Her arch-rival is confident of change sweeping though Tamil Nadu. But Brand Amma continues to flourish, in newer areas and items.
For all the political realignments unfolding in the southern state that goes to the polls in April-May, Tamil Nadu remains a two-horse Dravidian race at the moment — anchored by chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK and M Karunanidhi’s DMK.
“Winds of change are blowing through Tamil Nadu,” said MK Stalin, the DMK treasurer and Karunanidhi’s third son. His confidence stems from public anger against Jayalalithaa over the state’s precarious power situation and her government’s alleged ham-fisted measures in providing relief to millions of flood-affected people.
The state was battered by relentless rain in November that caused widespread flooding, drove thousands of people from their homes, shut down factories and paralysed the Chennai airport for close to a week.
The 67-year-old chief minister made just two public appearances during the crisis, keeping to the lofty remoteness that defines the aura around her. A 1960s screen idol, called Amma or mother by her legions of followers, discovered a salutary lesson as residents fed up with the sight of her image on billboards, aid packets and her own Jaya Plus TV channel reacted with anger.
But Jayalalithaa, whose devotees have immolated themselves in her defence in the past, have the propensity to bounce back. She had stepped down from the chief minister’s chair in September 2014 after a court sentenced her to four years in jail in a corruption case, only to return next May with a verdict in her favour.
The floods may have dented her image of a strong leadership created by an efficient publicity machine but poor opposition unity gives her a realistic chance to buck the state’s trend of voters throwing the ruling party out of power.
Besides, a clutch of freebies and subsidised goods and services are expected to soothe frayed nerves. If not, Amma mineral water cans are always around.
“They (the opposition) have no answer to Amma’s schemes. Just wait for the results. DMK will have no place to go,” AIADMK spokesperson CR Saraswathi said.
For his part, 92-year-old DMK patriarch Karunanidhi is trying desperately to bring opposition parties on board for a Bihar-type “grand alliance” to defeat Jayalalithaa.
The Bihar template, a coalition between the RJD, JD(U) and Congress that trounced the BJP-led NDA in the 2015 autumn assembly polls, could be the flavour of the season. If only the disparate Tamil Nadu region groups come together.
The DMK forgot the past and allowed its estranged partner, the Congress, to join its alliance. But purely as a junior partner since the Congress has considerably weakened after its powerful leader, GK Vasan, broke away and formed his own party — the Tamil Maanila Congress.
Speculation was swirling around Vasan joining the AIADMK as part of his long- term plan to fill the space when the two tall Dravidian leaders — Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi — were gone.
Karunanidhi and Stalin have reinforced their invite to Captain Vijayakanth of DMDK too. The subregional party with a 6% vote share will give a definite edge to the alliance’s fight against the ruling AIADMK.
Vijayakanth will reveal his strategy, whether to go with the DMK or BJP or Peoples Welfare Front (PWF), after his party’s meeting at Kanchipuram on Saturday.
Karunanidhi’s friendship drive has not gone down well with his rebellious elder son MK Alagiri and Vijayakanth’s wife Premalata. Both have criticised the DMK-Congress alliance.
In the 2011 elections, the AIADMK front became unbeatable after Vijayakanth came on board at the eleventh hour. The combine swept the polls. The DMDK became the second-largest party in the assembly, relegating the DMK to third position.
Adding to the DMK’s headache is the presence of Pattali Makkal Katchi as an independent entity in the polls. It is campaigning with former Union minister Anbumani Ramadoss as its man for the chief minister’s post.
Vijayakanth and Ramadoss were allied with the BJP during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections but drifted away thereafter.
Another spoiler could be the PWF, a combination of Left parties and regional leader Vaiko’s MDMK. It has a negligible vote percentage of less than 5% collectively. But enough to split anti-incumbency votes against Jayalalithaa, especially in multi-cornered close contests.
The BJP, which has little presence in the state, could pin its hopes on an AIADMK victory because Jayalalithaa, unlike other opposition parties, had been more lenient towards the Narendra Modi government’s reforms agenda.