Few decades ago, people in one of the tiny districts of Tamil Nadu reminisce when they saw a helicopter for the first time. It would soar up in the sky slicing the air around it with its sharp blades creating a monstrous noise with somewhat dramatic effect. As commoners join in their own terraces to watch the impromptu show cast in the sky, they wondered who might be in the helicopter. It was “that” time of elections and political parties were thronging every nook and corner in the state for their election campaign and this could only mean that the person in the helicopter was J. Jayalalitha, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. The idea of what a leader is or rather, who a leader is, was instilled in youngsters of that district as parents would excitedly to tell their children who was in that helicopter. ‘Flocks’ of people would gather to join the gawking and murmuring about attending the election campaign.
Such grand entrance made by the political leaders is not uncommon in rural and midtowns in India, but the ensuing dramatic effect it creates is even more in Tamil Nadu. The awe in commoners’ faces and the mere acceptance of a leader showing up in a helicopter showed how a popular leader can thrive in a state like Tamil Nadu.
The political history of Tamil Nadu shows many examples of such populist leaders who drove the machinery adroitly and designed the future of the state. The aura of a populist is an attractive quality that the people of Tamil Nadu expect in their leaders, which is also one of the reasons why actors and playwrights were able to take over the chief ministerial chair in the famous St.George Fort. Having given the special attention and affection to the populist leaders in the past, the Tamilians, now, need to choose a leader from the lot that has almost no candidate who can be considered a popular iconic leader who could lead the state adroitly and heroically, like a savior.
Tamil Nadu is unique in most aspects. And of course, politics is one of them. It was the only state to exclude the national political parties like Congress and give prominence to the regional parties that had Dravidian atheist ideologies in 1967. The 1967 Tamil Nadu state elections tumbled the state of affairs. Congress lost the election and while it believed that it was a temporary setback in the region, it failed to realise the rise of the Dravidian movement. Hence, it was pushed afar by the tsunami of the Dravidian movement and that effectively put an end to the party’s presence in the state.
Ever since, the Dravidian parties have ruled the state leaving no lacuna for the national parties like the BJP or Congress. The Dravidian parties have been sliced and fused many times in its more than half a decade long history of prominence in the state of Tamil Nadu. The two major political parties that led the state interchangeably in their respective tenures through these many decades are, as we already know, DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) and AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam). The most powerful leaders of these two parties since their inception are M.Karunanidhi, MGR and J.Jayalalitha. These leaders designed the fate of Tamil Nadu for the coming ages.
In the last few years, both the prominent leaders of Tamil Nadu who interchangeably ruled the state, M.Karunanidhi and J.Jayalalitha had passed away. Their absence has created a void in the politics of Tamil Nadu which lured many to enter the arena. Actors like Kamal Haasan and Rajini Kanth announced their political entry which earlier was withheld for decades. After decades of not facing the problem of choice, the Tamil people are in a dilemma to choose their leaders from a myriad of candidates today.
With the Election Commission announcing the election date for the state, the political parties of Tamil Nadu are on the wheels of fire, racing their way to grab the power. Both the major political parties of the state, DMK and AIADMK, are facing elections this year without their powerful leaders who single-handedly run these parties to victories in the past. Along with them are the upcoming political parties MNM (Makkal Needhi Maiyyam), NTK (Naam Tamilar Katchi), VCK (Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi) and PMK (Paataali Makkal Katchi). While parties like AMMK (Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam), DMDK (Desiya Murppokku Dravida Kazhagam) and PT(Puthiya Tamizhagam) are also clasping their places in the race. The result is a motley of political parties with diametrically opposite and different identities and raison d’etre which puts the Tamilians in a crucial situation to choose their leader this election.
On the campaign front, the desperation of DMK to vote out the incumbent AIADMK, which has been reigning the state for over a decade now, is more than palpable. The series of advertisements in the social media and the television where the party leader MK Stalin is seen marching with the youth, chanting “urimaiyai meetpom vaa udanpirappe” (we shall regain our rights, come, my sibling!) and him being seen bringing sunshine into people’s lives. The campaign song of DMK “Stalin varaaru, vidiyal thara poraru” (Here comes Stalin, to give us a bright dawn) has received over 52 million views on YouTube (not to mention the constant replays of the song in Kalaignar TV – a pro DMK channel owned by the Karunanidhi family).
AIADMK on the other hand, is also in desperation to clasp the victory despite the criticisms it had received in its tenure, especially after the demise of former chief minister J.Jayalalitha. The party has also taken to social and digital media by advertising the campaign slogan “vetrinadai podum Tamizhagam” (TamilNadu marches ahead victoriously), which is intended to emphasise the achievements of the ruling party in its tenure. The internal divide of AIADMK after the death of Jayalalitha has been pulling the party down. Moreover, its alliance with the national political party BJP (which has been dissented by the Tamils for its efforts to redefine Dravidian politics by infusing its RSS ideology) is a major drawback that Tamilians seem to frown upon. Nevertheless, the party is actively campaigning by means of reminiscing “good times” in its tenure.
Kamal Haasan’s election campaign for his party MNM, began in social media where he consistently posted glitzy videos of him questioning authority and defects of the political system and the ruling party of the state. And when he moved on to focus on his party campaign, there were too many things on his plate beginning from leaning onto a concrete ideology, to bringing out a manifesto for the election. However, Kamal Haasan’s film career has endowed him with a headstart in politics which gives me leeway to sail through, even with his inexperience in the field. With the election very near, he started to focus merely on campaigning in his constituency in Coimbatore. Amidst the expectations of him representing his hometown, he mentioned recently that he has chosen to represent Coimbatore to prove his indifference to caste. And as he considers Coimbatore as a place most affected by the saffronisation of Tamil Nadu by the influence of BJP-RSS through AIADMK, he has chosen to represent it to symbolise his protest.
Another notable and upcoming political party that has secured ample attention of the Tamils is the Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK). Formed in 2010, the party brings a new dish to the table of politics. The party’s clarity in its ideology is the main pillar of its existence. The party proposes the idea of Tamil nationalism, excluding itself from the Dravidian ideology that has ruled the state for decades since the 1960s. The party leader Seeman (a film director turned politician), kick-started his campaign not through social media or digital media, but through his vehement fulmination against the state of politics in Tamil Nadu in his on-stage speeches. The fuming speech often involves candour in expressing disappointment at the naivety of the Tamil people to have brought an ill-fate upon themselves which seems to work on them. Although the idea of Tamil nationalism might seem a wee bit utopian, the gradually budding interest on Tamil nationalism among Tamils, especially among the youth, has been acting as an advantage to the party. Notably, after the great protest in 2016 against the Jallikattu ban, the idea of Tamil nationalism has been appealing the masses. What is interesting in Seeman’s campaign is that his anger filled preachment-like speeches are a source of knowledge for the people who are looking to understand what Tamil nationalism means and what the idea means to them. NTK has solely relied on facing the people in person for its campaign trails. But, it did release a party song “vandhan oruvan vandhan” (he has come, the one, he has come) on YouTube which, in no way, could reach the masses as much as the Seeman’s speeches do. However, the lack of ample social media presence of the party is compensated by the independent channels on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram like Saatai, Tamil Desiyam etc. These channels promote the NTK election campaign and publish videos to support the campaign.
The labile political situation in Tamil Nadu with many parties fighting for victory hints at a paradox of choice for the people of Tamil Nadu. With no charismatic leaders or demi-gods as a candidate this time, it certainly is a beginning of a new era for the politics of Tamil Nadu. This election could potentially change the course of Tamil Nadu politics. And it eventually comes down to every single vote being cast on the election day. What is unique about the sixteenth legislative assembly election in Tamil Nadu? It is the uncertainty amongst the populace, in the absence of stalwarts, who had long been accustomed to choosing between white and black.
-Subiksha Kumar (Freelancer)
Picture Credits: ANI