At around 2:30pm on Friday, under a scorching summer sun, traffic was at a standstill on arterial Anna Salai in Chennai. The reason – a victorious J Jayalalithaa was heading to garland a statue, in her first public appearance in 217 days.
Along both sides of the road were lined cadres of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, waving flags and placards and dancing to the tunes of roadside bands.
“They have made a comedy circus out of all this,” laughed Durai Pandian, a 42-year-old autorickshaw driver as he perched atop the median taking a picture of the drama with his mobile phone. “They really think we are idiots,” he said as he wiped sweat off his brow.
On being quizzed further, Pandian explained why he thought so. “These people are acting as if Amma has won some award,” he said. “She has only been acquitted in a case. I heard that there are so many mistakes in the judegment. How did she get acquitted then?”
Pandian’s question is finding echo in the minds of many residents of Tamil Nadu, which has come to grips with the fact that corruption is the norm and is indeed, almost a way of life in recent years.
And with the acquittal of the CM-in-waiting Jayalalithaa, in an appeal in a corruption case on May 11, and subsequent reports that the judgement is flawed and riddled with errors, the skepticism has only increased.
Add to that a flurry of jokes and memes on WhatsApp about the Kumaraswamy calculator (poking fun at the High Court judge CR Kumaraswamy for arithmetic errors in the verdict) – and Jayalalithaa’s acquittal has become something of a joke among the people.
“A maximum of maybe 10,000 people are commenting on WhatsApp on the verdict and this only exposes their ignorance of the facts of the case,” said Rabi Bernard, AIADMK Rajya Sabha MP and spokesperson for the party. “The masses are behind Amma. We are not worried."
The Karnataka High Court acquitted Jayalalithaa, saying that she did have disproportionate assets but they were within the permissible limit of 10%. Based on two cases, Justice Kumaraswamy came to the conclusion that disproportionate assets within 10% to 20% have been taken as a permissible limit in such cases. However, many legal experts have questioned the judgement.
A sense of amused boredom, however, was evident among the spectators at the antics of AIADMK cadres who went into overkill to create a carnival-like atmosphere in Chennai as their Amma emerged in public for the first time in nearly a year.
“Jokers,” said Sampath Kumar, a bystander at Poes Garden who watched events unfold. “Do they even know what they are celebrating?” he added.
“Whatever the people feel about the verdict may not matter in the elections,” said Gnani Sankaran, a political critic. “The crowd that turned up today is an engineered, mobilized crowd. Party cadres are showing their strength, hoping to prove to Amma that the public doesn’t care about her case. What exactly the people think is a different issue and whether that will be a factor in the 2016 elections is another issue. Elections are not fought on the basis of corruption in this state. The DMK and the AIADMK have come back to power despite corruption charges against both parties,” he said.
The AIADMK though insists that the Amma cult rules on in the state.
“Let me tell you what I saw today,” said Bernard. “We were waiting near the MGR statue at Anna Salai for Amma to arrive. There are a lot of tall buildings in the area and I saw people standing under the hot sun for hours, waiting for a glimpse of Amma. I think the enthusiasm of the people is very high."
As the clock ticked on for almost an hour with no signs of the traffic moving, a 57-year-old woman in a nearby share-auto began to complain.
“They (AIADMK workers) paid me Rs 200 to stand at Amma’s residence and wave flags,” said Rani, a housemaid. “I had the biriyani they gave me too. I need to get back to work now and see how we are stuck in this jam,” she cursed.
As if on cue, Jayalalithaa arrived, garlanded the statue of her mentor, left with convoy in tow and the traffic, mercifully, began to flow.
As Jayalalithaa appears set to be sworn in for another, shorter innings at the helm, her party will gear up to reinforce her cult-like status amongst the electorate.
And the DMK will do everything they can to rip that image apart to pieces. The stage is set in Tamil Nadu for a battle royale.
(Sandhya Ravishankar is an independent journalist based in Chennai. She tweets as @sandhyaravishan)