‘Politics makes strange bed fellows’. An adage that resonates perhaps the loudest in Tamil Nadu, more than any other state in the country. As the pendulum swings every five years with the two Dravidian juggernauts taking turns to storm into Fort St. George, the pre-poll ‘rainbow’ coalitions that are stitched together tell their own story of political expediency or astuteness, depending on how you look at it. The fiery MDMK Chief Vaiko, who was imprisoned for 19 months under the draconian POTA joining hands with the AIADMK, the ruling party that had ordered his detention; the DMK, which despite its pro minority vote bank, opting for a saffron tie up; and a party, that observers believed, had come under a cloud after the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, later entering into an alliance with the Congress that has endured 2G and more; a ‘Captain’ who swore that he would bat on his own and maintain equidistance from both the DMK and AIADMK, finally perching his DMDK with the ‘two leaves’, only to fall out with the ‘garden’, and who knows, maybe even end up basking under the ‘rising sun’, outsourced by a Rahul led new blood Congress; and a classic fence sitter headed by ‘doctor ayya’ who except for the last election, had been able to accurately feel the pulse of alliances and go with the winning side, but now declares that his PMK will play solitary reaper. Welcome to Tamil Nadu’s political Vishwaroopam!
The scenario may be fascinating as much as it is onerous for the political beat reporter hungry for juicy sound bytes, as the bigwigs ration their press conferences and barring a few exceptions, only the top leader speaks. A few lower down in the pecking order may hazard a few guesses on and off record, but are seldom taken seriously. Other than the faction ridden Tamil Nadu Congress, no one speaks out of turn here. It’s a perfect breeding ground for gossip, forcing the rumour mills to work overtime. So it took an emphatic press conference by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa to end the speculation over the reasons behind her government’s decision to ban Kamal Haasan’s 100 crore film for 15 days. Intelligence inputs pointed to possible law and order problems as the Muslim outfits had threatened to protest at 524 theatres across Tamil Nadu. Here’s the catch. It isn’t for nothing that Jayalalithaa is called the ‘Iron Lady’ of the State. Her biggest USP is her firm grip over Law & Order and the AIADMK’s reputation of minimal interference in policing. This is a singular reason why women voters traditionally prefer Amma in the saddle. The perception is that if Jayalalithaa makes up her mind to back something or oppose it, no force in the world can stop her. Haven’t there been continuous protests in Koodankulam against the nuclear plant? Were there no intelligence inputs that suggested possible violence? Did the government back down or take the protesters head on? I concede that Koodankulam protests have been localised, unlike the prospect of 524 hot spots in the event of a ‘un-cut’ Vishwaroopam release. In her previous tenure from 2001-2006, Jayalalithaa ordered the sacking of over a lakh government employees, despite possible advice that it could take an electoral toll, not just in terms of the numbers, but also because government employees are the ones who are on poll duty!
The Amma I have covered for a decade and a half, as a television journalist, is known to take decisions based on conviction, not political considerations. This begs the question. Is Jayalalithaa now cosying up to minorities in the run up to the 2014 election? Is it a calculated move to shed a perceived right wing image? If the AIADMK manages to further capitalise on the DMK’s 2G taint and its internal succession battle and the power crisis in the State and manages to notch up about 25 Lok Sabha seats, in a fractured mandate, Amma could well emerge King Maker, or who knows, even the Queen herself. Getting the NDA to back her choice of PA Sangma – a tribal and Christian leader for Rashtrapati Bhavan was a dead giveaway of both her national clout and her attempt to reach out to the minorities and eat into the DMK’s pocket borough. It was an irony that a staunch Brahmin leader backed a Christian for the President’s post and an atheist supported a Brahmin for the job! Don’t underestimate the impact of the Muslim groups that were up in arms against Vishwaroopam. Their leader Jawariullah may be just a first time MLA who won on an AIADMK ticket, but across Tamil Nadu, the Muslim vote share is a crucial seven per cent. Central Chennai, Vellore, Ramanathapuram are Muslim strongholds. Even if the average Muslim wasn’t too concerned about scenes in Kamal’s film, the spectacle of a Chief Minister being sympathetic to their sentiments is sure to pass muster.
Consider her new equation with the Christians, who again account for about seven per cent of the vote share. The Anti Conversion law in her previous regime had invited criticism from even the Pope. The convent educated Jayalalithaa now attends Christmas celebrations from Kanyakumari to Chennai. Financial assistance for pilgrimages to the holy land was announced last year. Meritorious Christian professionals have been rewarded with good posts. A prominent Nadar Christian family of former Assembly Speaker PH Pandian has been given plum assignments, not to forget former TV journalist Rabi Bernard who was made a Rajya Sabha MP last year.
In a world where conspiracy theories seem to have more credibility than candid assertions, the AIADMK supremo had to rubbish reports that Kamal’s political prophecy – of a dhoti clad leader emerging as a Prime Minister – a reference to her bête noire P Chidambaram and murmurs about some deal with Jaya TV not going through. Frankly, as Jayalalithaa clarified, Kamal Haasan is no rival. On the other hand, he has been maintaining cordial ties with both sides of the political divide; doing films with Karunanidhi’s family and also paying courtesy calls to Jayalalithaa at the Secretariat – to hand over cyclone relief and to get her good wishes on his birthday in November last year. Neither is Rajinikanth, who was also present at the now controversial ‘dhoti clad’ event and who has done a film with the Maran owned Sun Pictures and is on good terms with Amma. It is a different matter that the superstar’s statement in 1996 that “if the AIADMK comes back to power even God cannot save Tami Nadu” was attributed to the DMK-TMC sweep at the ensuing hustings. Political pundits would debunk such claims. In ’96, it was a combination of factors that led to the rout of the AIADMK, the Moopanar led Tamil Maanila Congress tie up with the DMK became a powerful force to exploit the anti incumbency wave. Rajinikanth’s statement was just another factor. Film stars are themselves aware that a fan base is different from a vote base; that crowds don’t always translate into votes. As a top political leader today, Jayalalithaa may admittedly have no time for movies. But coming as she does, from tinsel town herself, she probably realises that an administrative decision to play it safe, that hits an iconic star, may lead to bad press, a section of which she plans to sue for defamatory kite flying over the Vishwaroopam row, but could help her reach out to communities, that for long, have backed her biggest political rival.
(Sanjay Pinto is a lawyer practising in the Madras High Court and a former national television journalist)