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SYCOPHANCY hits dizzying heights in Tamil Nadu every year on February 24. Ask any AIADMK leader and he will tell you that it was on this day, 48 years ago,that the state was blessed by the birth of the great Puratchi Thalaivi (revolutionary leader), the lighthouse of peninsular India, the goddess of the south, the champion of the downtrodden, the light that shines in the darkness and the godmother and saviour of Tamils. Praise does not come to the Tamil Nadu chief minister as a shower. It is almost always in a deluge.
This year too, despite a directive from Jayalalitha to her supporters to be restrained in their festivities, the tell-tale signs of her impending birthday were visible days before the great day. Newspapers friendly to the government became fattened, courtesy ads from government corporations, party MLAs, functionaries and ministers, wishing the chief minister a long life. Some Tamil papers packed over 40 pages of advertisements. Cutouts appeared on the streets of Madras and senior minis-ters reportedly made their own plans to display their loyalty to their leader.
But no one was quite prepared for the orgy of sycophancy which the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) described as "barbaric acts in the modern age." Toppingthe list was T. Ravindran, self-styled secretary of the north Madras group of Followers of Jayalalitha, who declared himself dead and went through the cremation rites. Ravindran believes that this will bring prosperity to Jayalalitha.
It is not unusual to find presidents and secretaries of hitherto unknown Jayalalitha fan clubs doing some publicity-seeking deed on her birthday. Last year, a fan hit international headlines when he printed posters depicting the chief minister of Tamil Nadu as Mother Mary. The church took strong objection and the AIADMK had to issue statements that it does not endorse the actions of some of its supporters.
This year it was no wayward fan but the Minister of Local Administration, T.M. Selvaganapathy, who prides himself on his JNU degree, who released ads in local papers describing the chief minister as "another Jesus..another Krishna..and a spiritual descendant of prophet Mohammed." In the face of protests from the Muslim community, he was quick to apologise. But people in Madras will tell you that posters depicting the chief minister as one Hindu goddess or the other often surfaces at street corners.
But some other members of the Tamil Nadu cabinet were no better than Selvaganapathy. According to political observers, each minister tried to outdo the other in displaying their loyalty—all with an eye on the upcoming general elections so that they would not be forgotten during distribution of tickets. Cooperation Minister C.P. Pattabhiraman and Minister for Hindu Religious Endowments, Ammamuthu Pillai, ate rice served on the ground sans plantain leaves or plates at the Vaidudaiam-man temple in north Madras. This pagan act was done in the presence of the media and the ministers were only too happy with the publicity.
E. Madhusoodan, minister for animal husbandry, who is alleged to have links with the Madras underworld, rolled on the ground outside a Madras temple in an open display of loyalty to his leader. Another minister joined his supporters in pulling a silver chariot of a local temple—his contribution on the big day. Poovai Gnanam, district secretary of the AIADMK from Poonamalee, announced that he would build a temple in honour of the Puratchi Thalaivi.
But what sent photographers scurrying for their cameras was Sakkubai, MLA from Gummidi-poondi, who went in a procession on February 23 with other women supporters dressed in only neem leaves to the Periyapalayattamman temple, some 30 km from Madras. Sakkubai is not the first AIADMK politician in Tamil Nadu to don neem. Last year, Indira Kumari, the social welfare minister, who is now under a cloud in the wake of the Rs 50-crore dhoti scandal, had rolled on the ground in a leafy attire. Wearing neem leaves and offering prayers at temples is believed to ward off evil spirits but is a practice which is not prevalent even in rural Tamil Nadu.
Tamil satellite channels watched out for another event—the reported plan of 480 volunteers of one of the state road transport corporations to walk on fire on the morning of their leader's birthday. But at the last minute, the volunteers got cold feet and the entire exercise was called off. Last year, some AIADMK workers claimed that they had walked on fire but very few people were witness to the spectacle.
Since Jayalalitha had turned 48, it was the lucky number of the day. So 48 women members of the AIADMK in yellow sarees, carrying 48 pots of milk, walked 48 km to Madras and offered prayers attemples. Jayalalitha's election symbol in the 1989 elections which swept her to power was the cock. At the Samayapuram temple, 48 cocks were sacrificed to bring her good luck in the forthcoming elections.
The "48" fever also got to the ministers. Therefore, Minister of Fisheries and Backward Classes, D. Jayakumar, joined 48 supporters in donating blood. Finance Minister V.R. Nedunchezian, the most senior member of Jayalalitha's cabinet, donated textbooks and clothes to 48 school children. And 48 AIADMK men tatooed the chief minister's face and the party flag on their arms. Four years ago, doctors had warned that mass tatooing without proper sterilisation of equipment could lead to the transmitting of infectious diseases, including AIDS. At that time, a tatooing programme for party workers, announced by some AIADMK leaders, was called off.
With the directive from Jayalalitha imploring her supporters to do "something useful" on her birthday there was no shortage of acts of charity. Health minister, S. Muthuswamy, went around the wards of the Government Hospital in central Madras and distributed bottles of Horlicks to patients. At the district level, sweets, dhoties and sarees were distributed by AIADMK functionaries. Social Welfare Minister, Indira Kumari, promised to gift silver anklets to all girls born on February 24 this year.
But Jayalalitha did not participate in any of the festivities. Neither did she receive visitors. This birthday was minus the crowd that gathers outside her Poes Garden residence every year. The chief minister, it is learnt, spent a quiet day with her foster son, Sudhakaran, and her friend and confidante, Sasikala Natarajan.
However, her supporters made sure that her birthday would not go unremembered. It was not a low key affair by any standards and had all the drama that the AIADMK specialises in.