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Cult of personality

The city of Chennai is at a standstill following reports that Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa suffered a cardiac arrest late on Sundayand admitted into Apollo Hospital. Police have surrounded the hospital and established patrols across the city to maintain a modicum of law and order, especially with rumours rife on the state of her health. Shops have shut down, and everyday citizens are stocking up on supplies. 

The Tamil Nadu chief minister has been in the hospital since September 22. Doctors had initially diagnosed her severe with pulmonary infection and septicaemia, which were subsequently cured. On December 4, doctors had declared her "fit" and ready to be shifted to her house whenever she wishes, indicating that she was well. But then she was soon re-admitted after suffering a cardiac arrest. 

Why is there so much anxiety about her health? One answer is the personality cult that functions at the heart of Tamil politics. Even while she has remained in the throes of illness, there has been a veil of secrecy surrounding her health status. The cult of personality, however, is not merely limited to Tamil Nadu. It’s not a new phenomenon by any stretch. Since the time of Mahatma Gandhi, and across various states, Indian politics has often centred on the love and regard for one person. The irony is that even BR Ambedkar, who forewarned the nation on the dangers of hero worship, has been reduced to a personality cult by the political class today. 

As chairman of the Constitution’s drafting committee, Ambedkar spoke on the subject in the Constituent Assembly in 1949: “For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.” On this occasion, Ambedkar was referring to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. 

Often at loggerheads with Gandhi over various issues, there was little chance that Ambedkar would win the popularity contest, considering the unshakable adoration the former garnered from millions of Indians in the throes of the freedom struggle. In an interview with BBC, Ambedkar once argued that he would never call Gandhi a “Mahatma” (great soul), the title <g data-gr-id="81">by</g> which he is still referred to today. Unfortunately, Ambedkar’s warnings were largely ignored. From Pandit Nehru to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, many Indians continue to indulge in mass hero worship. Is it any coincidence that hardcore supporters of Prime Minister Modi are often derided as “bhakhts”?  

Before she entered politics and became Puratchi Thalaivi Amma (revolutionary leader), J Jayalalithaa was best known for her glamorous on-screen roles. As a successful leading lady across South Indian cinema, she had garnered a mass following. Born to a Tamil Brahmin Iyengar family in Karnataka, Jayalalithaa had always felt it necessary to assert her Tamil identity. Her career as an actress took off in 1965, when she landed her first film, “Aayirathil Oruvan”, with legendary actor and politician MG Ramachandran. Together, the pair starred in 28 movies and became one of the most successful onscreen couples of all time. 

In 1972, MGR floated the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and became chief minister of Tamil Nadu five years later. Jayalalithaa joined the AIADMK in 1982. Besides developing a close rapport with Jayalalithaa on and off screen, MGR believed that she had the requisite charisma and oratorical skills to take on M Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)—a rivalry that stands till today. A year later, Jayalalithaa was elevated as the party’s propaganda secretary. 

When MGR passed away in 1987, the AIADMK split into two factions—one led by MGR’s widow Janaki Ramachandran and the other backing Jayalalithaa as his successor. Janaki took over as chief minister in 1987, although her government was soon dismissed by the then Rajiv Gandhi government. This paved the way for Jayalalithaa to take control of the party in 1989. She has remained party chief ever since. Despite numerous controversies surrounding her political career, "Amma" has long enjoyed a cult-like following in the state, largely due to her populist and pro-poor schemes. 

In her first term as chief minister (1991-1996), she was dogged with numerous corruption charges, including amassing assets disproportionate to her known source of income—a case that is still pending in the Supreme Court. She suffered a thumping defeat in the 1996 elections to the DMK as a result of these corruption charges. Until 2016, Tamil Nadu had swung back and forth between DMK and AIADMK every five years.

Going against the see-saw nature of the state’s electorate, Jayalalithaa secured a second consecutive term in 2016, winning 136 of the 232 seats. The last time any chief minister secured consecutive terms in the state was MGR in 1984. Jayalalithaa successfully overcame the negative publicity generated by corruption charges, news of her ill-health and accusations of not caring about citizens during the recent Chennai floods. 

Although the AIADMK’s vote share fell from the highs of the last assembly elections and the 2014 general elections, it was still approximately 10 percent more than the DMK. Similar to Mamata Banerjee in Bengal, the Tamil Nadu chief minister has fulfilled many of the welfare promises made to the people. Moreover, she has gained traction with the voters, especially women, on her promise for a phased implementation of prohibition. As long as one can remember, the party and its politics have based on the personality of Jayalalithaa. She has remained omnipresent in the party, brooking no dissent. In fact, some have observed that no other leaders were allowed to grow. Most government welfare schemes and even flood relief are packaged under her name.    

In light of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa worsening health condition, her party, the AIADMK may once again revert to its usual strategy. On Monday top party leaders went into a huddle on to discuss the party’s future. First in line in any succession would be O Panneerselvam, who has been acting chief minister ever since Jayalalithaa was admitted to the hospital on September 22. Panneerselvam took over as chief minister from Jayalalithaa on two previous occasions when she was unable to hold office—the last time during her trial in the Disproportionate Assets case heard in Karnataka High Court. His loyalty to the chief minister has been well documented. 

In 2014, for instance, he took the oath with her picture in his pocket and reportedly refused to enter the chief minister's office. The interim shuffle of portfolios may ensure that the state will not have to go under governor's rule, which some in the Opposition were eager to introduce. The AIADMK will have to convince their electorate that her possible absence from the chief minister's office  does not dent the credibility of the state government. Political commentators argue that "Amma" has failed to establish a credible second rung leadership in her party. 

Only time will tell if this is indeed a correct assessment. Similar issues were raised when MGR passed away in 1987. Tamil Nadu is a key cog in the India’s economic growth engine, as a manufacturing hub with a massive proportion of skilled labour. It needs a stable government to ensure that the wheels of development do not come to a grinding halt. 

Tamil Nadu waits with bated breath on future developments.   
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