How Tamil Nadu Cult Worships Its Leaders

Posted by Shikha Sharma in Politics
December 6, 2016

A new uncertainty looms over Tamil Nadu. As news of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa death spread across the country, violence was reported last evening outside Apollo hospital where her supporters had gathered in thousands to assume vigil.

The mass frenzy about her condition and the consequent anxiety surrounding her illness not only offers a peek into the personality driven cult that Tamil Nadu’s political system has become, but highlights the many woes faced by a ruling party solely driven by a single person.

Hero-worshipping is not uncommon in India. That we as a nation continue to venerate high achievers – treating them as demigods and goddesses is also common knowledge. In states across India, politics has been reduced to idolizing and revering one person. But in Tamil Nadu, hero worshipping can take on extreme proportions, historically playing a huge part in the state’s politics unparalleled by any other state in the country.

The crowds of people queued outside Apollo, praying for her well-being, are a testimony of sorts to the love people hold for her. When she was arrested in 2014 on charges of corruption, many of her supporters resorted to self-harm. Her party said 200 people killed themselves in protest. Women shaved their heads, a symbol of mourning; men set police vehicles and public buses on fire. From jail, Jayalalithaa appealed for order. She was acquitted about nine months later and resumed office as Chief Minister. Hearing news of her illness, supporters not only performed sacrifices to try and change her fate, but images in the local media showed scores of children with metal arrows piercing their cheeks holding her pictures as they prayed for her recovery.

Clockwise from left: Jayalalithaa, C. N. Annadurai, MGR

All the worship and reverence, though, seems to mostly have had the opposite effect on the state’s leaders, the most iconic of whom died while serving their term. Commentators, in fact, say this has been a continuing historical co-incidence – from C.N. Annadurai to Marudur Gopalan Ramachandran (MGR) and Karu­nanidhi and now Jayalalithaa, all loved leaders required hospitalisation when they were at the helm.

C. N. Annadurai died of cancer two years into serving as the state’s Chief Minister from 1967 to 1969, but his funeral had the highest attendance of any to that date, earning it a Guinness record.

MGR died of kidney failure complicated by a mild heart attack and stroke nearly three years into his term as the state’s Chief Minister in 1987. His death sparked off a frenzy of looting and rioting all over the state with the police having to resort to issuing shoot-at-sight orders. The violence during the funeral alone left 29 people dead and 47 police personnel badly wounded.

More importantly, in a situation faced by the state presently – where the party is largely dependent on a single leader, without a second tier leadership to discourage potential ‘rebels, the situation becomes even more complicated.

In the absence of Jaya, Tamil Nadu’s political landscape is bound to undergo a change. While Sasikalaa, Jayalalithaa’s close aide will take over the reigns of AIADMK, O. Panneerselvam has been sworn in as the new Chief Minister. Neither, though, can match Jayalalithaa’s leadership or calm. Sasikalaa has played a major role in keeping the party together, and she will have to continue to play that role to stabilise the party and government.

But if she pushes too hard or projects herself as the party’s new face, it may lead to a power struggle with regional players, who have been suppressed for long already, jockeying for power. In the long run, this may even splinter the party.

The Governor’s role, presently, assumes even more importance in the present scenario, for discouraging defections. This can give the Modi government a say in future events, as it would want the AIADMK on their side for the Presidential elections set to happen next July. The BJP, in fact, will try to strengthen its presence in the state.

Jayalalithaa may have passed away, but her legacy will stay. What Tamil Nadu’s political dispensation decides to do now will decide the future of the state now.