Tamil Nadu is having a fairly bizarre election. Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa (68, aka Amma) is expected to lead her AIADMK to the single-largest position in the assembly, though it is to be seen whether she scrapes through with a majority or tops a hung assembly. Her campaign has been low-key — seven rallies till Saturday — due to some mystery. Amma leaves Poes Garden in the morning, choppers to the rally site and addresses crowds from an air-conditioned booth; she barely walks and addresses the rally seated. She returns home every evening, leading to speculation over what prevents her from spending a night away from Chennai. Thus, at DMK rallies she is called "Helicopter Rani".
The mystery — about which there is absolute leak-proof secrecy in party and in government – was apparently complicated by her three-week imprisonment in Karnataka in September-October 2014, for a disproportionate assets case (the Supreme Court granted her bail, and the case was eventually dismissed). Tamil journalists say Amma was earlier living precariously, giving in to her sweet tooth and leaving it to her physicians to keep adverse effects at bay. Jail deprived her of any special care and it impacted her health (as jail-time often does), with all sorts of rumours flying about upon her release. Whatever the truth may be, her campaign has been less-than-full-throttle.
Jayalalithaa (AIADMK) barely walks and remains seated while addressing rallies, while 93-year-old Karunanidhi (DMK) is popularly known as wheelchair Uzhaippali. On the other hand, Vijayakanth's (DMDK) erratic behaviour has confused many.
This would have hurt if Amma's able-bodied opponents, MK Stalin of the DMK (which is in alliance with the Congress) and former Leader of Opposition Vijayakanth (aka Captain, heading the DMDK which is in alliance with the People's Welfare Front, comprising Vaiko's MDMK and the left parties), both of whom are five years younger than her, were in the pink of health. Nefarious rumours dogged Stalin a decade back, but he now seems okay. Though Vaiko has called Captain the front's "Senapathi", the latter's erratic behaviour has left people scratching their heads. It is not just Captain's stubbornness over seats that torpedoed a possible alliance with the DMK (and would have handily beaten Amma); it is his string of rash statements and undignified actions. He interviewed ticket aspirants with questions like "What did I say at so-and-so rally"; he pretends to raise his hand at journalists like a cantankerous uncle; and lately he told audiences that he would not ditch them in politics the way Rajinikanth had. Rajini is considered God, so Captain's utterances were a blasphemy.
Despite his unscripted behaviour Captain is expected to run a close third to the DMK-alliance because he remains popular with a substantial chunk of voters. Like Rajinikanth, when Captain arrived in the early 1980s he was among the first dark-skinned heroes of Tamil cinema, which previously had fair-skinned stars like MG Ramachandran (MGR) and Kamal Hassan (Captain used to call himself the "black MGR"). His dark skin made rural Tamils feel he was one of them and he retains the loyalty of a generation of voters who do not give two hoots about his babblings. Plus, his political life is tightly managed by his wife Premlatha and her unsavoury brother LK Sudheesh.
Ironically, the fittest of all is Amma's bete noire and former chief minister, M Karunanidhi (93, aka Kalaignar). On Saturday, he drove to his first rally in Chennai and was immediately hailed as "wheelchair Uzhaippali". He attends his party office and even addresses press conferences. Yet the bulk of DMK strategy has been designed by Stalin and his son-in-law Sabareesan, in which social media plays a big role. It is obviously aimed at the youth and the first-time voters, with Stalin trying to move the party away from its old platform of Tamil nationalism and Tamil pride, towards a more modern platform — but like most social media enthusiasts in the political class, he is over-estimating its electoral value (especially since his party gave up on Captain's "unreasonable" demands).
The deep problem for Tamil politics, however, is the urban youth voter's utter political ignorance. This voter isn't familiar with the candidates; he doesn't even know the name of his assembly constituency. It didn't help that none of the local MLAs or corporators — or their main opponents — showed up to help when massive floods hit Chennai last November-December. You can hardly expect such a voter to be conversant with issues. This is linked to a wider societal malaise: falling newspaper readership amongst the young, who are happy to get their newsbreaks from smartphones and see no need to look deeper into issues. In the cities, a chunk of them are going into default mode and voting for Amma. A paradigm shift in Tamil Nadu politics is long overdue, and the current election may be the last we see of some stalwarts. The 2019 parliamentary poll in TN will no doubt be a game-changer in more ways than we currently imagine.
Senior journalist Aditya Sinha is a contributor to the anthology House Spirit: Drinking in India, to be published in May. He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to email@example.com