cutouts) for fans proper across the southern region.

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Film scholar M Madhava Prasad, in his book Cine-Politics (2014), notes another interesting link between AIADMK under Jayalalithaa and fan culture. Jayalalithaa never claimed she would replace MGR. She took great pains to present herself to the people as his most loyal follower. Jayalalithaa, the new leader, and the masses were united in their grief and the absent MGR would become the reason for AIADMK’s continued existence. Indeed, MGR too did not attempt to replace his mentor CN Annadurai. Instead, both MGR and Jayalalithaa snatched their respective mentors’ legacies illegitimately, breaking the natural line of succession. In the early 1970s, MGR’s non-party effectively displaced the M Karunanidhi-led DMK, the party established by Annadurai himself, as the claimant of the Anna legacy. In 1989, Janaki Ramachandran, MGR’s wife and leader of the ‘official’ faction of AIADMK, conceded defeat in the succession battle and facilitated the emergence of Jayalalithaa as the undisputed leader of the reunited AIADMK.

Getting there was not easy. As Jayalalithaa herself noted in a roundabout way when she accused the media of being biased against her. She was an exception among female political leaders, who in any case were a tiny minority among politicians. She was among the very few female politicians who did not have what she called a “family background” in politics. Her political debut in June 1982 came only months after NT Rama Rao (NTR), one of her former co-stars, announced his decision to enter politics in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.

She was made the Propaganda Secretary of the AIADMK in 1983, the year NTR was elected as Chief Minister of Andhra. Jayalalithaa began her political career with multiple handicaps. She was single and her relationship with the already married Sobhan Babu, the Chennai-based Telugu film star, was no secret. Her relationship with MGR was also a matter of public knowledge. She had powerful detractors within the party and MGR died without naming her as his successor. Vaasanthi notes in her biography titled Amma (2016), that Jayalalithaa was called unprintable names in public and on the floor of the assembly too.

At different points of her career, she had to break with her past: the glamourous actress who led an unconventional life, or of the leader who was the epitome of corruption, had to be outgrown, even disowned. Roughly coinciding with her return to power in 2011, she emerged as a transcendental figure, standing above the corrupt political establishment. A feat that MGR had achieved before her. She had transformed herself into a benevolent matriarch. In spite of her conviction in the disproportionate assets case in 2014 and the Chennai floods in 2015, her party won the 2016 assembly election. The alliance partners were minor parties which contested only a handful of seats.

She was deeply invested in her image as the benefactor of the masses and for good reasons too. This image made her immune to all other criticism. It didn’t matter if the freebees bearing her pictures were of substandard quality and were channeled into the market at huge discounts. The image was everything and was micromanaged ruthlessly.
No doubt she will be remembered for obscene displays of loyalty—the queues of ministers and lesser leaders waiting for their turn to fall at her feet. As the years go by, these images will mean differently. The lines of powerful men who queued up for their turn to pay their respects drew their power from her. There were nobodies without her blessing. This in a country where the female politician typically occupies the seat vacated by a male relative.

Like MGR, and also her longtime opponent Karunanidhi, she played a crucial role in deferring the wholesale replication of social and economic power in the political domain. In spite of her party’s dependence on the Thevar and Gounder castes, under Jayalalithaa’s leadership political power was relatively autonomous from social and economic power. Not the least because she was unpredictable and authoritarian. Her party will continue to function in her name. However, there are already reports of battle lines and alliances being drawn between leaders from Thevar and Gounder castes for the control of the party (Sasikala is from the Thevar caste and so is O Pannerselvan).

Upwardly mobile agrarian castes, similar to Thevars and Gounders, benefitted immensely from post-independence economic policies. These castes dominate the politics of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Haryana and Punjab, among other states. Their political ascent was moderated, if not entirely arrested, in Tamil Nadu by parties led by dramatists and actors. Going by the experience of other states, this may not be such a bad thing after all.

The author teaches at Azim Premji University and is an expert in cultural studies, specialising in popular culture and mass politics.

First Published On : Dec 13, 2016 08:13 IST

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