IN a Dravidian state where the subaltern masses keep alive a kitsch culture, it is no surprise that Tamil Nadu worships two kinds of anthropomorphic gods: film stars and politicians. The deification is easier if they are rolled into one. While the film star performs larger-than-life histrionics on screen, the politician dominates thoroughfares in larger-than-life cut-outs.
The easy transition from filmdom to politics has its best example in Marudur Gopalamenon Ramachandran. Venerated by the masses as MGR, it was proved in the last election that dropping the late chief minister's name is one surefire way to mesmerise the masses. He is a phenomenon in that both his own party and others have unashamedly revoked his ghost after his death and continue to do so to garner votes.
And it's not much different this time around. With Rajnikant having failed to don the mantle of the new messiah and Chief Minister Jayalalitha's popularity having touched an all-time low, there is once again a desperate attempt to recreate the magic of MGR in this election year. The only problem: there are now too many claimants to the late star's legacy. Barring the DMK, all other political parties are laying claim to the inheritance. V. Gopalswamy, leader of the MDMK (Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), and a one-time staunch opponent of MGR, was under a cloud for being an LTTE sympathiser. To regain his popularity, the politician played songs from MGR's films and made the most of the late demigod's name at public meetings. He is also organising a huge rally in Madurai to celebrate the 79th birth anniversary of the late leader on January 17. "The merger of the MGRFans Federation with us has clearly proved that we have inherited MGR's legacy," says K.S. Radhakrishnan, the spokesperson of the MDMK.
Meanwhile, the disgruntled AIADMK members led by the expelled AIADMK minister R.M. Veerappan are planning to bring the erstwhile MGR loyalists under one banner. On January 17, along with Veerappan, seven of the former ministers of MGR's cabinet are forming a unified front. S. Thirunavkarsu, general secretary of the MGRDMK, Panrutti S. Ramachandran, general secretary of the breakaway faction of the Pattali Makkal Katchi, former speaker K. Raja-ram and former AIADMK treasurer S. Madhavan have decided to projecta collective leadership. "Jayalalitha was accepted by the people because she projected herself as the inheritor of MGR's party. But she has erased the memory of our beloved leader. We want to harness his name's goodwill to effect a political change in the state," declares Thirunavkarsu.
Even M. Karunanidhi, president of the DMK, said that he and MGR had been friends all along despite their political affiliations. This was done, political analysts point out, with an eye to capturing the MGR vote bank. Dr M.S.S. Pandian, a fellow of the Madras Institute of Development Studies says: "This important and rather pervasive aspect of subaltern politics has hardly received the attention it deserves."
Last fortnight, Veerappan united the many MGR fan clubs and floated an MGR Front. The beleaguered Congress has rolled out the red carpet for MGR's fan clubs as well as superstar Rajnikant's 10,000-strong fan club members, his resistance notwithstanding. "This smacks of a desperate move to resuscitate the waning powers of the Congress," comments political analyst Rabi Bernard.
Pandian in his book MGR—The Image Trap says: "The elite in Tamil Nadu have projected MGR, the actor who did not have the radicalism of the folk heroes, as a pan Tamil hero". MGR would pose with two leaves, the then party symbol of the AIADMK in his films and meticulously tailor his dialogues so as to portray himself as the saviour of the masses. He used celluloid as the medium to sell himself, cultivate an image and most importantly, add to his following.
The Congress leaders led by G.K. Moopanar feel that by forming an alliance with MGR loyalists and using the Rajni mascot, the national party could win a sizeable number of seats. However, the reality is different. It is almost certain that it is going to be a repeat of 1989, when two factions of the AIADMK staked claim to the MGR vote bank. The votes got split and the DMK with its loyal vote bank of 33 per cent comfortably won the elections. "The poll arithmetic is simple. There are only two vote banks in Tamil Nadu—MGR's and Karunanidhi's, with the former's being marginally higher than that of the latter. With three claimants—Jayalalitha, R.M. Veerappan and V. Gopalswamy—to the same vote pool, the MGR magic will not work."
Says a spokesperson of MGR's household bitterly: "This is not a celebration of our beloved leader. It is a joint conspiracy to bury his name six feet under." And who can say with certainty that he is wrong.