What is the legacy of Jayalalitha

Where ex-film stars make careers as politicians, they keep their own “news channels” as tools for publicity. They prefer to stage their own triumphs - and arrests


Those who are arrested in India can still benefit from the myth that has been associated with it since the struggle for independence. Police custody was the desperate attempt by the colonial rulers to defend themselves against Mahatma Gandhi's clever policy of non-violence. In free India, too, “courting arrest” - a “provoking arrest” - is part of the basic training for an apprentice politician. The act of arrest is therefore not a gauntlet, but a PR appointment. A woman was recently arrested for running a smuggling ring at Delhi airport. As she was brought before the magistrate, she laughed into the flashing cameras and raised her hand to signal the victory.

With the appearance of the 24-hour news channels, the act of arrest experienced a new prime. This is especially true in South India, where popular movie stars like to revitalize their fading status with a career in politics. Their success in doing this is often based on their ability to manipulate the media.

When the South Indian Prime Minister Rama Rao - he had celebrated film triumphs as god Krishna - was arrested in 1984, no photographers were present. He waited patiently in the police car for them to arrive. Then he had the arrest repeated, including angry protests and rude police officers. In the meantime, the photographers have become video teams with mobile phones and on motorbikes that can be quickly mobilized for a live broadcast. And the politicians have also adapted. They own TV channels where they spice up their careers into reality shows called news shows.

The politician M. Karunanidhi ("MK") demonstrated this a few days ago. MK was once a scriptwriter for the legendary "MGR", film star and head of government of Tamil Nadu. After his death, however, MK did not take over the political legacy, but MGR's mistress J. Jayalalitha, also a former actress. Since then, the two have been fighting each other to the bone.

When Karunanidhi came to power in Madras in 1996, he took his rival to prison on a corruption lawsuit, which she did not leave until 21 days later. With rosy cheeks, she stepped out of the prison gate and accused MK in front of the cameras that he starved her - it was the beginning of her political comeback. It happened five years later, and Jayalalitha won the provincial elections. That was a few weeks ago, and everyone knew it was Karunanidhi's turn this time.

MK knew this too, and he had taken precautions. He quartered a team from the family TV station Sun TV with him. And when on June 30th after midnight the police announced themselves with the typical hammering on the door, the television people were already in position. The images that all Indian television channels tore the next day triggered a storm of indignation. An old man with heart disease, barely clothed, is forcibly dragged out of the house by the henchmen, his glasses fall off, he loses his breath and screams in desperation not to kill him after all. His nephew Murasoli Maran, Minister of Industry in Delhi, wants to rush to his aid, but he too is dragged away by three policemen in front of the running Sun TV cameras.

All over India there are protests against the inhumane treatment of a veteran politician, his competitor Jayalalitha is completely there as a vengeful witch. For two days her TV station (Jaya TV) had to read out wordy communiqués instead of pictures, which had no chance against the dramatic pictures. Then the police come to her aid, who also took a cameraman with them on their midnight raid. His pictures showed that MK was brought out of bed, but that, in a friendly conversation with the police officer, he had time to prepare for going to prison - or, as Jaya TV now claimed, for the arrival of the TV cameras waiting. The dispute only began when Maran and his cabinet colleague Baalu, Indian Environment Minister, arrived and asked the police to show the warrant. The voice level rose and the scuffle broke out, which then produced the pictures that made the whole of India sit up the next day.

Two days later, thanks to JayaTV, the police video flickered into the rooms. It broke off where the fight (and SunTV) began, of course. But MK and his colleagues had already won this round. When the troubled Jayalalitha wanted to release her from prison two days later on bail, they initially refused - and the newspapers got the beautiful headline: "Ministers refuse release from prison". The next day, Sun TV showed the inmates stepping out of the prison gate, beaming, and being lifted onto their shoulders by their supporters.