FOR 40 days and counting, the 78m citizens of Tamil Nadu have neither seen nor heard their chief minister, Jayaram Jayalalithaa. In her absence admirers have organised marches and mass prayers, pleading to higher powers for her speedy recovery from an undisclosed illness. Last week a different Tamil lady in her 60s was killed when a procession in Ms Jayalalithaa’s honour turned into a stampede.
The epicentre for the well-wishers’ demonstrations is the Apollo hospital in the state capital of Chennai, formerly known as Madras. Ms Jayalalithaa has been there since September 22nd, her condition a closely guarded secret. Phalanxes of police stop and search everyone entering the building, including ambulances. Clusters of anxious citizens, many of them party workers, sit on the street outside, taking turns singing hymns, laying offerings of fruits and flowers, chatting and sometimes weeping openly. Men from her party, the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), wear white shirts with a filmy pocket sewn over the heart. Tucked in each, a photograph of the chief minister smiles through the fabric. The men express faith that “Amma” or “Mother”, as many Tamils call her, will be all right.
In the first weeks of her seclusion the only official reports on her condition were vague and implausible. The local press took to scrutinising comings and goings from the Apollo with the intensity of cold-war Kremlinologists. Every outlet held a 24-hour stakeout; the Hindu newspaper created a special inset titled “Apollo Diary”. The arrival of a British doctor, a specialist in treating sepsis, was noted with great interest. On October 21st the hospital produced a clearer statement about her condition: Ms Jayalalithaa was “interacting and progressing gradually”. The unsatisfied media have to tread carefully, however. Eight people have been arrested for joking or spreading rumours about the chief minister’s health on social media.
There are few democracies in which elected officials are accorded such deference. Across from the headquarters of the state government, on the seafront in downtown Chennai, a series of vaulting arches, imposing obelisks and gilt statues memorialise two of the chief ministers who preceded Ms Jayalalithaa: Annadurai, for whom the AIADMK is named, and M.G. Ramachandran or “MGR”, the screen idol who founded the party in his honour. Ms Jayalalithaa was an actress in the Tamil cinema too, and MGR’s mistress (his wife also served briefly as chief minister). A conspicuous space next to the two monuments stands ready to welcome a third.
But there is another potential claimant, Ms Jayalalithaa’s arch-rival, M. Karunanidhi. He has been chief minister for five spells starting in 1969 and is supremo of the DMK party, which Annudurai founded and from which MGR split to found the AIADMK. Mr Karunanidhi was originally a screenwriter, and wrote songs and scripts for MGR and Ms Jayalalithaa before they all fell out. He is 92 and uses a wheelchair.
Dravid and Goliath
The parties share origins in the Dravidian movement, an assertion of the rights and dignity of South Indians, and particularly Tamils, against the primacy of North India and the Hindi language. They believe that invasive northerners long ago installed themselves as Brahmins in the South at the expense of other castes, in whose favour they have tended to govern. They are generally friendly to business, their spendthrift populism aside. Mainly they compete to offer voters ever more lavish handouts. In 2006 the DMK triumphed in state elections after it offered voters free televisions; it subsequently handed out some 13m of them. At the next election, the AIADMK matched its pledge of free blenders and fans, and romped home. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tamil Nadu’s state debt ballooned by 92% between 2010 and 2015.
Yet as vapid, incestuous and irresponsible as state politics sounds, Tamil Nadu has prospered under the pair’s rule. From 2004 to 2015, its economy grew at an average rate of over 12% a year. Average annual income, at $2,431 per person, is now 50% higher than the national figure.
That is not just luck. For one thing, much of the lavish spending gets to the right people, helping to stimulate growth, points out A.R. Venkatachalapathy, a historian of the Dravidian movement. Free meals at schools and subsidised ones at “Amma”-branded canteens, where a good meal costs 5 rupees ($0.08), have ended severe malnutrition in the state, for instance.
It also helps that the two parties have run the state since 1967, to the exclusion of national parties. That is important, since their delegations to the national parliament in Delhi are sometimes big enough to hold the balance of power. That makes it hard for national governments to stand up to Tamil Nadu on matters such as the sharing of water between states, and easier for the two to extract goodies of various sorts from the centre.
“Tamil Nadu combines relatively successful economic growth with a positive performance in regard to social development, in a way that is distinctive, if not absolutely unique” among India’s big states, argue John Harriss of Simon Fraser University and Andrew Wyatt of the University of Bristol in a forthcoming study. The parties’ weakness, however, may be succession. Mr Karunaridhi is banking on his son, who is called Stalin. The AIADMK, according to Mr Venkatachalapathy, is organised around a “queen bee” or “mother termite” principle, and may not be able to function at all without her. Ms Jayalalithaa’s deputy conducts every meeting beneath a massive portrait of his boss. He keeps an empty chair for her. Forty days and counting.