Flags and festoons line the streets of Chidamabaram, leading up to a huge open private ground where a glittering arch bears chief minister Jayalalithaa’s smiling face. It’s said Lord Shiva as Nataraja dances in Chidambaram because it is the centre of the universe. This Tuesday in March, Chidamabaram reaffirms its place in the world: Jayalalithaa—or Puratchi Thalaivi (“revolutionary leader”), or Amma (mother), the general secretary of the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)—is due to arrive as part of her 2014 election campaign trail.

On February 24—the day she turned 66,  and was presented with a massive birthday cake shaped like the Parliament building by party workers—Jayalalithaa announced her list of candidates for 40 constituencies, 39 in Tamil Nadu and one in Pondicherry. She also declared her campaign schedule; kicking off from March 3 in Kanchipuram, it was an ambitious list of destinations across Tamil Nadu, culminating in Chennai on April 21.

The candidate stands in a corner, hands folded, often in a pose of exaggerated gratitude and unequivocal servility.

This is the first time that, except for Chennai, Jayalalithaa is restricting herself to only political rallies; in previous years, she would take to the streets in a modified van followed by an entourage. She rarely got out of the van, and stopped only intermittently to greet people waiting on the sides. Party officials state that her poor health prevents her from doing this street show across Tamil Nadu any more.

 Also a first, local MPs, candidates and party leaders are not speaking at Jayalalithaa’s rallies this time, not when Jayalalithaa is slated to speak at one. In past elections, they would also take to the stage and speak at length about their achievements and ideas, which would then be followed or preceded by Jayalalithaa’s speech.

 This election, only she speaks. The candidate stands in a corner, hands folded, often in a pose of exaggerated gratitude and unequivocal servility. Once she’s done, the crowd disassembles and goes home. This election, she’s making sure that it’s all about, and only about, Amma.



ayalalithaa is due to arrive at 2.30 p.m. by helicopter at the Chidambaram venue, a private ground off the highway. A stage is erected in the centre, and a huge roped-off area full of sand and chairs is where people will stand or sit to watch the drama unfold. The enclosure is surrounded by large cutouts of Jayalalithaa, and one of MGR with his iconic cap and sunglasses. A gas balloon with the AIADMK party symbol of two leaves printed on it looms against the sun.

 By 1 p.m., the field is packed, though onlookers say that the number is closer to 50,000 than one lakh. “The numbers have been dwindling,” says R. Ramesh, a local stringer for a number of Tamil newspapers. “During the days of MGR and the early days of Amma, there was a great hysteria to meet her; people would miss work and there would be a great walk-in crowd. Today, almost all the crowd is brought in by party workers.”

An anthem to Jayalalithaa is playing on loop on the loudspeaker. Thanga tharagaye, varuga, varuga, varuga. Oh golden lady, welcome, welcome, welcome.


A number of AIADMK flags are waving, but there are a far greater number of red and green ones that dominate the landscape. A party worker is standing on the stage with a microphone, repeatedly imploring that the rogue flags be taken down. Local leaders had convinced a women’s group to bring its members to the rally to add to the crowd; when it comes to rallies, it isn’t about political loyalties, it’s about numbers. Unfortunately, the members turned up with their own flags.

 Ramesh explains, “The local party worker is scared that these flags will be the first thing that Jayalalithaa sees from her helicopter or from the stage. She won’t be happy about that.”

 The party worker is wiping his face with a handkerchief, looking increasingly frazzled. These rallies are Amma’s court, and alien flags, however friendly, have no right to flutter.

 By 2 p.m., a few flags have disappeared. The sun is ferocious and many people crouch on the sand due to lack of chairs. Children nestle under the skirts of their mothers’ and grandmother’s saris, protected from the blazing sunlight. A band has just finished playing a series of thumping beats. There’s no shade here; the only sections covered are the stage and a small area where Jaya TV (AIADMK’s television channel) crew have set up their equipment. Now, an anthem written to Jayalalithaa is playing on loop on the loudspeaker. Thanga tharagaye, varuga, varuga, varuga. Oh golden lady, welcome, welcome, welcome.

 Groups of policemen are standing on the periphery, checking bags and controlling the crowd. Cuddalore’s Superintendent of Police, A. Radhika, told media people that 1,000 police personnel had been deployed in and around Chidambaram for the rally.

Even if she landed at the foot of the stage, she would want a convoy to accompany her," says a local AIADMK party worker. “Amma requires a standard of reception and greeting. She is not just anyone.

Jayalalithaa’s helicopter is coming from Trichy but there is no sign of it. The crowd is getting restless, and the heat relentless. Water packets are occasionally distributed, hot and tasting strongly of rubber and plastic, but can do little to dissipate the heat. To keep the crowd interested, volunteers periodically shout and point to the sky, indicating that the helicopter is on its way. The crowd surges to its feet to wave at the empty skies before losing interest.

The ebb and flow is repeated every 20 minutes, the anthem still blaring, until 3.45 p.m. when the helicopter is finally sighted. “She isn’t late,” a local policeman from Chidambaram, R. Sethupathy, says, surprised at the question. “The crowd is brought in stages from morning. Many have been here for over five hours. Amma will only come after rahu kalam (a daily one-and-a-half hour period of ‘inauspiciousness’ indicated by the Vedic calendar). The helicopter will only land after rahu kalam is over, as per her command.”

 Two helicopters arrive. The first is a black one with a motley crew of politicians and Black Cat commandos; the second is a brown one that holds Amma. “She will never travel in a black helicopter if she can avoid it,” Sethupathy says. “Amma is very superstitious.” The superstitions extend to other logistics too; Kumaravel, one of the youth volunteers from Salem, says that the chief minister insists that the stages face north when possible at campaign venues. “Vadaku pakra,” he says, literally translating to “where it looks”. “It’s based on vaastu. She does things to ensure her success.”

 In Chidambaram, the helicopter lands in a helipad adjoining the field. The helicopters are reportedly leased out by a Madurai-based company, whose owner is an ardent AIADMK supporter. The helipad was constructed only a few days before when the venue was shifted from the Annamalai University premises (the university has a helipad) to this ground. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)’s Khushboo Sundar was reported saying that 40 helipads have been constructed in Tamil Nadu for Jayalalithaa to use. “Almost ₹75 lakhs has been spent … at least ₹2 crores are spent each time she goes on a campaign, where is this money coming from?”

The enduring image of Jayalalithaa that has built up over the years is one of a woman who is perceived to be arrogant, demanding and unpredictable.

DMK’s treasurer and leader-in-waiting, M. K. Stalin, has also consistently lashed out at Jayalalithaa’s helicopter use during the course of his campaign trail, since he only travels by road.

A group of National Security Guard (NSG) commandos stand on the perimeter of the helipad. When the helicopter lands, they come forward and surround it. A staircase is placed at the door of the helicopter, and Jayalalithaa alights, waving stiffly. She is escorted to a waiting Land Rover which drives towards the stage a few dozen feet away, the NSG personnel jogging alongside.

“Even if she landed at the foot of the stage, she would want a convoy to accompany her,” says Rajamanickam, a local AIADMK party worker. “Amma requires a standard of reception and greeting. She is not just anyone.”



rom a 16-year-old who made an unconventional Tamil cinema debut as a young widow in Vennira Aadai in 1965 instead of doing her bachelor’s degree (she reportedly only attended college for a day) in Stella Maris College, Chennai, to the political figure she is today, the enduring image of Jayalalithaa that has built up over the years is one of a woman who is perceived to be arrogant, demanding and unpredictable.

 Raja Muthukrishnan (name changed) was the AIADMK’s press secretary—a position Jayalalithaa herself held in 1983—during the early 1990s. Sitting in his spacious, marbled house in Adyar, he is now nearing 80 and has disassociated himself from politics for nearly 10 years. “We all join politics for two reasons: a naive excitement of contributing to change a system and help people, or the money and power that can come with it. But everyone will admit to joining for the former, never the latter.”

The sycophancy of party cadres is encouraged: falling at her feet, remaining standing while she sits, listening to her with hands folded. “She won’t treat colleagues as equals, she doesn’t want an equal. She is Puratchi Thalaivi.

According to Muthukrishnan, the public hysteria surrounding political campaigns has ended. “There were times when scores of people would pour out of their homes to hear Karunanidhi’s poetry, see MGR and Jayalalithaa. In Tamil Nadu, that hero-worship no longer exists. We are told on television that lakhs of people are waiting to hear a leader address them. What is not said is that most of those people are there by coercion or bribery. But politicians do not want their advisors to be honest about that. They like to enjoy the illusion of love and popularity. The Dravidian parties are that way.”

 An AIADMK local secretary calls Jayalalithaa’s progress a lonely path. With over 15 years in politics under his belt—most of which were with the AIADMK—he says that not many people have a clear read on Jayalalithaa since she keeps herself withdrawn from relationships with party workers, even those reported to be close to her. “She has cultivated her figure into one of awe, respect and fear. Party workers scramble when she comes; her anger is a frightening prospect. After the alliances she has personally and professionally formed and lost, she chooses to move on her own. There is no open-door policy in this party.”

 A 1998 profile of her by Outlook magazine quoted former Rajya Sabha MP Valampuri John as saying, “She is a bundle of contradictions. There is a deep-rooted attitudinal problem which can be traced to her past. She perceives all men in her life—her father, MGR, her one-time live-in friend Shoban Babu—as people who failed her. Therefore she seems to have developed a deep distrust of almost everyone.”

At the AIADMK headquarters in Royapettah, Chennai, party officials are uncomfortable to say too much about the woman that some describe as being omnipresent. Many interviews are refused, and many of those who agree to speak frankly do so on condition of anonymity. Jayalalithaa’s propensity to anger is legendary in these offices, and no one wants to be on the receiving end.

 The local secretary says the sycophancy of AIADMK party cadres is always encouraged: the falling at her feet, remaining standing while she sits, listening to her with hands folded. “She won’t treat colleagues as equals, because she doesn’t want an equal. She is Puratchi Thalaivi,” he says. “She doesn’t trust anyone enough. Her party workers play up the adulation because they want money and power. It’s a bad game.”

 He mentions incidents of party workers carrying her pictures with them, even embossing their briefcases with her photograph. “They are not cut down to size for displaying such adulation. In many ways, it’s what she wants.”



he magic number of one lakh is what organisers of rallies aspire to. Party volunteers begin canvassing weeks in advance in areas around the venue. “We try to encourage people to attend; this is not about canvassing for votes. We speak to self-help groups, local panchayats, and small political outfits,” explains Kalairajan, AIADMK youth party worker in Salem. 

Only 21 years old, Kalairajan is a slim, excited young man wearing a red checked shirt and jeans. He grew up in Salem, and has only been to Chennai once. His entire family supports Jayalalithaa, he says. “My father attended MGR’s rally in Chennai in the 1970s. He wanted to immolate himself when MGR died. Our family will always support the AIADMK.”

 Kalairajan is active on Facebook, posting updates and pictures of Amma and her policies. “My friends and I want her to come back because she is a stable leader, and she won’t forget about the smaller towns,” he says, sitting in the air-conditioned interior of a Subway restaurant in Fairlands, Salem. “She wants to become Prime Minister. We want to help her to get there.”

 There are several Twitter handles devoted to the AIADMK and the promotion of Jayalalitha, including handles like @votefor2leaf, @vote4admk, and @voteforamma. Her rallies and speeches are reported on in careful detail, all in 140 characters or less, and her policies are retweeted constantly. Facebook page followers are emailed constantly, encouraged to vote for Jayalalithaa for “peace, prosperity and progress”. 

The BJP has been trying to make inroads in Tamil Nadu, riding on the so-called Modi wave. However, the alliances came late, and are reported to be uneasy.

“The Internet has come to smaller towns also, so we know the value of reaching out to them,” explains R. Prabhu, who manages one of the Twitter handles. “I watch all Amma’s speeches and live-tweet, so that the updates are quick and accurate. Every day we get new followers, and people reach out to ask how they can help. Social media is only about getting the word out. There are posts on her daily speeches, the achievements and schemes under AIADMK rule. The other parties do not offer the single united leader that the AIADMK does. Jayalalithaa can be projected as a national leader. Which other Tamil Nadu party can say the same?”

Jayalalithaa’s prime ministerial ambitions are a recurring theme in her political rallies this year: almost all rallies venues sport large cutouts of Parliament. Madurai’s rally went one step further by having a cutout of the Red Fort. The stage too is usually designed to resemble the Parliament. “The DMK is full of internal strife and has not yet discussed prime ministerial ambitions,” says Madhanbabu, an AIADMK functionary in Chidambaram.

The BJP has been trying to make inroads in Tamil Nadu, riding on the so-called Modi wave, and has allied with, among others, the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), headed by actor Vijayakanth; the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a caste-based Vanniyar party headed by S. Ramadoss; and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), a party started by Vaiko, a former DMK man. However, the alliances came late, and are reported to be uneasy.

“The PMK and the DMDK have a history of trouble, and the relationship is said to be difficult,” says Madhanbabu. “Also the parties are unlikely to pull weight at the Centre, and Modi is not well-known in interior Tamil Nadu. That only leaves Amma.”

In the 2009 general elections, the AIADMK won only 9 seats, while the DMK swept 18. Till date, Jayalalithaa has not nominated a successor to take over the reins of the AIADMK, nor is there a visible second rung, so it is likely that the party will fragment once she is gone. Some party workers admit that not even a list of probables can be drawn up at this stage, and no one knows the AIADMK’s future. Sources also say that she is in very poor health, which is why she is making a wholehearted national pitch in these elections.



hen he was 14 years old, Muthu dreamed of becoming a movie star. It was an ambition born of watching his favourite actor Rajinikanth in countless movies. “I was also Muthu,” he says, referring to the eponymous hero of the 1995 movie Muthu, which cast Rajinikanth as the servant of a zamindar in a small village. “I thought I could be like that.”

However, a marriage and two children later, Muthu says things changed very quickly. Now 30 years old, he’s one of the workers contracted to set the stage at Peramblur—a small town about 60 kilometres from Trichy—for Jayalalithaa’s rally on April 13. 

Muthu works as a contracted labourer, digging telephone lines and ditches on municipal work when he can, and finding other work when he needs to. Living in a shanty behind Venkatesan Hospital in Perambalur, he has worked as a labourer for countless political rallies, often travelling to Thanjavur, about 75 kilometres away, and Trichy, since opportunities there are greater.

“Political parties will get in touch with a local contractor about 10 days before the programme is scheduled,” says Rajdas, a 21-year-old labourer from Karur, where another AIADMK rally is scheduled for the same day. “The contractor is usually a party supporter, which is how he gets the contract.” A contractor will gather a group of about 300 workers for each rally, and put them to work about three days before. Cutouts come from local vendors and are mounted. Barricades are built and the stage is erected. Venues on the helicopter trail must have a helipad within a short distance, so groups of workers are put in charge of making sure that the helipad is clean and useable for the arrival of the chief minister. Workers are paid about ₹200 a day.

Some workers don’t receive even the minimum. “Many are given two meals per day and a ‘quarter’ (180 ml) of brandy,” says Senthil. “People will still work for it since that is enough.

Prabhakar (name changed on request) is a contractor based in Trichy. This pot-bellied man in a white Ramraj shirt and dhoti—the preferred outfit of politicans in Tamil Nadu—is a known AIADMK supporter, and is often hired for rallies in and around the area. “We are given a sum of money from the party and a list of things: the size of the space, say ten acres, then the facilities, like stage, barricades, chairs, number of cut-outs, banners. Our job is to contract workers and handle their payment; the party usually does not come into that process.”

Prabhakar declines to mention what sum is initially paid to him, only stating that it runs into several lakhs. “We are guessing it will be over ₹25 lakh at a minimum,” says Senthil, another worker. “But workers will not see that much money.”

Some workers don’t receive even the minimum amount per day. “Many of us are given two meals per day and a ‘quarter’ (180 millilitres) of brandy,” says Senthil. “People will still work for it since that is enough.”

Muthu has seen countless leaders from various political parties speak, and says he is equally disinterested. “The first time I saw Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi was exciting. Now why would I care? I don’t vote, because I don’t receive anything in return. My life has not changed in over 10 years. My son will probably do the same job as me since I can’t afford to educate him. My wife is always tired. I will make about ₹1,000 from this job over five days, if I am lucky, and then move on to find another job. The same thing will happen next week and after.”

Muthu has many dreams: owning a house, sending his children to college, buying his wife a sari, drinking sarakku (alcohol) that is expensive. He admits to one other. “I want to go in a helicopter. I have helped repair so many helipads for visitors to Tamil Nadu. I think I should travel in one also.”



n the months leading up to the general election, the AIADMK has launched a number of populist schemes, including Amma Unavagams or canteens where meals are sold at subsidised prices: ₹1 for idlis, ₹3 for a serving of curd rice and sambar rice, and ₹3 for two chapatis. Amma water was also launched, producing and packaging drinking water in bottles sold at ₹10 per litre.

In February, while announcing the state budget, Chennai’s mayor S. Duraisamy announced plans to launch Amma theatres, offering cheap movie tickets to poor and middle class families.

The DMK was quick to criticise the schemes as attempting to promote Jayalalithaa as a brand but the AIADMK is unruffled, claiming that these schemes exist only to help people. This isn’t the first time that the ruling party has attempted to prominently put its mark on schemes, programmes and buildings. In 2012, the DMK legal wing secretary filed a petition in the Madras High Court after the renovated MGR memorial on Marina Beach bore the distinctive two-leaf symbol of the AIADMK. The petition questioned using public money for constructing party symbols.

The AIADMK is covered in a cone of silence. Voices don’t come out, and even inside it, people are scared to speak because Amma is everywhere; she hears everything.

When the case came up for hearing, the state government’s representative placidly responded that this wasn’t the official party symbol approved by the Election Commission; it was actually a representation of the wings of Pegasus!

In the AIADMK party headquarters and the Jaya TV office in Chennai’s Ekkaduthangal, there is a distinct undertone of excitement as elections draw closer. Tamil Nadu has an electorate of 5.4 crore, and party workers tell me that Jayalalithaa has a lot riding on this election. “The expectation is that she will sweep all the seats,” says one of her senior secretaries on condition of anonymity. “Failure at this stage will be catastrophic for her and for us.”

Even when she isn’t in office, party officials are loath to say too much, if anything. “No one wants to be in her bad books,” says a youth wing leader in Vellore. “There is a lot of unrest now, with former DMK leaders joining the AIADMK and vice versa. A lot of campaigning is privately happening with smaller caste- and religion-based outfits to expand the vote bank. We are clearly told not to speak out of turn.”

Even party officials who work in capacities of press and propaganda work refuse interviews. “It is better that information comes from Jayalalithaa,” an official tells me. He knows, of course, that it won’t—Jayalalithaa is not known to give many interviews to journalists. Unlike other parties, the AIADMK has not authorised a spokesperson to speak on its behalf to the media and on television shows. A majority of officials from the party and even from Jaya TV refuse interviews.

The AIADMK is covered in a cone of silence. Voices don’t come out, and even inside it, people are scared to speak because Amma is everywhere; she hears everything. 



t’s only early April, but the sun is beating down on the corrugated tin sheet that forms the roof of Mariyamma’s house in Leigh Bazaar, Salem. The area is popular for wholesale retail, with merchants thronging its narrow gullies every day, but it’s also home to thousands of families like Mariyamma’s, who survive just above the poverty line.

We live and work and die here from many years, but we only get visitors before elections.

Mariyamma is vague about her age; she tells me she is nearly 70 but her son says she’s about 50 years old. The room they call home is barely six feet wide, but four of them live within it: Mariyamma, her son Arul, his wife Mangai, and their six-year-old daughter Shanti. Mariyamma’s husband had been a construction worker. When he died two years ago, Mariyamma took his place at the construction site, joining her son and daughter-in-law in the workforce.

A single electric bulb shines from the ceiling of the room. Mariyamma proudly tells me that they purloined it last year and used cables to draw power from an electricity pole nearby. There are four flat pais or mats on the ground, a gas stove in the corner with a heap of well-scrubbed pots, and a line of items on a shelf: tooth powder, a comb, a pot of kajal, a bar of Medimix soap, and a tube of Vicco turmeric paste. An old, scratched wooden cupboard in a corner holds family treasures: Arul and Mangai’s wedding invitation, a tiny golden bangle that Shanti had worn as a baby, and a small bundle of emergency money.

Two days ago, two young men—youth party workers of the AIADMK—had come to the area in an auto-rickshaw. They moved door-to-door, showing printed pamphlets to every resident. Mariyamma procured a copy and saved it. Puratchi Thailavi Amma is emblazoned across the top, while a collage of now-familiar images border the bottom: a young Jayalalithaa being kissed by her mother, Jayalalithaa standing with hands folded with her sari pallu pulled over her shoulder, Jayalalithaa’s figure superimposed over a picture of Parliament in New Delhi.

None of the residents were too excited. Valliamma, who lives two doors down from Mariyamma, says they have seen this many times before. “We live and work and die here from many years, but we only get visitors before elections.”

We are taken to the venue in buses, lorries or share autos, and given a packet of biryani. Sometimes there are two or three hundred-rupee notes folded under the packet. Then we go back home after the rally is over.

It’s an oft-repeated sentiment across cities. In Chennai, 43-year-old Vasanthi was deputed by the AIADMK to visit houses, apartment buildings, tea stalls, and roadside shops in a series of streets near Pondy Bazaar, T. Nagar, to canvass votes for the party. It’s tiring and uncomfortable work, and she says many residents close the door in her face, refusing to offer her even a glass of water. Vasanthi first says that she is paid by the party for her work; she later quickly adds that she does it out of commitment. “I am just trying to do my part for Amma. She promises infrastructure and development and household items for people like me.”

Vasanthi admits that it is difficult to predict voting patterns in Tamil Nadu, and does not think that attending a rally promises a vote.

In Salem, the canvassing follows a similar pattern: asking for votes and feedback, explaining why the AIADMK is stronger and less corrupt than the DMK. Today, the two men are here for a different purpose, one that the residents are equally familiar with. Jayalalithaa’s campaign schedule is bringing her to Salem on April 3, and residents of these poverty-stricken areas are encouraged to attend.

Media and blogs have, for years, spoken about how rallies draw crowds through food and money. Mariyamma cheerfully corroborates these claims. “We are taken to the venue in buses, lorries or share autos, and given a packet of biryani to eat. Sometimes there are two or three hundred-rupee notes folded under the packet. Then we go back home after the rally is over.”

I ask her whether she goes for the money or to see Jayalalithaa.

She laughs, and the neighbours smirk. “Why do you ask all that? Our daily wage is ₹150. For more than that, we are given food and taken for a programme. Who would not do it?”



ccording to an election expenditure tracker by the Centre for Media Studies, India’s politicians are expected to spend about $5 billion (over ₹25,000 crore) on their campaigns this year, three times more than was spent on the 2009 elections. The Indian Express says that at least ₹2,000 crore is being spent on advertisement campaigns. Given these figures, it’s unsurprising that party officials are tight-lipped about the total expenditure on Jayalalithaa’s campaign trail.

 Jaya TV exclusively beams live all of Jayalalithaa’s campaign rallies, and holds all the footage. Every rally has a formidable set-up for Jaya TV crew—the only section of the entire venue which is covered, apart from the stage—which includes three or four jimmy jibs (boom devices with cameras on one end) to hover over the crowd, dipping and swiveling to capture the crowd which cheers and waves in response.

All rallies give a majority of attendees some form of freebie before they attend: from a red-and-black striped scarf to saris with the irrattai ilai print.

“The jimmy jibs are used to give viewers a perspective of the crowd,” says Vetrivel, an assistant producer with Jaya TV who is with the team at her rally in Karur. “Showing the crowd is as important, if not more, as Amma’s speech, because visuals carry a lot of impact.”

What you see is not always what you get. “When the crowd is thin, we splice in video footage from other rallies,” says Vetrivel. “It increases the breadth of the crowd, and that makes the viewer assume the crowd is inflated. It is the visual that they want.”



ver the weeks of the campaign trail, the AIADMK party symbol of two green leaves, called irrattai ilai, becomes a recurring theme at all venues. It’s seen on cheap rayon scarves, saris, rings, caps, cardboard cutouts, stickers and even people. A young man in Salem shaved the centre of his head before the rally and dyed the hair on the other side bright green, bringing the party symbol to his scalp. The Internet is also helpful. A quick Google throws up AIADMK desktop wallpapers, such as one of actress Anushka in revealing costume, with a pair of leaves carefully superimposed onto her bare stomach.

The walkways leading to the rally venues are hubs of commerce, with stalls selling water bottles (not Amma water), ice cream, and souvenirs doing brisk business. A pack of stickers bearing Jayalalithaa’s face goes for ₹15, while rings with her face enclosed in plastic cost ₹30. Pendants are cheaper: choose between MGR and Jayalalithaa for ₹10.

All rallies give a majority of attendees some form of freebie before they attend: from a red-and-black striped scarf to saris with the irrattai ilai print. People are asked to assemble near their homes for lorries, buses and share autos to pick them up and take them to the venue. In Salem, huge trucks have been hired to gather people from various points and bring them to a large ground on the Namakkal-Salem highway. People—babes in arms and the elderly, sunburnt women and schoolboys—are loaded onto the trucks, standing room only, and pressed together to make sure that each vehicle is filled to capacity. The lorries then lumber down the highway to the venue.

Radhakrishnan is the proprietor of one of the companies that has hired out a fleet of lorries to the AIADMK. He says that at least 100 lorries have been hired to bring people from around Salem alone. “People are brought from Krishnagiri, Dharmapuri, Thiruchengode, Hosur, Madurai, even Bangalore, since Bangalore is less than 200 kilometres away. Some lorries are hired out for ₹500 plus a half-tank of petrol; other transport companies might give their lorries to appease the ruling party and cultivate a relationship with them.”

Lorries are labelled with numbers, indicating the areas they pick up people from. Shakuntala is one of the women from Kamalapuram, near the Salem airport, who was brought to the venue by lorry at 11 a.m., five hours before the rally started. “The lorries arrived by 10 a.m. and we were asked to get on and wait for it to get full. They gave us some water packets. Food packets were also given.” She shows me a partly-consumed box of biryani. Chicken biryani is the meal of choice, since mutton is expensive, and it isn’t economically viable to distribute it in such large quantities.

Ten minutes later, she taps me on my shoulder, and fishes out two ₹100 notes from her blouse. They are wrapped in a handkerchief but are still damp with sweat. “My husband received this also when he was given his biryani packet.”

Several others around her also freely admit to having received money along with food. “Political parties used to pay more before, sometimes even ₹500,” says 40-year-old Venkatalakshmi critically. “But when your daily wage is ₹100, this is very lucky for us.”

Three hours later, when Jayalalithaa takes the stage, she lashes out at the Election Commission for including the transport expenses of those attending the rally to the candidate’s account. She says, “People come of their own will. They come on their own, just out of interest to attend.”



alem’s rally was initially scheduled to take place in Bose Maidanam, a large space in the centre of the city. It was later shifted to an open ground off the AH43 highway: an area called Gajalnaickenpatti about 14 kilometres from Salem’s city centre. The rationale was ease of access by bus and lorry.

The highway is packed, bumper-to-bumper, with heavy vehicles loaded with people. People are whooping and cheering, groups are singing, AIADMK flags are waved energetically from windows, and the traffic is crawling. From road to venue, the excitement is only mounting. Feeble rope barricades and policemen holding hands try to keep the crowd in check, but the policemen are woefully outnumbered. The area around the helipad is a centre of activity. When the first speck is spotted in the sky, a stampede breaks out. The crowd surges forward, surrounding the helipad, screaming. The lucky few with camera phones attempt to take photographs; the remaining people resort to frenzied waving, hoping she can see them from up above. Local politicians line up, palms pressed together, genuflecting to the helicopter overhead.

Police personnel have been deputed from Salem and areas as far off as Cuddalore, 200 kilometres away, to help with the crowd. The calculated economics of food and pay aside, there’s still a distinct sense of awe to see “Amma” in person. The section in front of the stage is predominantly peopled by women who scream Jayalalithaa’s name as she walks slowly onto the stage. “Thangam madri irukkangu,” an old lady shouts, almost in tears. “She’s like gold. This is the first time I am seeing her. Have you seen her before? Then you are lucky. Seeing her is like seeing gold.”

Jayalalithaa is not known as an orator. She does not have the poetry or eloquence of Karunanidhi, and does not use humour, wit or even passion to engage with the crowd.  Most of the speech is delivered in a flat monotone. The only prickle of energy is seen when she shouts “Seyvingla (will you do it)?”— her constant refrain, said several times during the speech—and the crowd dutifully cheers in response.

Her speeches are not significantly different from rally to rally; she also does not seem to extemporise much. The speeches are usually read out and, on occasion, contain a few details on the town or city she is in; in Salem, for example, she speaks about building a new hospital there.

Jayalalithaa focuses on attacking the DMK and the Centre, and hyperbolically promises to bring growth, development and change to Tamil Nadu and the country. She has also taken on the BJP, after a few days of cautiously side-stepping any mention of them, attacking Modi for his Gujarat model of development by comparing it to Tamil Nadu’s own model.

She speaks for about 40 minutes and then wraps it up. “She can’t stand and speak for longer,” Kalaprasi, a constable from Namakkal, says. “She gets tired in this heat.”

Outside, the traffic is piling up. Even as Jayalalithaa concludes her speech on the Salem stage, lorries are queued up on the highway outside: a line of heavy vehicles nearly three kilometres long. They are packed with people, standing patiently in the sun, hoping to see Jayalalithaa, not realising that she’s already gone.



ayalalithaa first starred with M. G. Ramachandran in 1965 in director B. R. Panthulu’s Aayirathil Oruvan (literally translating to “one man in a thousand”), a swashbuckling story of tyranny and independence. Her second film, she played a young princess to his role of rebel-supporting doctor.

The film was re-released in digital format in March this year, a clever way to circumvent the Election Commission’s rules on election conduct. In obedience to the diktat that political posters must be taken down, the posters of Aayirathil Oruvan served the same purpose as political ones.

“It’s a political move that has the guise of being apolitical,” says M. Anbumani, the owner of a theatre in Coimbatore. “The crowd on the first two days included hordes of party workers. Several theatres were sold out as tickets were booked up and then handed out to poorer people living in the area.” Anbumani is quick to add that it is unlikely that these orders come from the party. “Party workers in small towns are excited to do their part. They want to feel as if they are contributing to the success.”

Twenty-seven years after his death, MGR still helps to draw the crowds thanks to his overwhelming popularity. Many of the people interviewed at the rally still mention him first, and with reverence, since he was their Puratchi Thailavar or Idhaya Deivam (lord of my heart). But old-timers note that his presence is seen less and less at Jayalalithaa’s rallies today.

“There’s only one, or maybe two, cut-outs of him, and his photographs have also lessened in AIADMK offices across the state,” says Ezhumalai Santanam, a 72-year-old party worker in Perambalur. “Amma wants to be the focus now; she is no longer operating within his shadow because she does not need to. She is her own leader now.” Jayalalithaa’s mentions of MGR in her speeches are restricted to briefly mentioning his name at the beginning and end of her speeches.

Since its formation in 1972 as a breakaway faction of the DMK, the AIADMK has had a rich, checkered history. Today, it’s synonymous with Jayalalithaa. “She is the party. That is exactly what she wanted,” says Santanam. “These thousands of people don’t come to hear about the AIADMK, its policies, its plan. They come to see her.”



pril 21 is Jayalalithaa’s final day of campaigning. For three days, she has taken to the streets of Chennai in her white modified van, from whose centre she rises in a bullet-proof, air-conditioned box to address supporters who throng around her. When she isn’t addressing crowds, she sits in the front seat next to the driver, a special yellow light throwing a flattering glow onto her face as she benignly smiles at the people outside.

The candidate stands on the other side of the bulletproof glass, silent and palms pressed together.

Her six-week campaign blitz ends in T. Nagar, a busy, commercial area in Chennai where, 50 years ago, she lived as a child with her mother. In fitting finale, all 40 candidates have assembled, travelling from Dharmapuri and Nilgiris and Pollachi and Sivaganga and beyond, standing in four neat rows on a low stage, silent and smiling and hands folded as ever in her presence.

They, the candidates, become the backdrop to Jayalalithaa mounted on her white vehicular steed, urging the crowd to cast their vote in favour of the irrattai ilai.

She waves, her hand folded into the familiar two-finger salute of the AIADMK, and the crowd waves back, at her and at the cameras soaring above them. At Nochi Kuppam, a fishing tenement along Marina Beach, people are gathered around a vast screen that is telecasting the speech live. On Twitter, Prabhu is frantically posting pictures and quotes to be retweeted across the interweb. In Salem, youth volunteer Kalairajan is watching her on a television set, excited, convinced that the months he has put in to help lay the groundwork has been worth it. “We have done our best, God will do the rest,” he quotes.

There’s God, and then there is Amma.