Chennai: Makkalal naan, makkalukkaka naan (people made me who I'm and I'm for people) was the battle cry of J. Jayalalithaa during the 2016 Assembly election campaign. She never got tired of rousing her audience with the punchy dialogue. In a carefully-crafted move, Ms. Jayalalithaa subtly drove home the contrast between her single status and M. Karunanidhi's large family. And, her ploy worked as she retained power against the odds despite going to the polls all alone.
When Ms Jayalalithaa died on December 5, 2016 there was no blood relative beside her body barring her nephew, J. Deepak, which led the people to bemoan her lonely life as much as they felt repulsed by the overwhelming presence of members of Sasikala Natarajan's family during her last rites. The funeral of her archrival, Karunanidhi, on Wednesday was a study in contrast because an endless stream of his relatives took centre stage on the Marina.
Karunanidhi, the consummate family man, was the odd one out in Tamil Nadu political history as popular netas of the state since Periyar were either single or had no off-spring. Periyar himself had no children. C.N. Annadurai, Periyar's disciple and the founder of the DMK, set the bar high in popularity as his funeral in 1969 attracted a record crowd. Anna as well as M.G. Ramachandran, every bit as popular as his mentor, had no children either.
Congress stalwart K. Kamaraj, still the benchmark for administration and efficiency in governance, died a bachelor. Ms. Jayalalithaa, who got the mandate of the people for four terms, had never been married, too. Although Sasikala and her relatives made up for the family Jayalalithaa never had as a politician, the public at large primarily looked at the AIADMK leader as a single woman; that is, if one was ready to ignore the huge influence that live-in friend Sasikala had on the AIADMK and its government, apart from the administration of the Veda Nilayam at Poes Garden, and the resulting gains to the Mannargudi family.
The likes of Kamaraj, Anna and MGR steered clear of nepotism as no one else from their families entered politics during their lifetime. But Karunanidhi's family became an albatross around his neck from 2006 to 2011. The death of Karunanidhi's nephew, Murasoli Maran, in 2003 robbed the DMK leader of a key political adviser and a moral compass.
Although Mr Karunanidhi had been grooming M.K. Stalin as his political heir, the DMK patriarch showed no hurry to fast track him into the higher echelons of power. Mr Stalin couldn't become a minister in Mr Karunanidhi's cabinet either in 1989 or in 1996. Karunanidhi had clearly been wary of promoting Mr Stalin. Although nepotism had been prevalent in the Congress at the Centre, it was an alien concept in Tamil Nadu.
But the floodgates opened in 2004 as Mr Maran's younger son, Dayanidhi, got the ticket for the Central Chennai parliamentary constituency. In 2006, Mr Stalin became a minister and then deputy chief minister in his father's cabinet. M.K. Alagiri and Kanimozhi got their piece of cake in due course, with the former becoming a union minister in 2009. Karunanidhi's filial affection handed Jayalalithaa a potent campaign tool in 2011. Making Alagiri a Central minister in 2009 was perhaps the gravest miscalculation in Karunanidhi's political career as the Madurai man hardly deserved the weighty post.
The prevailing trend across India points to a political advantage a leader stands to gain by not tying the knot. Two popular chief ministers in the country today, Naveen Patnaik (Odisha) and Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal), are single. Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal is a bachelor, as is Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar. Being single is an advantage in Indian politics these days as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who hasn't lives with his wife for a long time, never misses an opportunity to highlight the dynastic politics of the Congress.