Back in the 1950s when the politically ambitious M Karunanidhi would take to the DMK stage with a spring in his step to deliver rhetorical speeches on the Dravidian cause, hundreds of cadres and even members of the public would queue up and pay to listen to him. That was an age when the DMK’s sway on the masses was such that entry tickets would be sold like hot cakes at party conference venues where the eloquence of C N Annadurai and his deputies would hold the audiences captive.
During the time of MGR, crowds would patiently wait for hours for the screen demigod-turned-political messiah to turn up past midnight and just flash the ‘victory’ symbol. On one occasion, ‘Navalar’ Nedunchezhian, a seasoned second line AIADMK leader, kept a crowd engaged for over an hour by delivering a speech harping on the Tamil word, summa, (just or simply) till the odd hour when MGR made his charismatic entry on stage. Such captive political audiences are a mirage now in the era of paid crowds and social media ‘followers.’ Dravidian scions, eager to emerge from the political shadows of their fathers, have realised this in recent weeks and hit the road untaken months ahead of next year’s turning point Assembly elections.
In a bid to sell themselves to the masses, M K Stalin, Karunanidhi’s third son and Tamil Nadu’s eternal political prince-in-waiting, and Anbumani Ramadoss, whose father S Ramadoss had founded the PMK, are trying to usher in a new political culture conducting colourful road shows besides heavily banking on social and traditional media vehicles. Anbumani, who takes pride in having served as the youngest member of the Manmohan Singh Cabinet during UPA-I, is trying hard to come out of the PMK’s umbilical Vanniyar casteist cocoon. Projecting himself as an “alternative” chief ministerial candidate, he has managed to grab some curious eyeballs with his slogan of ‘Change and Progress with Anbumani.’
He has been appealing to the people to give a medical doctor a chance to govern Tamil Nadu, which has seen a school dropout, a scholar, a film script writer, three actors and even a former tea stall owner as Chief Minister. It is anybody’s guess if this political gamble of Anbumani would yield electoral dividends outside the Vanniyar-dominated constituencies in north and west Tamil Nadu.
In his new avatar, Stalin has unshackled his traditional Dravidian political image. Shedding the signature white shirt and dhoti, the DMK leader has started on a political picnic in the state, sporting strikingly bright colour shirts, trousers, sneakers and dark sun glasses. To get himself identified as one among the masses, he has tried his hand at cycling, riding a scooter and a tractor besides taking an open ride in an auto-rickshaw and sipping tea and tender coconut at common man’s stalls. The idea seems to be to show himself as a ‘younger’ leader defying his age.
However, Stalin is still unable to officially declare himself the DMK’s chief ministerial candidate thanks to Karunanidhi’s unmatched appetite for political accomplishments. Anbumani’s path, though, is clear as his father had, while founding the PMK itself, declared he would not hold any political or public office.
Tamil Nadu has not witnessed such populist political image-building exercises since the days of MGR and Rajiv Gandhi who, while on tours, would often break protocol to hug a commoner or casually chat up with a slum dweller or villager. Leaders have for long maintained an aura around them that gave them a larger than life image. But MGR and Rajiv Gandhi lived in an age where access to television meant being fed on DD news and a vast illiterate population lived in admiration of its political icons.
In the age of social media, both Stalin and Anbumani have been attracting bouquets and brickbats in equal measure. Reactions to their campaigns have been instant and harsh. Anbumani’s bitter opponent Thirumavalavan of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi has lampooned the former for borrowing the ‘poster boy’ idea from Barack Obama during the US Presidential race. Memes are doing the rounds poking fun at his slogan and superimposing his image with that of comedians. Likewise, every time Stalin strikes an offbeat pose, he gets instantly trolled online with a matching meme featuring comedian Vadivelu, whose film career nosedived after he identified himself with the DMK in 2011. A wag quipped that for once, actor-turned-politician and DMDK leader Vijayakant, whose party men complained to the police about those making memes featuring him, must be smiling at the plight of his political rivals.
Such jokes apart, it is good that politicians have been compelled to get out of their comfort zones and perform odd publicity tricks to remain relevant in a state where hero worshipping is legendary.