Parts of Chennai feel like one big birthday bash today. It's Stalin's seventieth. And among the well-wishers, a camel - not something you normally see here. It's bedecked in the red-and-black colours of the local governing party.
Party loyalists were out in strength, also displaying the DMK colours -
And of course the Stalin whose birthday they are celebrating is M.K. Stalin, the chief minister of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This is him -
The papers are full of it - mainly paid adverts and promotions, but also extending into the editorial content. The local edition of the Times of India has an article by a minister in Stalin's state government saying how marvellous his boss is and of course wishing him a happy birthday:
Though whoever came up with the tag line '70 Years of Stalinness' perhaps shouldn't have their contract renewed:
And I was surprised to see a paid advert from the Church of South India in which the local bishop extols the virtues of the chief minister.
I went along to the DMK party headquarters this morning to get a sense of the celebrations. The crowd was good humoured - a day out, something a little special ...
Stalin's been chief minister here for a little under two years. His father, M. Karunanidhi - one of several influential Tamil politicians of an earlier era who had their roots in the regional film industry - had four spells as chief minister totalling nineteen years.
And the name? Well, M.K. Stalin was born four days before the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin died. Stalin was well regarded by many in India - and still is by some hard left factions. Karunanidhi addressed a memorial meeting for Stalin before a name had been bestowed on his son, and from that event came the name. (In this part of India, the father's surname becomes part of the son's middle name - so the surname is usually given rather than inherited.)
At the party HQ this morning, there were large numbers of women activists - outnumbered by the men but taking an active party in the day's events:
All those who came along got a free meal in an airline-style plastic tray and - a nice touch this - a mango sapling
DMK badges, flags and memorabilia were being snapped up (and yes, I even succumbed to temptation myself). By the way, the three men featured in the framed images on the right below with the yellow background are Stalin's father, Stalin and Stalin's son, an emphatic demonstration of dynastic politics
And then there was the camel - an essential at every Chennai birthday party (not!)
The poor animal was clearly not at all comfortable being led through the crowd, with traffic whizzing past and loud music blaring out
Why on earth would anyone want to bring a camel along to an event such as this? Well, I don't know but this is what I reckon: how does a party activist make a gift or a token of loyalty stand out when there are so many people with presents or offering expressions of undying support.
And if the benefactor's aim was to get some favourable media attention for himself, it worked!
But this is more than an over-the-top birthday party. Stalin is regarded as a competent chief minister. In Tamil Nadu he heads a local coalition that includes India's main opposition party, Congress, the two main Communist parties and others. He may have national ambitions. And certainly, the BJP looks just about certain to win next year's general election unless all the main opposition parties, and regional parties inimical to the BJP, can form an effective alliance.
Due in Chennai for a public birthday rally are the Congress national president, Mallikarjun Kharge, and other key out-of-state political leaders including Akhilesh Yadav, of the Uttar Pradesh-based Samajwadi Party, and Farooq Abdullah of Kashmir's National Conference. Is there a prospect of a powerful front emerging to challenge the BJP? Frankly, it's odds against - but it is an inriguing possibility.
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