There are sycophants and sycophants. In politics they abound in every part of the country and in almost every walk of life. But in Tamil Nadu, they are unique. Soon after Jayalalitha was voted back into the State Assembly from Andipatti, the incumbent chief minister O.
Paneerselvam, resigned along with his Cabinet. And he knelt in front of Jayalalitha as any Hindu would do in front of a picture of Durga or Lakshmi. It was an obsequious demonstration by an individual who had been chief minister for 156 days and had experienced the satisfaction that comes from being in power and being saluted by all and sundry.
Paneerselvam has maintained that he was only filling in for his queen or goddess. He has gone on record to say that he was always confident that his queen (we will settle for that) would be proved innocent of the charges and return to her rightful position. All he did not say, and that too shrewdly, was that he was like Bharat acting as the regent for Ram, who had gone into exile for 14 years on the behest of their father. That would have put him out of favour for daring to arrogate to himself the position of a brother. The former chief minister, like quite a few million party workers of the AIADMK, will happily crawl in front of Jayalalitha every time he meets her.
To her party workers Jayalalitha is a larger-than-life figure (literally and metaphorically), and if they have yet not reached the point when they are even willing to believe that she has magical powers, they are very close to it. But what is it in her that makes people, out of the ordinary and ordinary, want to debase themselves? What is it in her nature and character that does not strongly prohibit such behaviour from her followers?
While in New Delhi, on a recent visit, V.S. Naipaul lost his temper because we Indians have not got over a colonial hangover after more than half a century of freedom. But have we rid ourselves of the fetters of the caste system? At least not in Tamil Nadu politics.
Between Jayalalitha and her professed mentor, M.G. Ramachandran, there is a major difference in attitude and approach to people. MGR was a so-called peoples’ man. He was not a Brahmin. He was a Keralite who had made Chennai his home for the sake of his film career. He sensed that in order to further his career prospects the best way would be to get associated with politicians and politics. M. Karunanidhi, other than being a popular film script writer, was actively in politics. He knew MGR professionally and took him to C.M. Annadorai.
Annadorai sensed at once that MGR was a potential vote bank. It was on Annadorai’s instructions that Karunanidhi wrote the sort of scripts for MGR that clicked at the box office as these gave the actor an image of being an ideal son, an affectionate brother (especially to a sister), brave and honourable, and an individual who older women wanted to mother.
All was well till Annadorai passed away without nominating his successor. By that time MGR’s political ambitions had already been stoked. First, he became ambitious as he knew that he had a hold on the public, particularly the womenfolk. And with age catching up with him, and then a fracas with another actor, M.R. Radha causing him to be shot in the throat, MGR sensed that his acting career was behind him and forthwith broke the DMK party. After all, he was not an outstanding actor and was unable to reconcile himself with any role but that of a hero. He was the quintessential narcissist. For MGR the caste equations in Tamil Nadu were factors that could be exploited to his political advantage.
With the marginalisation of the Brahmins in the state, no one really thought Jayalalitha would emerge as a force to reckon with. But her good looks, quick wit intellectual superiority and the fact that she was a Brahmin, attracted MGR, not quite in his dotage, but nearly so.
That the AIADMK has as its followers a majority among the castes that were once regarded as inferior and subordinate to the Brahmins, and in fact, began the movement against this particular community by Periyar Ramasawmy Naicker and his followers in Tamil Nadu, is now an irony. It would be interesting to know what Periyar would have had to say if he had been alive and seen Paneerselvam prostrate himself in front of the papathee (Brahmin woman), Jayalalitha. It would have amounted to sacrilege and Paneerselvam, who at one point in time would have probably believed in the Periyar doctrine of anti-Brahminism and atheism, would have been in the dock had he been old enough.
It is in the Tamil psyche to grovel, provided one is born to poverty and oppression. In the days when the landlords held sway villages were forced to pay obeisance to the yejaman (master), because he was the employer and the provider and therefore had the right to destroy.
The fact that for centuries the people have tried to marry within their own communities and thereby not refine or defile blood, has ensured that an attitude of diffidence continues within the lower castes in relation to those perceived as being superior castes. Paneerselvam is a thevar which is what the late thespian Sivaji Ganesan was. Ganesan would bow to none and his arrogance was legendary, especially when anyone spoke of Hollywood actors. He would haughtily dismiss most of them, even James Cagney, who it was known he admired.
Paneerselvam’s adoration of Jayalalitha could stem from the fact that he owes so much to her. Prostration is in his estimation what she deserves for being so great a leader, a fighter and the ultimate in womanhood. But in a cynical and practical world this is almost impossible to conceive, let alone comprehend.
But what about others who do not owe her anything directly? On the news in a Tamil television channel one watched in sheer amazement as people, men and women who were much older to Jayalalitha, doing the same thing. Her 54th birthday was the day when she was voted back into the Assembly. She announced that it was the best birthday gift she had ever got.
A believer in astrology and numerology as well as worshipper at Hindu temples, Jayalalitha knows that she has the Brahmin vote in her state, though it might not amount to much as a percentage. But Brahmin influence in both education and industry remains significant. At the same time she chants the magic mantra called MGR, a name that still remains a vote bank long after his passing. As far as her party members and AIADMK followers are concerned she is the heir to MGR, who, to her advantage, did not leave any progeny behind.
Does she exploit the inherent servility of the so-called lower castes? She certainly does, depending on the individual she deals with. Just the praise that she showered on the outgoing chief minister brought tears to his eyes. She said that she was fortunate to have someone as loyal as Paneerselvam, who managed affairs well and modestly. Interestingly, Paneerselvam made sure that he did not offend the Opposition in anyway during his tenure in office, and acted like how Bharat must have all those aeons ago.
Yet does this sort of servility and sycophancy befit the people of a state which produced in its time respected politicians like Rajagopalachari, R. Venkataraman and C. Subramanium? The problem might well be that most of the present politicians come from the lower castes. In fact, to be able to name a Brahmin politician in Tamil Nadu would be next to impossible. How would he or she get elected? How many Brahmins (you can forget the women) are interested in a political career? Almost none. They would prefer to stay away because their way of life is totally different to those who belong to the DMK and the AIADMK. In fact, even the Congress Party (the original one) that most Brahmins supported has been splintered.
The Brahmins’ strength for long has been the pursuit of education and thereafter generally gainful employment, preferably in government but if not, private. In such a scenario, the fact that Jayalalitha is one, is probably a novelty and makes her unique. There is no doubt that she is charismatic and appeals to the inherent servility and penchant for sycophancy that characterise the majority of the voters.
It would have to be asked as to whether any Brahmin politician would in future be able to evoke the feelings that Jayalalitha is capable of. Would there be a Brahmin politician in the future? And if there is, it must be a woman, maybe one with a “past”. Also, as Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister once said, “No woman in my time will be Prime Minister or chancellor or foreign secretary — not the top jobs.” As long as she is the boss, the other women in the state can take a back seat. And the men can crawl.
Published in AsianAge.com