In Tamil Nadu, the first signs of change are visible on the walls of its capital Chennai. The beginning of a political alliance, the emergence of a new campaign or the posturing of an incumbent government—all play out on the graffiti painted on the walls, or the posters that that often cover it.
A couple of weeks before the election commission’s model code of conduct, (which asked the district administration to remove all political posters and banners) was imposed across the state ahead of the May 2016 assembly elections, the wall space was dominated by the achievements of the current chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s—Amma to her supporters—government. Strictly adhering to the brief issued by the chief minister to her party, the walls were painted with details of the various welfare schemes initiated by her government. The only thing punctuating the political propaganda were her pictures, most of which show her handing out freebies under a government scheme.
The “Brand Amma” is clearly the campaign strategy for the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) as it hopes to win the state polls for the seventh time since the late 1970s. From the popular success of the unavagams, the canteens selling wholesome meals at a subsidised cost, to the baby kits for young mothers, cement bags, packaged water bottles, the free laptops distributed to students, bags of salt, seeds, boards outside vegetable shops, pharmacies and movie halls, “Amma” firmly stamped her presence on practically everything.
According to figures released in the 2015-16 state budget, the state government spent 36.8 percent of its annual budget on social welfare programmes. Jayalalithaa is betting on these freebie schemes—some of which are yet to take-off and some of which have found their way into flourishing grey markets— to see her through the 2016 assembly polls.
For most of last year, she had seemed assured of her success, but in December, signs emerged that her confidence had been rattled a bit. Speaking at her party’s general council meeting, held in Chennai on 30 December, Jayalalithaa hinted at the possibility of a coalition partner in the polls. Her address to party workers suggested that she was keeping her options open. “I will take the right decision at the right time,” she said. There is no single strategy that can win all elections.” She reminded her party workers that in both the 2009 parliamentary polls and the 2011 assembly polls, the AIADMK had electoral allies. Her address did not mention that in 2011, she had been confident of winning on her own steam but had formed an alliance with the DMDK under pressure from party men. The 2011 grand alliance included the left parties, Manithanya Makkal Katchi, Puthiya Tamalikam and All India Forward Bloc.