Cult personalities have ruled Tamil Nadu's political landscape for long be it CN Annadurai, MG Ramachandran, J Jayalalithaa or M Karunanidhi. People from the state worshipped them as demigods, kept their portraits alongside those of gods at home, sometimes built temples for them and were even willing to sacrifice own lives for their 'heroes' and 'heroines'. For the people of Tamil Nadu, these leaders were not humans. They happily lived under the diktats of these modern-day feudal lords in a trance-like state, gladly accepting the fruits of populist politics. Concepts like scrutiny, criticism and analytical assessment of the policies of incumbent governments were alien to the people from the state. Still, they called it a democratic system.
When Jayalalithaa died in December 2016, there were some hopes of change in the personality cult politics followed in the state. But despite the end of the 'Amma' era, nothing seems to have changed in Tamil Nadu. This is evident even at the end of the high-drama AIADMK merger. Tamil Nadu is back to what it is always used to — personality centered and populist policies driven style of regressive politics.
The likely ouster of VK Sasikala and the merger of the warring factions of AIADMK might have sealed a grand political deal for O Panneerselvam and E Palaniswamy in Tamil Nadu. There may be more than meets the eye in this bonhomie if one factor in the meetings of AIAMDK leaders with BJP top brass ahead of the merger. At the national level, new political equations could be emerging. Both OPS and EPS are safe and happy at the end of a long bargain for power. All in Amma’s name.
But, what’s in it for the rational voter of Tamil Nadu? Refusing to move on from Amma’s legacy and continuing to idolise her, and vowing to continue with her policies as the mantra of governance, is bad for the state. Despite the new equations emerging, there was nothing to suggest that the new AIADMK leaders will chart a different path, breaking away from the personality-centered, populism-dominated, Jayalalithaa model of governance that has dragged the southern state to the brink of a debt crisis. Both OPS and EPS have renewed their pledge to stick to Amma’s legacy by seemingly agreeing to symbolic steps — turning Jayalalithaa’s residence to a memorial and permanently abolishing AIADMK secretary post so that J Jayalalithaa will continue to be party’s permanent general secretary — and thereby indicating that her policies too will continue.
That would also mean that nothing changes as far as the culture of populism is concerned. In fact, AIADMK has lost an opportunity to reinvent the party and chart a new course, breaking away from Jayalalithaa’s populist era and saying goodbye to personality cult politics. One needn’t be surprised if the post-merger-government doles out more Amma brand of freebies to the Amma 'devotees'. Tamil Nadu already has a lot of them.
Over the years, populism has taken a heavy toll on Tamilnadu’s state finances. In the five years between the financial year 2011 to the financial year 2016 — when Jayalalithaa was in office — the debt level of Tamil Nadu has risen 105 percent from Rs 1.14 lakh crore to Rs 2.35 lakh crore. This is the sharpest increase in debt levels by a large state. Of all the Indian states, only Haryana has beaten Tamil Nadu with a 141 percent rise in public debt. Needless to say, most of this debt is a consequence of Jayalalithaa’s populist bandwagon aiming at the poor of the state. Other large industrial states like Maharashtra and Gujarat have seen their debt level increase by a relatively better 64.5 percent and 60.3 percent in the same period. At the same time, there was no corresponding trend in tax revenue.
According to the 2016-17 Tamil Nadu Budget, tax revenue was estimated to increase to Rs 90,691.87 crore from Rs 86,537.70 crore, the revised estimates of 2015-2016. According to an IndiaSpend analysis, Tamil Nadu’s debt has witnessed a 92 percent increase over five years ending 2015. According to the Reserve Bank of India data, Tamil Nadu registered the highest gross fiscal deficit among all states in 2015-16 at Rs 31,830 crore.
To understand how much the personality cult dominates the state’s scheme of things one needs to only take a quick glance through Tamil Nadu’s 2016-17 Budget document, presented by then finance minister, and later a caretaker chief minister and now deputy chief minister, Panneerselvam (read an earlier story here). The word 'Amma' (mother) was used six times in the budget, the adjective 'Puratchi Thalaivi' was used once and references to 'chief minister' were made 31 times. It reminds you the verses of old Hindu scriptures that typically begin with a prayer to the cosmic force. Panneerselvam appears to be offering prayers to the AIADMK supreme leader often in the budget speech, thus making the whole 86-page document a humble submission at the feet of his and his party men's supreme 'mother'. The 'demigod of the AIADMK' image is something Amma inherited from MGR and is now being sought by her two biggest loyalists.
Panneerselvam’s 2016-17 Budget document was eloquent about Jayalalithaa’s iconic cult status. Terms like, "unparalleled", "unflinching" "historic", "infinite love" and "affection" are used to describe Jayalalithaa. There is no other Indian state like Tamil Nadu, where political leaders enjoy blind devotion of their followers, mostly from the poorest strata of the society. For the most part of her life, Jayalalithaa carried the stature of a demigoddess, first as an actress and later as a politician, before whom her supporters were never shy to prostrate. For them, Jayalalithaa was never human.
Most of the social welfare schemes in the state are named after her — ‘Tamil Nadu Village Habitation Improvement’ (THAI) scheme (thai in Tamil means mother), 'Amma Unavagam' (subsidised food), 'Amma Kudineer' (drinking water scheme), Amma laptops, 'Amma Baby Care Kit', 'Amma Magapperu Sanjeevi' and 'Amma Arogiya Thittam'. There are a number of such schemes that carry her name. People adore those products/services as mother’s blessings, thus melting the thin line between populism and insane, often blind personality-driven politics.
It was nothing but this populist model of politics that apparently gave Rahul Gandhi an idea to experiment with Congress party’s canteen chain in Karnataka. To escape from the debt-bomb, Tamil Nadu needs a break from populism and personality cult politics. But, continuing with the Amma legacy of populism is only going to do more harm to the state's finances and the people. It's time Tamil Nadu bids adieu to personality-centric politics and gives room for rational thinking, criticism, and scrutiny of the decisions made by the politicians.
Updated Date: Aug 23, 2017 06:42 AM