In any other country, it would have been considered astounding, even comical. When the AIADMK ‘chose’ finance minister O Panneerselvam to take over as chief minister after J Jayalalithaa was thrown in the clink by a fearless judge, the dear man and the entire Cabinet wept copiously at the very thought of supplanting their beloved Amma. Amma was found in possession of assets far beyond her ken, but who cares about that?
Many years ago, I remember reading the genuine bewilderment of a foreign journalist over how a large woman in a cape could command such ferocious loyalty over her Cabinet colleagues, her party workers and many people in the state. Indeed, it is an abiding mystery to many as to how this woman, with her carefully enunciated words as if she were speaking for the intellectually neo-literate, her bizarre sartorial accoutrements and her now proven corruption, could command such intense emotions.
Part of this has to do with the hyper excitable Tamil whose emotional threshold is very low. It takes little to tip him over the edge. The death of even a starlet leads to people doing away with themselves. When Indira Gandhi died, people went to the extent of cutting themselves with broken glass so as to bleed to death. The cult of film stars is in your face and larger than life, they dominate the landscape of towns and cities with enormous cutouts.
Why, you will wonder, would people who produce scientists who can cobble together the Mars probe at cut-rate also be in such awe of an imperious and distant woman who thought nothing of celebrating a foster son’s wedding with the most vulgar show of wealth and bad taste?
The political bootlicking is understandable, she wins them elections. She will throw you out on your ear unless you genuflect before her, preferably prostrate on the ground. She really does appreciate it if you wear your Amma heart on your sleeve.
No other chief minister barring Amma’s mentor, MGR, enjoyed such fanatical devotion. Amma who inherited the mantle, displacing the late hero’s wife, decided to cultivate a hauteur, a mystique, an Our Lady of the Largesse image. She would give, but it would only be in her name. In return, no questions should be asked about her own conduct. Panneerselvam’s longevity and position owe itself to his absolute subservience to Amma. And the people’s adoration stems from the many, many sops she has given them. Unlike in other states, Amma’s goodies actually reach the people, thanks to a robust bureaucracy. So there are Amma idlis, cement, clothes, cinemas, schemes for the girl child. Some have even chosen Amma dreams by tattooing her name under their eyelids.
Amma has created the nearest we have to a welfare state in Tamil Nadu, where the poor can eat at one rupee and be assured that they can reach a meal. Here in Ammaland, promises are kept. And that is enough to buy you a lot of loyalty. She is also a source of great pride to the faithful. Northern politicians come calling on her, not the other way around.
Now, she cannot hold office for a good long time. But Panneerselvam is not going to get above himself, he cannot fill that copious cape. Like the enigmatic Eva Peron, Amma is the goddess who walks among the faithful, how will they ever get on without her? By pretending that Panneerselvam will keep the seat warm.
In face, so legendary has her political resilience become that even rivals are wary of rubbishing her. She might just come back and unleash a terrible retribution against them. And she will take no prisoners when she comes riding into town again, the faithful Panneerselvam by her side.