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|January 2, 1998||
With appropriate noise and fanfare, AIADMK convention gets underway
A Ganesh Nadar in Tirunelveli
It was like a wall, invisible yet very real, had been built about ten kilometres outside the Tamil Nadu town of Tirunelveli, in all directions.
All buses, from whatever direction, came to an abrupt halt outside the town. Auto-rickshaw drivers -- as a tribe, firm believes in the make-hay policy -- charged thrice the standard fare to ferry you into town. People -- streaming in on the buses, lorries and every other conceivable form of transport -- paid happily, or if they couldn't, they walked to town.
The town, and surroundings, appeared to have been taken over by party workers -- easily identifiable, since they wore the dhotis bordered in the AIADMK colours of red, white and black while the women supporters wore saris with a similar border. To further underline their allegiance -- overkill being more norm than exception in Tamil Nadu politics -- some wore T-shirts with Jayalalitha Jayaram's picture screenprinted on it, while AIADMK caps, at Rs 3 per piece, became a hot fashion accessory.
Accomodation? Forget it, all hotels, and even marriage halls, had been booked months in advance. And the sides of the roads were lined with vans, cars, lorries -- each festooned in the party colours, and boasting banners indicating the district from which that particular contingent of the party faithful had come.
To cut a rather obvious story short, there was a sea of humanity -- in Tirunelveli proper, and all the way to the adjoining town of V M Chatram, ten kilometers away.
The Decibel police would have had a field day here -- the noise was like a solid wall, that hit you with an almost physical, constant, blow. Hotels, tea shops, "juice centres", all of them played songs from old MGR movies -- indicating again that the AIADMK, after a flirtation with the omnipotence of Jayalalitha, is back to relying on its founder-icon, the late matinee idol turned chief minister, to pull in the votes. Underlining the theme was the local theatre -- now showing Namm Naadu -- starring, who else, MGR and Jayalalitha.
Amid the chaos was a disciplined core of the party's youth brigade -- nubile girls nattily attired in green saris, young men smart in white, with black shoes and navy-style caps in the party colours. The cadres wore a self-important look, as they practised the craft of their trade in the alleys and bylanes. Atton-shun! yelled the captain into a megaphone and the feet came together -- not all together perhaps, but it is the intention that counts. March! came the order, and the troop shambled forward, the girls all eager and enthusiasm, the boys rather bored and seemingly more interested in checking out the girls.
Arches are the lifeblood of party jamborees, and Tirunelveli had its share, and more, of the huge monstrosities erected at 50-foot intervals. Interestingly, each arch depended on its own generator for illumination -- a bit of a comedown for the AIADMK that, in its heyday, was accustomed to treating the state's electricity department as its own handmaiden.
At 9.30 am, the crowd began moving towards the city centre, where the district collectorate is located. A life-size statue of MGR was to be unveiled at 10 am. The television cameras and press photographers bustled around, looking important -- and the crowd wore their best smiles when some pressperson came in sight, because you want to look your best in case you are right there in front, in the "Sizeable crowds turned out to applaud..." pictures and television footage that are mandatory at such functions.
The first roar went up when Paul Hector Pandian -- the erstwhile speaker of the TN assembly with a penchant for ruling his fiefdom like a medieval monarch -- ascended the dais, waving in his trademark regal style. But that roar was a murmur compared to the one that greeted the arrival of AIADMK supremo and former chief minister, Puratchi Thalaivi Jayalalitha Jayaram.
She strode purposefully onto the dais, accepted the remote control device, pushed the appropriate button, watched as the curtain came down and revealed a golden-hued statue of her late mentor, MGR, sporting trademark smile and dark glasses, beaming down on the assemblage.
JJ showed two upraised fingers to the crowd. Said crowd returned the gesture.
It would have been rude in any other setting -- but when the AIADMK meets, two upraised fingers signifies the twin leaves that are the party symbol.
Her task done, Jayalalitha strode as briskly down the steps of the dais, got in her car, and off she went. It all lasted one minute.
The crowd dispersed, townwards. Meanwhile, loudspeakers blared the battle order -- which district's cadres will take what position in the upcoming rally, what route it will take, and such.
At 2.30 pm, Jayalalitha garlanded a bust of MGR at the Silver Jubilee venue, then settled down with her entourage of former ministers, led by former finance minister V R Nedunchezhian, around her.
The drums began to throb.... the rally shuffled its collective feet... and off they went...
Besides folk dancers, colourful floats added visual spice to the line of marchers.
One float featured DMK leader and TN Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi, drowning in a sea of charges including communal unrest, temple robberies, bus fare hikes, and such...
Another had Tamil Maanila Congress chief G Karuppiah Moopanar in a more or less similar plight -- in this case, the charges being the Rs 1,700 million Indian Bank scam, an amorous deputy mayor from the TMC ranks, and so on.
As the long line marched past, speculation centered on when it would end. 10 am next morning, said some. No, 6 pm next day, claimed others. All anyone could say with any certainity was, it had started, it would end when it ended.
Rather interestingly, though AIADMK flags ruled the roost and a few Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam flags dotted the landscape, the flags of allies like the Janata Party, the Pattali Makkal Katchi, and Vazhapadi Ramamurthy's breakaway Congress were conspicuously missing.
Stranger still -- not a single flag or banner of the AIADMK's "national ally", the Bharatiya Janata Party, in sight.
In terms of turnout, in terms of money, it was an impressive -- very impressive -- turn out. And it will in all probability have a positive effect on party cadres whose collective morale, following the battering in the last assembly election and the stream of cases against "supreme leader" Jayalalitha, is at an all time low.
But what then of the public? One gets the sneaky feeling that they couldn't care less.
"When she was in power she conducted the mother of all marriages -- now, she is conducting the mother of all jubilees," said a local. And, with those words, summed up the general response to the rally that, the AIADMK hopes, will kick-start its campaign into high gear.
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