Tamil politics

Has Tamil Nadu become more democratic after Jayalalithaa's death?

The government has stopped filing defamation cases. Ministers freely express views. Criticism against AIADMK has become common.

Had former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa been alive, said more than one commentator during the recent massive protests against the ban on the bull-taming sport jallikattu, and the violence that came with it on Monday, things would have been handled differently. The state would not have seen such protests, or violence, said more than one political analyst.

Thousands gathered on the Marina beach, and other parts of the state, last week demanding a law to lift the Supreme Court-imposed ban on jallikattu. While the law was indeed passed, the protests saw widespread violence after the police chose to crackdown on protestors on Monday.

Many, including veteran journalist N Ram, said Jayalalithaa was very particular about law and order and had always been tough on elements that sought to disrupt peace in the state. “We miss Jayalalithaa at this juncture,” Ram said, while participating in a debate on NDTV on Monday.

But there is also a flip side to this argument that has not been spoken about openly. Developments since December 5, when Jayalalithaa died following her hospitalisation for 75 days, indicate that freedom of speech seems to have received a boost in Tamil Nadu.

For the first time in years, people from different walks of life are freely expressing their criticism of the government and its leadership. Unlike the days of Jayalalithaa, when the state met such criticism with intolerance and filed a series of defamation cases against media and members of civil society, the current ruling dispensation has remained calm and has largely responded to criticism with counter arguments.

Jayalalithaa’s strategy

Jayalalithaa’s strategy to muzzle criticism was part of the bigger ploy to create a larger-than-life political image. To be the undisputed “Amma”, it was necessary for Jayalalithaa to put down any form of criticism, both within her party and outside. This was the outcome of her own experience in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, where she had to fend off challenges from senior leaders to capture the party after the death of her mentor MG Ramachandran in 1987.

This lack of a strong challenge helped her create an image that the government was doing everything right. Between 2011 and 2016, the AIADMK regime filed over 200 defamation cases against the media, opposition leaders and social activists.

The state machinery was used with disdain in this project. Criticism of the government was treated as personal criticism of the leader. The public prosecutors were used to file these numerous defamation cases, being subjected to the complicated process of which becomes a punishment in itself. The accused were made to attend court proceedings frequently. Since these were criminal cases, the sword of prison time was always hanging over the heads of the critics, even though the courts have not punished any of them.

Defamation cases, as the Supreme Court has often pointed out, have a chilling effect on freedom of speech. In a strong rebuke in August 2016, the court told Jayalalithaa that as a public figure, she should learn to take criticism in her stride. It also observed that more petitions challenging defamation proceedings came from Tamil Nadu than any other state, though the court last year upheld criminal defamation as constitutional while delivering its judgment on petitions filed by leaders such as Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy.

These spate of defamation cases had serious repurcussions on the way the media covered the AIADMK government under Jayalalithaa. The opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam had often pointed out that the media was disproportionately harsh on the opposition when its duty was to hold the mirror to the rulers and function as a watchdog in a democracy. Cases were filed against the media for merely reporting opposition views.

However, this has changed since December when O Panneerselvam took over as chief minister. The government has not resorted to defamation cases – at least so far.

Changes in AIADMK

When Jayalalithaa was around, ministers in the government hardly interacted with the media. When she assumed charge as chief minister in 2011, Jayalalithaa promised that she would hold a press conference every week. In the five years between 2011 and 2016, she met the press only twice. The media had no access to her office and was forced to report on her statements issued as press releases without the possibility of raising questions. In other words, the communication was a one-way traffic. She did not give interviews even during the election campaign in April 2016.

However, under Panneerselvam, this aspect has seen a drastic change. Almost immediately after Jayalalithaa’s death, ministers in the AIADMK government began talking to the media on a frequent basis and became accessible. They were deputed to participate in television debates, something that would have been impossible under Jayalalithaa who saw leaders under spotlight as a challenge to her supremacy in the party. This inaccessibility was consciously developed to maintain the public perception that she made every decision in the government and the ministers had no authority on their own.

During the jallikattu protests, Panneerselvam himself started interacting with the media and even took questions at press conferences.

Strengthening democracy

These changes in the working of the government have also had an impact on the public discourse. Popular figures in Tamil Nadu, who remained mere spectators during Jayalalithaa’s time, fearing vindictive action, have begun speaking out fearlessly since December.

Nothing captures this change better than the way actor Kamal Haasan has come out with his views in the jallikattu debate.

In a series of tweets since Friday, Kamal Haasan took on the AIADMK government directly. On Monday, he questioned the police action against agitators and even asked why Panneerselvam was not speaking to the protestors directly to calm them down.

More dramatic was his accusation in an interview to NDTV. On Monday, replying to comments made by an AIADMK member on the debate, Kamal Haasan said the state government under Jayalalithaa “threatened” him during the controversy over his film,Viswaroopam. In 2013, Muslim groups took exception to certain dialogues in the movie which they said showed Indian Muslims in a poor light. They wanted such dialogues removed before the movie was released. In response, Kamal Haasan famously declared that he was looking at options to move to another country since the his freedom of expression had been trampled.

However, in 2013, he did not make a direct accusation against the state government like he did on Monday. In fact, after the controversy ended when he agreed to censor certain dialogues in the movie, he denied a rift with Jayalalithaa and thanked her for her support. Thus, the actor’s comments on Monday indicate the confidence that such personalities have developed since Jayalalithaa’s death.

But given that the jallikattu protests were the first mass movement against the government in Tamil Nadu in years, one needs to wait and watch to see if the agitations force the current government to go back to Jayalalithaa’s model of zero tolerance to criticism or if it maintains the positive change and allows counter views.

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