What Charisma? ‘Kaasuma’ is the new found Cult in Tamil Nadu

By Jhon B.Arokiasamy.

“You all know that I will do what I say. I will also do what I sometimes don’t say. I am your mother. Only a mother knows what is best for her children.”

Amidst rumors flaying over health condition, J.Jayalalithaa the erstwhile chief minister of Tamil Nadu began her campaign for 2016 state assembly elections smiling down benevolently upon her enamored masses even as her rallies were turning into overheated death traps amidst huge opposition criticism.

“I don’t have a family of my own and I live for you”.

There was sudden shift in the method and manner of her campaign from what was seen a roaring rhetoric typical of her own style as she swung up a What’s App surprise through a melancholic plea of a different kind to emotionally woo the voters.

Eventually what counted of all was the thunderously roaring lioness fetching a historic coronation to herself over her rivals. This time the outcome was least of a contribution by her sheer charisma. It had also not come all that easily without paying an unprecedented price. M.Karunanidhi himself an octogenarian politician who remained her arch rival all through her political journey was not spared either of an outcome of the same kind.

On the contrary in 2014, Jayalalithaa demolished a perceived ‘Modi wave’ fighting him from her strong ground. You may call it signature of her charisma as the lady was seen fighting a Modi who was an apparent threat to her crown in the state though she expressed her nurtured aspirations for the seat at the center in Delhi. Not only was she brave enough of such a posture, she knew how to have anyone fret at her feet including those in the ruling BJP at the centre without compromising on her autonomy as Chief minister of the state. This continued despite her conviction and subsequent acquittal in the DA case as the appeal at SC was pending while she also became ill. She was that way an iron lady. Even Karunanidhi was a master at the art of managing the pressures of the central government when he himself remained at the helm of TN as its chief.

Jayalalithaa was distinct in comparison as over the years she had modeled herself on late MG Ramachandran who was her political mentor. She carefully constructed her image as supreme leader and a benevolent authoritarian lavishing her party-men and people of the state with largesse. She never hesitated to strike any down with an iron hand ruthlessly if they crossed the line.

Did the much exemplified cult goddess-like image of Jayalalithaa, a cine star-turned-politician remain intact ever?

Jayalalithaa was not the only cult political leader in the state. Her arch rival in equal fame as the former scriptwriter in the cine world, the 92 years old Karunanidhi too rose to an astounding heights in his political career with a pen and penchant for Tamil. MG Ramachandran himself as a poster boy of Tamil cinema too enjoyed the status till she cannibalised him to absorb his cult onto her but in her own way.

Of the great many personalities right from warlord mighty warriors in history to the dictatorial and the meak in politics that I had studied as a student of leadership strategy and communication, I have ever remained an admirer of the modern Chankaya Kalaignar and the mysteriously mighty Amma and kept them as my 21st century learning syllabus of political leadership wisdom as both transcended themselves to a whole new level of masterly stardom to remain as iconic leaders of Dravidian movement.

Amidst analysts who as a matter of convenience used to see only the uproar and up-rise of these mighty titans, what is important for a perspective in objectivity which was missing was the failure by these very same pundits to capture the historic downfall of the two great leaders especially exploring manner of their fight for power in the last assembly elections.

Media’s murkey role in the making of cult

Cinema as the most powerful medium apart it was the mainstream press that had made MGR, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa popular equally though Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa remained the dare-devil darlings of media sharing somewhat a not so comfortable love-hate engagement. Both crushed media with previlage motion gauges in the state assembly to defamation cases fought until the apex court. In the last couple of decades, the media in Chennai had evolved to become biased and prejudiced with an agenda either in favour or against these two depending on who was in power.

The media never had the guts nor the will to reflect the truth striking a middle ground. The Delhi media for their part whether or not corroborated facts with their counterparts in Chennai who spun the op-eds on Tamil Nadu politics, what you saw in the scribes sitting in the citadels of the country’s capital was an understanding no less than the murky media garbage that was not even worth a scorn.

There are numerous examples to cite but a very recent one would be an Oped in Mail Today that described Jayalalithaa as one of the most innovative political figures in Indian political history in contrast to many names it was projecting her as true epic in true quality that no other politician in India including Modi matched shamelessly eulogizing her style of populism, demagoguery, corruption into a structure of relevance almost as though hallmarks of sustainable governance.

The national media or the ones controlled by the business mafia in Tamil Nadu came across as nothing short of mortgaged loyalists to the two Dravidian parties in the state. Every single piece of opinion that emanated out of them relating to the state was colored and clouded in obsession of the personality cult of Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa not necessarily that all of them were bribed to do so directly or indirectly.

What was surprising was that the majority scribes failed to see anything beyond the idiosyncrasies of the past in the context of these two personalities while the minority rest just kept quiet. As a result people of Tamil Nadu were left in the hands of the most corrupt media anywhere in the world that dominated the political affairs of the state running the agenda for the two main Dravidian parties blindly.

But for social media that exposed both media and failing leaders, there existed no independent media in the state just as even the revered professional media had to suffer it’s own share of credibility competing with the rest of media proliferated by business mafia in the pretext of neutrality.

Media was so engrossed in the legacy of the two Dravidian leaders of the state creating cult-like environment and even infallibility for all their misdoings as they failed to expose them when they went wrong.

Political legacies do count. But it couldn’t be at the cost of evolving trends. It was unfortunate that the political pundits either not being connected to the grass-root reality or conveniently with an agenda overlooked. However the evolution of technology has proliferated a wave of disruptive outcomes that flays across political systems all over the world and the horizontal new media all over the world has taken over the traditional and vertical media of print and broadcast. As a result people are increasingly driven by a new way of horizontal thinking, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors necessitating for a new breed of emergent leaders who are insurgent forces within and outside political system. Many political pundits especially the media however continues to read and interpret signals that are selectively convenient to them out of such evolving outcomes. This approach must either change or they would get washed away with evolving technology and thinking trends globally just as proved by the recent US elections against mainstream media.

TN’s political history of Cult leadership

A close look at the political history of Tamil Nadu post India’s independence could throw light on how the state saw rise and fall of mighty leaders cutting across the ideological divide of Dravidian regionalism and nationalism that has failed from surfacing in the state.

The diversity amongst the leaders from the state included unassuming and yet resolute to the ones who were daunting and imposing of a personality cult. EVR Periyaar, Rajaji, Kamaraj, Anna, MGR, Karunanidhi, Jayalalithaa being the mainstream cult demagogues, Moopanar, Muthu Ramalinga Thevar and Ramadoss as dominant sectarian clan represented the powerful movements that remained epicenter of Tamil Nadu politics at different points of time.

All of these leaders built their political persona either as part of a universal political appeal in terms of identity and populism or by means of sectarian principles of social justice which is often seen in the light of casteism. Some of them were able to do so despite even shunting the electoral route at the cost of consuming and enjoying power.

Amongst the mainstream it was MGR, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa as the unmatched idols of Dravidian politics who were able to dominate the scene for more than 50 years in power. These demagogues were seen no less than the demi-gods worthy of literally being worshipped a cult status that was carefully fostered by them beyond even ideology. They skillfully exploited their on-screen appearance and public oratory along with paternalist populism of delivering free goods and services so unique to the state.

It was Karunanidhi’s pen that catapulted MGR as popular cine star through who he mouthed politically-loaded dialogues at the height of the Dravidian movement. Karunanidhi remained the architect of creating Dravidian idols of popularity and populist polices even as there were allegations that these idols deliberately deployed cinema culture, state enforced liquor and freebies besides several populist schemes as the tools of intoxicated mass seduction to build their charisma.

These leaders captivated the imagination of the large section of illiterate and innocent voters by these means with an unquestionable strong emotional binding.

Jayalalithaa’s cult on the contrary was distinguished of all by her own personal characteristics, promotion of leader adulation, empathy for self-aggrandisement, and disrespect for dissidence seen as hallmarks of fascism added to her the cinema popularity that had given her an edge in exploiting the context just in the lines of her master MGR.

The mystery calibrated to surround her evoked sycophancy with her followers as that of deities worshiping their goddess of plenty in awe which was encouraged and rewarded by her, a reason why whenever she fell she was made to rise for the mutually rewarding goddess-deity benefactor-beneficiary experience by her followers who were emotionally animated to adore her as infallible.

As a result, though she was plagued by a disproportionate assets case for over two decades and had to renounce the CM’s chair twice being sentenced to imprisonment, she could bounce with a historic win by becoming the first Tamil Nadu chief minister in 32 years to retain power for two consecutive terms, all of which is part of this rewarding design.

Dravidian charisma – Conspiracy of Polarity, popularity and populism

The key to an immaculate power especially in Tamil Nadu remained often not through committed public service. It was through creation of an infallible personality cult in the minds of followers that can transcend ideology, probity, morality or even legality. The cult leaders were perceived as more conspired against than conspiring; especially Jayalalithaa depicted herself a victim of adharma fighting against her asura her arch rival Karunanidhi.

Was the extent of infallibility beyond even legal reckoning as the cult enjoyed by both a sheer dent of their personal charisma? Definitely not. Contrary to what all the pundits have been writing about none including Jayalalithaa could have accomplished the magnificent victories of their political careers through sheer mark of one’s persona alone.

It was vividly evident not only from the phase of 2016 state assembly elections; even after the demise of Jayalalithaa over the affairs of her party especially how things have manifested to everyone’s surprise to duck her into a sudden oblivion.

The adulation of her as a supreme leader was evaporating all of a sudden in the eyes of her party functionaries. This in itself was a testimony that her charisma was nothing but the rewarding largesse or her punishing live presence in front of them, and not a true epic quality that can be tested by the fire of future faithfulness. Those who were shamelessly even ready to fall prostrate in front of her helicopter or car in her absence then could switch lines of their loyalty in no time the moment she was no more.

The diminishing image of Jayalalithaa appeared any different from the rank and file power hungry party functionaries to the a section of the cadre who have slowly started to accept the fact that the void she had left for her party needed someone to protect the party going into shambles besides each one’s self interests as top most priority over Jayalalitha’s loyalty.

The recent developments in both the Dravidian parties especially after Jayalalithaa’s demise and Karunanidhi’s illness that crippled him into inaction expose that both the leaders and their electoral victories that gave them unrivalled political power was certainly not due to their absolute persona. This was where not only the media’s assessment of Jayalalithaa or Karunanidhi miserably failed always; the image of their absolute infallibility was deliberately being reconstructed by the corrupt bi-polar lobby including the media.

The hysteria around the cult of these two leaders was artificially cultivated in terms of their personal characteristics and through the populist policies that were used as tools by them over a period of time. In a state where a sizeable chunk of the population remained poor and woman voters, there was always an opportunity for these leaders to garner political support by providing a social security net that was emotionally linked to the leader’s persona.

‘Amma’ in the form of several pecuniary schemes delivering free food, free laptops, free TV sets, free rice, free gas stoves, free mixers, free grinders, free cattle was a typical manifestation of such a persona.

Cult is a waning fallacy in TN

Be it Jayalalithaa the towering and iron-handed personality or Karunanidhi the political mastermind of Dravidian movement, the fact that they won over their rivals ever as a result of their charisma was no longer a fact which was proved in the 2016 assembly elections despite the fact that both delivered stunning historic mandates to each other routing their political rivals together in unison. The underlying fact was that both suffered unexpected and unprecedented blows that actually demolished the myth of Dravidian cult.

The first blow to the electoral charisma of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi was when the smaller parties unlike ever in the past refused or did not buckle under pressure to group into a bi-polar alliance instead chose to echo a strong rallying cry against them for an alternative space. These were parties that were always masterminded to be divided into bipolar Dravidian alliances groups to contest elections under the leadership of DMK and AIADMK in the state.

The second blow was coming together of six parties as a third-front that projected an actor turned politician Vijayakanth as the face though it fizzled out eventually despite his own appeal as cinematic persona.

The biggest blow perhaps was in the form of a resurrected PMK brandished as caste outfit with a stunning slogan necessitating for change and an agile, healthy and a well-educated young Anbumani a former union minister with a good track record of performance as contender with a silent wave in his favor that shook the Dravidian leaders at one point.

Anbumani redefined the electoral landscape of 2016 elections that looked brand new with never before seen modern methods of electioneering in the form of stagecraft and hi-tech campaigns countered in vigor and grandeur by Stalin the heir apparent of Karunanidhi himself. Belonging to a party that stood for the cause for more than 30 years, Anbumani was predominantly able to create a campaign setting with a narrative that rallied the public sentiment of prohibition, and a radical approach to dissent the populist policies including freebees.

The charismatic leaders of an unquestionable stature of Dravidian movement were forced to toe this line without an option. They were pushed up to the extent of committing themselves beyond empty rhetorics in the form of manifesto promises as against their own Dravidian culture of announcing freebies election after elections.

Furthered by PMK followed by a host of others, not only DMK that reintroduced liquor to the state even Jayalalithaa of AIADMK herself was forced to announce step by step prohibition of liquor which she even had to implement when she came to power as opposed to her own initial stand in the state assembly that it was impossible. The policy narrative was backed strongly by massive protests by women across the state then largely contributed by Anbumani himself as part of his year long campaign as a precursor to elections besides the impact creates by incidents such as a fast unto death of a Gandhian by name Sashi Persumal and controversial arrest of Kovan, a social activist folk singer.

Why was Jayalalithaa an iron lady of an unmatched charisma with unrelenting attitude all through her political career relented on prohibition just before elections contrary to her own stand? What happened to her infallibility? Why did DMK follow the Manifesto proposed by Anbumani in toto especially on freebies after introducing such an approach to the state? Why couldn’t Karunanidhi stand to his guns? What happened to his infallibility? Above all, why was there no questions raised by any of the media pundits sitting in their ivory towers either in Delhi or the ones in Chennai as to what the warlords of unrelenting stature were doing things that they never did in their entire political careers?

Were these cult leaders themselves getting jittery just as their very tools of populism that helped them create pseudo charisma for them were getting demolished by an insurgent to the state’s electoral politics? Perhaps for the first time, they were and it was obvious. If one had to read the signs of last assembly elections, and the maddening method of a new found tool that was being deployed, beyond doubt, they seemed more than jittery. More than charisma or caste that was abused so much in Tamil Nadu politics by every party without any exception there was something else which proved could do a better job in elections this time.

Was there something that could overpower caste in Tamil Nadu politics? The electoral politics in the state was always marked by the arithmetics of caste. Both the Dravidian parties of Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa always deployed the divide and rule strategy of smaller parties by coercing them to join in alliance and playing the caste card smartly. Their respective parties themselves if closely studied were nothing but a group of closely held dominant caste factions centered on an ideology and yet remaining as the largest caste entities camouflaged by the personality charisma that was projected to overpower the caste fabrics that knit them together.

In a first of kind context where these charismatic leaders were left with potentially no strong alliances amidst chaos of multiple voices pitching for an alternative slot and just as a determinant new leader in Anbumani emerging to wage an unconventional guerilla warfare of modern kind to probably disprove the infallibility of these two leaders to win with majority, the writing on the wall was clear of a falling charisma of the two that was chasing caste and cash for its rescue.

Anbumani’s party managed from succumbing into an alliance trap this time despite a heavy sponsored media blitzkrieg unleashed against to brandish it as caste party, it stood to its guns to go alone right from not joining in alliance to contending to the very same top post for the first time openly declaring a Chief ministerial candidate who was certainly able to create impact in the campaign context. He himself may have been defeated. What he delivered for his party was resurrection of sorts and as an alternative third position that too contesting all alone and yet playing a spoilsport as the only party that could pull down the victory margins for DMK and AIADMK by its closest difference as second and third in over 60 constituncies even if it was in the northern region literally washing out Vijayakanth’s DMDK out of the scene which contested part of a six-party front that had earlier edged PMK down in northern region itself. Thus his party captured the most important slot as the real alternative to the two Dravidian parties creating a situation in future that either of them can no longer win without especially in a post Karunanidhi and Jaylalithaa era.

Was Jayalalithaa herself not adopting caste over her own charisma to counter Anbumani’s party that was expected to do exceptionally well in a region denting her prospects to form government on her own? The impact was seen when Jayalalithaa chose to the rescue of caste as a tool first and then cash when she gave seats to large number of candidates belonging to the caste associated with this newly emerging leader and this was again first time by her that she was giving so much of prominence to a particular caste and region in her electoral equity which she never did.

Cash – the New found cult of TN

Every single sign of the last elections had proved that the myth around the charisma of the two Dravidian leaders was demystified. It was their well-orchestrated appearance, and articulated campaign rhetorics of public oratory and their populist schemes besides the way they behaved delivering their powers that used to drive the crowds, alliances and people mad in favor of them.

They cult leaders held the track of winning elections at the sight of waving their hands and by the powerful look of their eyes a persona that was sculptured to seduce their audience with their on-screen popularity and on-ground populism. It was these leaders who always stitched alliances of their choice and made other parties to run behind them always. They were the ones who had the luxury of setting electoral agenda in Tamil Nadu. They were ones who were leading other parties and people with the populist agenda of their choices.

There were all the signs that were suggestive of a falling dominent Dravidian charisma during the phase of campaign for 2016 assembly elections. It was for the first time both Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa had to follow the agenda set by an emergent leader. An agenda for prohibition. An agenda against freebies. An agenda for development over populism. They both were forced to adopt. They both were forced to compete for playing the lead too. What rescued them eventually was not their charisma. Nor the caste game did they always play camouflaged by that very charisma. It was Cash the new found Cult of Tamil Nadu. It was for the first time in the history of Tamil Nadu politics the demi-gods of Dravidian movement had to win in their own respective constituencies by cash, and not by charisma.

It was cash that ruled the entire state of last assembly elections with a historic voter bribing across all the 234 constituencies including the by-polls where it was alleged that several thousand crores had to be spent by both the cult turned cash leaders. It was for the first time the polls in two constituencies were cancelled especially in any state general elections in the history of Indian elections on account of an unprecedented voter bribing which was openly acknowledged by the election commission of India in its own speaking order.

Was cash never used before just as caste? It was. Ask anybody. This time the difference was to the extent of cash itself becoming a disruptive tool. And it was delivered with a meticulous logistics of never before seen surgical magnitude of seductive strike going by the entire list of voters across every single constituency.

These two cult leaders of massive stature themselves resorted to their absolute rescue even in their own respective constituencies for themselves to win their own seats more than their carefully nurtured charismatic legacy to cash, the newly found cult of TN.

The proof of the pudding was that the state had seen highest haul of unaccounted cash and gifts seizure ever in the country by Election of commission of India. The IT raids at places of an erstwhile Electricity minister of TN and his aide, and the recent IT raids at the residence and office of chief secretory of Tamil Nadu that has imprinted a black mark shaming the state in its entire administrative history and the ones conducted at several places of a powerful contractor seen as close aide of the power centres of the state with seize of several hundred crores and several KG of gold as reported by media need no mention of proof of the cash kingdom that was inherited by the party in rule.

Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi may have delivered stunning mandates of majority over all to each other as ruling and opposition again in the last assembly elections. Jayalalithaa may have even secured a historic win to be eulogized as ever the tallest and strongest. But this time, the pundits of media anywhere in the world, particularly the ones in Chennai must know their facts right. It was certainly not by an iota of any Charisma.

What’s more, there was a sudden loyalty switch by the AIADMK partymen in no less than 24 hours immediately after the erstwhile CM’s controversial demise and her massive cut-out bearing poster lady of demi-god stature turning overnight into to a passport size portrait at the corner of publicity materials of her party men.

What other proof? Even loyalty runs to the rescue of cash that holds the power and not charisma. What gave power for those in the business of politics to acquire power who stooped then and continue to stoop now to conquer the cash is certainly not charisma.

Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa may have deserved stories of charisma. Did’t they deserve exposure when they failed their own charisma to caste and cash as in last elections? The shameless media in Tamil Nadu will continue to stoop and construct stories of charisma and they will do so even to a donkey as long as it’s of the two cash rich Dravidian clans.

Correct your facts. What charisma? Kaasuma is the new found cult in Tamil Nadu. Demonitisation and digital economy might pose a major challenge for future. It might even be all that not easy to win elections just with cash alone in future. But for now, there is no crunch for charisma if you have Cash.

The author is a founder and leadership strategist at Persona Leaders and Persona Media.

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Do Not be pushed to the corner nor at the centre.
To win as a Leader, Maneuver in all directions and create space for battle.
Focus and strike at your polarity to gain majority.

| Jhon Arokiasamy |

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