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Indian Elections
Modi's BJP Rolls On, But an Old Rival Looms

In the daily morning darkness in Chennai, on India’s southeastern coast, cooks fire up stoves in preparation for one of the world’s most impressive culinary operations. Hundreds of kilograms of rice, uncountable idlis and chapathis, huge pots of fragrant sauce and much more will be prepared and served in what are known as “Amma Canteens.” The meals are sold for 5 rupees, the equivalent of a few pennies. Everyone knows who to thank for the food: Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha. The Guardian reports:

At 7am the first of the 4,000 daily customers surge in. Porters, rickshaw drivers, nurses, patients, students, bureaucrats, doctors and itinerant holy men all stand to eat their heavily subsidised meals, priced at no more than 5 rupees (5p) and eaten at ferocious speed with fingers from tin plates….

The 43-year-old chief cook, A Malathi, said: “This [canteen] is like a temple for her. We will all vote for her, and so will our families, and so will all the customers.”

If the political support of grateful diners is anything to go by, Jayalalitha will have no trouble taking the lion’s share of votes in Tamil Nadu’s election this week. India is about halfway through the national election, and the pollsters put the BJP’s Narendra Modi in the lead for the post of Prime Minister, well ahead of his rivals in the ruling Congress Party. But in Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha, who isn’t yet aligned with either of the big national parties, reigns supreme.

She and the BJP have a troubled history. The last time the BJP ran the national government, in the late 1990s, Jayalalitha’s party, AIADMK, was a part of the ruling coalition, and she was a tenancious opponent. As the Washington Post noted at the time, “She is a political cartoonist’s dream: a temperamental, rotund party boss and former film star who hurls shoes at her aides, broods inside a guarded mansion in this steamy south Indian port city and regularly threatens to withdraw support from India’s weak governing coalition unless its officials satisfy her latest whim.”

On the road to becoming Prime Minister, Narendra Modi will probably have to confront his party’s old nemesis. She can make or break his coalition, depending on how the BJP fares in the rest of the country. He is probably crossing his fingers, hoping for a big enough win that he won’t need Jayalalitha’s support.

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  • Anthony

    Are critics of Narenda Modi disappointed because India may be led by what some call a common chai wallah and a communalist? Or as has been intimated elsewhere: not everyone has gotten message about BJP’s rebranding.

  • Jaldhar H. Vyas

    When sober analysts like WRM start talking up Boss Tweed types like Jayalalitha (the second time this week!) it’s time for the DSM5 to add a new diagnosis: Modi Derangement Syndrome.

  • El Gringo

    It’s tempting to view Jayalalitha as a mere local boss but she’s a local boss of over 80 million people and a state with 39 Lok Sabha seats. She also has the power to drive India’s foreign policy which she uses often. This is no mere local boss.

    Jayalalitha is an indication of the rise of regionalism in India – a rise that, so far, the central government has failed to address. If handled correctly it could lead to much-needed reforms that devolve more power to the state and (hopefully) local levels. If handled incorrectly, it will lead to the proliferation of more leaders like Jayalalitha and her ilk.

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