In the last week of September 2014, when I was reporting live from the AIADMK headquarters in Royapetta in Chennai, the atmosphere was very tense. The party cadre was angry because the special court in Bengaluru had sentenced their supremo, Jayalalithaa, to four years in prison and imposed a fine of Rs 100 crore in the Disproportionate Assets case.
"How dare you take Amma's name," one of them wagged his index finger menacingly at me. "You cannot call her by name. Say 'Amma'," he continued, the TASMAC effect adding to the anger quotient. Many of them abused Narendra Modi in Tamil, insinuating that he had a hand in the adverse verdict.
Determined not to let the half-inebriated, half-emotionally charged cadre have its way, I referred to Jayalalithaa from then on as the chief minister or AIADMK chief. But the reaction was hardly surprising in a land given to deifying its living political leaders.
Tamil Nadu Assembly Speaker P Dhanapal is among the many such devout. Though by virtue of his position he is deemed to be neutral, he ruled on Monday that the present chief minister cannot be referred to by name in the House. This even as there is no specific rule that prohibits the leader of the House from being referred to by name. At the same time, he ruled that former chief ministers — read Karunanidhi — can be called by their names.
That raised DMK hackles, especially since AIADMK MLA PM Narasimham had just a while ago referred to Karunanidhi by name, instead of 'Kalaignar' (artist) or 'Thalaivar' (leader) or even 'Tamil' as he is respectfully called as a tribute to his prowess as a poet in the language. The DMK argument was that nonagenarian Karunanidhi, a five-time chief minister and a 13-time MLA, too cannot be called by his name.
The AIADMK defended its MLA and the Speaker's ruling. "Karunanidhi is not even the Leader of the Opposition, he is merely an MLA. But the chief minister is the highest post in the land. An assembly is not a public meeting. We are not asking the opposition to call her 'Amma' but they should not take her name either," says CR Saraswathi, AIADMK spokesperson.
In public though, the DMK has not been so touchy as its political rival. It has not demanded that Karunanidhi should be called 'Kalaignar'. National newspapers and TV channels often reduce Karunanidhi to Karuna in the headlines. The DMK also perhaps realised northies would mutilate the moniker, given how they reduced even a real name like Azhagiri to Ajagiri before the man concerned, in desperation, changed his spelling to Alagiri. Ditto with Kanimozhi whose name is often mis-pronounced as Kanimoji.
Jayalalithaa, for years was referred to as 'Puratchi Thalaivi' (revolutionary leader) but into her third term in 2011, with age catching up with her, she perhaps wanted to convey a softer moniker that would go with the welfare agenda that she planned to unleash on Tamil Nadu. 'Amma' fitted the bill.
Not many AIADMK cadre would be aware that AMMA is the short form of 'Assured Maximum service to Marginal people in All villages scheme'. Unverified stories about how Jaya became Amma abound.
One of them typically goes back to her days as an actor. The first film song she sang herself on screen was Amma endral anbu (Mother means love), which was composed by the musical genius KV Mahadevan for the film Adimaippen (Slave Girl) in 1969. She starred opposite MG Ramachandran in the movie.
Another possibility is that the name is the result of the cradle scheme that Jayalalithaa introduced in 1992, to tackle the high rate of female infanticide in many districts of western and southern Tamil Nadu. Under this scheme, a number of children were subsequently adopted.
Experts say to convert the Amma-fication into a rule is taking it too far. Brand communication specialist Smitha S Ranganathan says 'Amma' is a brand that cannot replace Jayalalithaa's real name. "It is sycophancy of the highest order. If the person is speaking about the CM politely, there is nothing wrong in referring to her by name," says Smitha.
The Speaker's ruling is also seen as a disconnect between the political society and real society. Brand consultant Harish Bijoor says, "We are in 2016. At a time when most people prefer to be on first name terms, our legislators need to loosen up."
Experts say Jayalalithaa should take a leaf out of her mentor, MGR's book. "The late MG Ramachandran was happy with being called MGR and did not force anyone to call him 'Puratchi Thalaivar'," points out Gnani Sankaran, a political analyst. "The Speaker's ruling makes democracy in Tamil Nadu into a monarchy, where we are not citizens but subjects."
But then Tamil Nadu of 2016 is also in makeover mode, gradually transforming into Amma-Nadu, given the number of Amma products that have flooded the state under the AIADMK regime. William Shakespeare would find few takers here.