Where loyalty trumps all

Dancing, screaming, breaking coconuts. The citizens of Tamil Nadu connect with their political leaders only as devotees

May 12, 2015 01:44 am | Updated August 30, 2016 06:09 pm IST

“Three more years,” screamed Vanmathi, gesturing emphatically with her fingers and tapping her feet to drum beats outside AIADMK General Secretary Jayalalithaa’s Poes Garden home on May 11 morning. The news of the former Chief Minister's acquittal had just arrived.

The Class 10 student said she can’t wait “to turn 18 and vote for Amma, the best leader.” Asked why she supported the leader, the petite teenager replied: “I don’t know. That is how it has been. She is the best, everyone else is a waste!”

Watching her proudly was her mother, a long-time party loyalist. “First it was Thalaivar (MGR), after that it has been Amma. We will be with them for generations to come,” she said.

A few metres away, a middle-aged woman’s loud, high-pitched rendition of the MGR super-hit number ‘ Naalai namade’ (Tomorrow is ours), piercing through the noise of fire crackers, drew television cameras. Swaying mildly, she kept repeating the line for as long as the cameras hovered around her.

“Our prayers have been answered,” said a branch secretary of the party from Kancheepuram, who did not wish to be named. “It is enough if Amma’s name comes in the papers,” he said, placing a sack of coconuts on the pavement. “I had vowed to break coconuts if the verdict was favourable. I am so relieved now.”

The relief and happiness among the party cadre manifested itself differently among the thousands gathered in the area — some responded with happy tears, some with dancing, others screamed slogans and broke coconuts in impromptu prayer rituals. Essentially, the euphoria was a way to demonstrate loyalty to their leader. Their loyalty would have been intact irrespective of the verdict, just that it may have found expression in sad or violent outbursts, or perhaps even attacks, going by incidents around the September verdict that convicted Ms. Jayalalithaa. Even that would have come out of loyalty.

Loyal by default Loyalty, in a sense, has been the hallmark of Tamil Nadu politics. A person’s political commitment is primarily judged, in political circles, by her steely resolve to stick to a leader no matter what he or she is accused of. So what if critics label their leaders corrupt, authoritarian or power-hungry? “None like our leader,” they will vouch, with unmistakable earnestness.

The radical Dravidian movement is conceived historically as a “people’s struggle” challenging those who enjoy privilege and power. However, Dravidian politics has over the years centred around personal icons, their followers and their loyalty.

Among the most primary of all feudal sentiments, loyalty tends to widen the gap between the leader and the masses. The leader is put on a high pedestal, and some followers even turn “devotees”, firmly believing that their leader cannot do any wrong ever.

Even within the party, the expression of loyalty is seen as the only way of being noticed by the higher rungs of power or by the leader. This can only happen when the democratic space within a party is compromised. No member will dare be a dissenting voice for fear of being interpreted as a traitor and consequently falling out of favour. The party invariably functions in a highly centralised manner, going against the best traditions of democratic politics, with designated ministers and MLAs shying away from any decision-making. A democratically elected government comfortably morphs into a regime.

This was evidenced in the slow and, in some cases, virtually absent governance in Tamil Nadu after Ms. Jayalalithaa’s conviction in September. The inauguration of the Metro Rail — a much-awaited addition to Chennai’s desperately wanting public transport system — was put on hold. Governance in many areas came to a standstill, as senior government officials admitted in private conversations.

It is highly unlikely that any of the supporters who danced in joy in Monday’s sweltering heat will ever meet their leader and have a normal, direct conversation with her. It will be near-impossible for the two individuals (citizen and party leader), supposedly committed to the same political cause, to engage as equal human beings. The relationship between a follower and a people’s representative holding the highest post in the State will, at best, be an emotional tie, apparently involving little reflection on the political choices of the party or its leader.

If there is one tangible critique, it comes in the form of votes from the people of Tamil Nadu who, for nearly three decades, have alternated between the DMK and the AIADMK, rejecting each party after one term in office.


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