19/04/2016 8:26 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST

Cult, Caste And Cash: What You Must Know About The Heady Cocktail That Fuels Tamil Nadu Politics

Babu Babu / Reuters
A woman walks past a portrait of J. Jayalalithaa, Chief Minister of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, in Chennai March 13, 2012. REUTERS/Babu (INDIA - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY)

J Jayalalithaa, clad in a plain green saree, unadorned but for gold earrings, shrilly proclaims to her enamoured audience – "You all know that I will do what I say. I will also do what I sometimes don’t say. I am your mother. Only a mother knows what is best for her children.” The crowd erupts in applause and catcalls, egging on the charismatic south Indian politician.

Welcome to Tamil Nadu.

The days of cut-outs of leaders like Jayalalithaa, 30 feet tall, larger than life, smiling down benevolently upon the milling masses, may be gone, banished forever by the Madras High Court’s 2008 directive. But her loyal partymen of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) have ensured that the cult goddess-like image of their leader and cine star-turned-politician has remained intact.

Jayalalithaa, say analysts, has modelled herself on her political mentor, former Chief Minister MG Ramachandran and founder of the party which she now leads. Running the party with an iron hand, Jaya carefully constructs her image of being the supreme leader, a benevolent authoritarian who can lavish her partymen and the people with largesse, but can strike them down ruthlessly too if they cross the line.

Jaya carefully constructs her image of being the supreme leader, a benevolent authoritarian who can lavish her partymen and the people with largesse, but can strike them down ruthlessly too if they cross the line.

“She wants to play the mother sentiment which has always been very successful with Tamils,” said Vaasanthi, author and political analyst. “I don’t know whether in contemporary Tamil Nadu that sentiment will sell. I think she is overplaying the mother role. It might appeal to her cadres but one remarkable thing about her is that she has kept her party and votebank intact,” she said.

In 2014, Jaya revealed an astonishing line-up of political greenhorns as candidates for the Lok Sabha polls. Bar two, none of the other 37 had ever contested an election before. Her calculation worked – 37 out of 39 seats were swept by her party. Jaya demolished a perceived ‘Modi wave’ with a bunch of newbies, a signature of the charismatic and some say, autocratic, current Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

Jaya has had her share of troubles. Her first stint as Chief Minister from 1991 to 1996 earned her notoriety in the wake of the lavish wedding of her foster son VN Sudhakaran, nephew of Jaya’s close aide Sasikala. She lost to rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief M Karunanidhi in 1996, only to come back to power in 2001. She stumbled once again in 2003 – by invoking the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) against lakhs of striking government employees, incurring their wrath. In 2003, she also put one more foot wrong – banning animal sacrifice in temples, thereby causing such a furore in the state that she was forced to revoke the Act. In 2006, she lost once again to the DMK.

Jaya demolished a perceived ‘Modi wave’ with a bunch of newbies, a signature of the charismatic and some say, autocratic, current Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

In 2011 though, Jayalalithaa was installed in the Chief Minister’s seat with a massive mandate – 150 seats out of 160 contested by the party. The alliance won a massive 203 seats out of 234, not only forming government but also taking the position of Opposition. The DMK was relegated to the background with a mere 23 seats.

In 2014, an 18-year-old case came back to bite Jayalalithaa. She was convicted of corruption by a trial court in Bangalore in a Rs 66 crore disproportionate assets case and sentenced to four years in jail. Self immolations of anguished cadre followed, reaffirming the cult of the goddess. Having spent 21 days in a Bangalore jail, Jaya was released on bail and appealed against the verdict. In 2015, she was acquitted by the Bangalore High Court. An appeal against her acquittal is now pending in the Supreme Court.


Jayalalithaa though is not the only cult politician in the state. Her arch rival Muthuvel Karunanidhi of the DMK lays equal claim to that fame. 92 years old and putting younger politicians to shame with his campaigns, Karunanidhi is a crafty leader whose family has played a large part in destroying goodwill for him.

A former scriptwriter in the cine world, Karunanidhi rose to dazzling heights, thanks to his pen and the power over Tamil. When popular film star MGR mouthed politically-loaded dialogues at the height of the Dravidian movement, the words were Karunanidhi’s. It was also Karunanidhi’s pen that catapulted another cine star, Sivaji Ganesan, to fame with searing dialogues, such as in the blockbuster hit Parasakthi in 1952. Karunanidhi is said to be behind Sivaji Ganesan’s exit from the DMK, despite him being one of the founding members of the party. In 1955, when Sivaji paid a visit to the Tirupati Balaji temple, DMK workers, allegedly on Karunanidhi’s instigation put up posters on his return, deriding him for going against the Dravidian movement’s professed atheism. The mocking “Tirupati Ganesha” slogan on posters so wounded the actor, that he quit from the party altogether.

Karunanidhi played a key role in the ouster of MGR from the party. Next came the ouster of firebrand leader Vaiko, whose rising popularity proved to be a threat to Karuna’s son MK Stalin. Vaiko remains bitter to date, often referring to Karuna’s poorly concealed reason to give him the boot – an allegation that Vaiko was trying to kill him.

Karuna’s elder and younger sons MK Alagiri and MK Stalin have been at loggerheads, clashing in public, each refusing to toe the line of the other. Karuna’s daughter Kanimozhi, a Rajya Sabha MP, is embroiled in the Rs 200 crore Kalaignar TV scam and spent over 6 months in jail before getting bail. This case is currently being tried in a special court in Delhi along with the other 2G related cases. The alleged Rs 1.76 lakh crore 2G scam dented the party’s image, and Karuna’s along with it, as he chose to support the prime accused A Raja, claiming that no illegality had taken place.

In-fighting too has taken its toll on the party. “In the DMK there will be rebellion, there are people who are against Stalin too,” said author Vaasanthi. “There are foibles within the DMK. On the other hand, the AIADMK is like an Iron Curtain – you can’t penetrate through the ranks,” she said.

There are foibles within the DMK. On the other hand, the AIADMK is like an Iron Curtain – you can’t penetrate through the ranks.

A wheelchair bound Karunanidhi is now seeking to get reelected for his sixth term as Chief Minister of the state. His son MK Stalin, now 63 years old, continues to wait in the wings for his time in the sun.


With the rise of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and its leader S Ramadoss’ vitriolic attacks against the Dalit community in the late 1980s, came a fresh wave of enlightenment to both the DMK and the AIADMK. Woo the consolidated OBCs (Other Backward Classes), was the mantra. What this new strategy resulted in was to ensure that party leaders and candidates in any given constituency were invariably of the dominant caste in that area. In response, in the 1990s began a wave of Dalit reassertion in the southern districts of the state. As both communities clashed violently, blood of innocents was shed copiously.

In 2012, Ramadoss made his next move, calling for an umbrella alliance of all OBC caste groups to come together to fight the Dalit ‘menace’. “They (Dalit boys) wear sunglasses and jeans, ride bikes and lure our girls away in order to extort money from the parents,” stated Ramadoss at the time. Violence and honour killings are on the rise in recent times in Tamil Nadu. Polarisation along caste lines, political observers say, has become vicious on ground.

All parties across the political spectrum, however, maintain a complicit silence in such issues, especially when elections are round the corner, so as not to offend or anger the dominant caste groups. Following the recent daylight hacking of Sankar, a young Dalit boy who married an OBC girl, neither Karunanidhi, nor Jayalalithaa condemned what was clearly an honour killing. Ramadoss lost his temper at reporters who questioned him on that issue.


After caste comes the cash. Tamil Nadu is dubbed by the Election Commission as being one of the most ‘sensitive’ states in terms of cash distribution. As on April 14, Tamil Nadu has seen the highest haul of unaccounted cash and gifts seizure by the ECI – a total of over Rs 24 crore in cash and goods seized, more money than all the states put together.

The only challenger to the two Dravidian parties though appears to be a hastily knit Third Front. Led by another cine star turned politician Vijaykanth of the DMDK, this alliance also comprises Vaiko’s MDMK (Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), Dalit leader Thol Thirumavalavan’s VCK (Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi), both Left parties as well as former Union Cabinet Minister GK Vasan’s newly minted TMC (Tamil Maanila Congress). While analysts feel that the alliance may not be strong enough to wrest power from the two Dravidian parties this year, the votes they split could end up making the Third Front kingmakers.

“It is not very clear how the Third Front will take shape,” said Aazhi Senthilnathan, political critic. “They have made a lot of wrong moves already and lost important cadres. The battle in 2016 is largely between Jaya and Karuna, as always,” he stated.

This poll will be too close to call. Political analysts are even bracing for a hung Assembly this time. With the demand for Prohibition being acceded to by all parties, hardly any major poll issues remain in the state. In an election like this, the numbers could well go right down to the bone.

Contact HuffPost India

Photo gallery We're So Middle Class See Gallery