ON 19 FEBRUARY, Tamil Nadu’s chief minister J Jayalalithaa ordered the release of seven people convicted of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, after a Supreme Court order commuted the death sentences of three of these convicts to life imprisonment. It was a stunning statement, and made national headlines. Her admirers called it a master stroke—but it was prompted by her arch rival, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader M Karunanidhi, who had written just the day before in his paper Murasoli, calling for the plotters’ release. Jayalalithaa, who has always been a severe critic of the LTTE, decided to capture the popular mood on the issue, and ended up taking over a discourse mainly generated by the media (and feebly propped up by Karunanidhi to remind people off and on that he is the “Tamilina thalaivar,” leader of the Tamil community). The objective was to gain political mileage, ensure that the Congress would have no allies in Tamil Nadu in the months to come, and leave little to no space for the other Dravidian and pro-Tamil parties to oppose her decision.
For months now, hoardings all over Tamil Nadu have declared Jayalalithaa as prime-minister-in-waiting. She behaves like one already, making audacious decisions even as she remains fully aware that they will not go unchallenged. The woman on the posters, smiling serenely as morphed images of world leaders crowd the edges, apparently paying obeisance to her, has been chief minister of Tamil Nadu thrice in the past twenty years. With her greatest rivals, the DMK, routed in the 2011 assembly polls and embroiled in the power struggle between the sons of the patriarch Karunanidhi, she is eyeing the moon—all forty parliamentary seats (thirty-nine in Tamil Nadu and one in Puducherry) in 2014. That is an awesome number, and an unlikely target given the five-pronged contest under way in the state. But were she to gain something close to it, she might well be the kingmaker—or the ruler herself.
Tamil Nadu has the unique distinction of having been ruled for nearly fifty years by a screenwriter and two actors, all masters of their craft. Here, the real and the reel have a symbiotic relationship that can make the unthinkable happen. So a Brahmin came to lead the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a party that had its roots in a movement that denounced Brahminism. People who puffed their chests out to chant “Tamil is our breath”—one of the Dravidian movement’s historic slogans—saw no difficulty in accepting as their leaders both the non-Tamil MG Ramachandran, and Jayalalithaa, a woman who was born in Mysore to Mandyam Iyengar parents and once spoke Kannada with better ease than Tamil. To accept leaders as gods is a party compulsion, and god can speak any language.