Over the last couple of weeks, five-time Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, 92, who's been out of power since 2011, is unleashing sharp attacks on ruling Chief Minister J Jayallithaa. Unlike other chief ministers or even Modi, Jayalalithaa does not have an active Twitter handle yet, she does not react to Karunanidhi or any of her rivals directly, she unlocks the piggy bank instead.
Karunanidhi is slamming Jaya over how she "mismanaged" the Chennai floods, Jayalalithaa has responded by unloading Pongal gift hampers for ration card holders across the state - which will cost her government more than Rs 300 crore. Well before the Opposition began its anti-Jaya rant, she announced the construction of 10,000 houses to resettle people who lost their hutments in the November floods. Jayalalithaa swept to power in 2011 winning 203 of 234 seats and Assembly elections are coming back to Tamil Nadu this summer.
The middle class is still reeling from the flood havoc, the Opposition hopes to make a dent by beating a tin drum of all that Jaya's got wrong during the Chennai floods while the average Joe in some corner of Tamil Nadu is most likely talking politics over a steaming Amma idli or popping a pill from an Amma pharmacy.
We bring you a slice of the backstory.
“Give me that money, you wretch,” he screams, loud enough for everyone to hear, and pushes her in a rage.
Lakshmi reels and curses under her breath while still counting the crumpled notes in her hand.
The sky stains purple along the coast, devotees are streaming out of a Ganesha temple in Adyar, Chennai. The paved courtyard ends exactly at the gate and the ground outside is pockmarked with gravel, the walk from there to waiting cars is deliberately slow.
That’s when the ragged and hungry people, waiting patiently, move in. Sitting alongside the hand carts selling fragrant jasmine and marigolds, they beg for money. “Pasi saar (We’re hungry),” they chant. Lakshmi is one of them, the temple is a good spot. Most regulars come here with two kinds of money - one to drop into the pujari’s aarathi plate, some loose change for the beggars outside. A young man has just dropped a Rs 20 note into Lakshmi’s outstretched saree pallu, her last collection for the evening. It’s almost 8 pm, the man who yelled at her has stumbled away, in search of his nightly quarter bottle.
One idli, one rupee
Lakshmi gathers up her belongings and walks across the road. She passes Coronet hotel near the traffic lights, it’s where she used to scrounge for leftovers some years ago, she walks on, she passes a potti kadai ( corner shop) selling newspapers and bajji made in reheated oil, she passes the local municipal corporation building, turns into a narrow street and stops at a tidy courtyard just adjacent an Aavin milk depot. She counts out exactly Rs 5 and asks for sambar rice, she feels like a change from her usual plate of idli. She takes her meal and walks back to her home under the narrow Adyar flyover - a tarpaulin sheet held up on one side by a few nails driven into concrete and on the other side by two bamboo poles dug into the muddy ground beneath.
If that man doesn’t come back and take the rest of the money, Lakshmi will go back for breakfast to the same place next morning - Amma Unavagam, where each idli is a rupee (the world’s cheapest?), Jayalalithaa’s urban food security scheme that began 2013.
The common man’s take-out
Not far from where Lakshmi lives, in the apartment blocks nearby, a phone rings in the car park. Hari’s mother calls to ask him when his Aiyya will relieve him for the day. She has made fresh tomato chutney but run out of dosa batter. “Don’t worry, I’ll pick up idlis,” says Hari.
He walks past Buhari’s and turns left into Amma Unavagam. For Rs 20, he takes home enough idlis for his mother and sister for dinner.
Lakshmi does not read the newspapers, but she picks up scraps of gossip while at the temple. Hari reads the papers while on breaks from driving his master’s car. Now, it’s all politics. By the time Agni Nakshatram — the fiercest spell of summer, comes around, it’ll be one hell of a fight. The Tamil Nadu Assembly elections are round the corner.
The actors, the storyboard
No change in the star cast, though. Two dominant parties - AIADMK led by Jayalalithaa and DMK led by Karunanidhi and son Stalin, and the rest of them. People’s Welfare Front (PWF) is a newbie formed by Left parties, G K Vasan has broken off from the Congress and formed his Tamil Maanila Congress, DMDK is led by Vijayakanth, a former film star, most recently in the news for spitting at journalists. Vijayakanth's cadre is mounting the pressure on him to tie up with DMK.
PMK, led by Ramadoss, has found a new anti-Jaya fix: How much does the TN govt spend on broadcasting her radio messages to the public? The Congress has done a BJP on Jaya, whipping out a 'corruption booklet' with a list of alleged scams by the Jaya government. The BJP brought out a similar booklet against the Congress on the National Herald case.
In one massive blow, Jaya knocked out all these parties in the most recent Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. The Jaya led AIADMK won 203 of 234 seats contested in the last assembly elections in 2011.
The party’s vote share jumped from 39.91 per cent it polled in 2006 to 51.80 per cent.
The DMK front saw a five percentage point swing away from it. From 44.75 per cent in 2006, its vote share dipped to 39.44 per cent.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Jaya wiped out the Opposition with AIADMK winning 37 of 39 seats.
Yes, Tamil Nadu votes differently in Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, but if you choose to keep it simple, a top Jaya government official says it best: AIADMK will always have that 33-35 %, DMK will take 20%, Congress, DMDK and PMK another 25% all put together. As long as Jayalalithaa stays open to allies and the more ways the Opposition vote gets split, Jaya gains.
“She’s going all out, especially after the recent jail term in 2014. She is giving away so much money to so many, she only stands to gain if the Opposition keeps blaming her,” say Chennai old timers.
“I’ll vote for 2 leaves, Stalin”
Over the last couple of months, M Karunanidhi’s son Stalin ditched the traditional veshti -sattai and toured the state in well cut shirt and trousers uniform but this story that’s doing the rounds sums up how that went: A bent old lady comes close to Stalin, runs her fingers along his face and says “Nee appadiye MGR maathiri irukkai. Naa kattayam-a retta ilai-ku vote poduven.” ( You look just like MGR, I’ll definitely cast my vote for the two leaves symbol).
Retta Ilai or ‘Two leaves’ is the AIADMK election symbol, not the DMK’s.
DMK blames Jaya for bad management of floods, not wetting their feet in the facts — November was the worst deluge in a century in Chennai, it was a downpour no elected government in Tamil Nadu has ever dealt with. If the Opposition has only the Chembarambakkam reservoir story to shout hoarse about, it's works to AIADMK's advantage. Jayalalithaa has asked the Centre to declare the Chennai Floods a national calamity, the Opposition is still whining about why her photo was stuck on food packets during the floods.
“How does that matter if her photo is there or not?” asks Silambarasan, 24, who moved from Thanjavur to Chennai and now repairs computers in the city. “Not one of the other politicians thought of this idea or made it happen. Other states stop with sops before elections. Jaya’s canteens feed us all three meals within Rs 25, if we choose to eat here.”
Modi went over to Poes Garden to meet Jaya and spent an hour over lunch with her in August 2015. No matter what the backstory may be -- the buzz was that he wanted her support on GST, it proves Jaya’s political muscle.
For a woman who swept into politics from the movies, Jayalalithaa is a queen bee of set pieces. Opposition blames her for overdoing it, but what about them when they were in power? Top officials who have worked closely with the Chief Minister over many years speak of her painstaking attention to detail.
For the man on the street, that translates to simple everyday safeguards. Manoj, a young man from Darbhanga, Bihar, sells samosas near Adyar Bakery. Ask him about life in Chennai and he has a simple answer: “Yahaan kanoon vyavastha ekdum achcha hai, mahilaayen aaram se baahar ghoom sakti hain (law and order is good here, women feel safe)” he says.
Politics over flood relief and Amma welfare schemes is a veshti of time.
Filmstars and scriptwriters lined up against Jaya need a new storyboard.