CHENNAI, India — One of India’s most powerful politicians, a former movie star called “Amma” or “Mother” by her followers, is being heckled and abused for going missing in action after floods swept the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, which she rules.
It’s a salutary lesson for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who at first drew nods of approval when he rushed to Chennai last week, promising to stand by its people in their hour of need.
Yet, within hours, Modi became the object of mockery on social media after his press office released a doctored photo of him inspecting flood damage. For both him and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the image of strong leadership created by their publicity machines was undermined.
Until the floods that ravaged the city of 6 million, the lofty remoteness of Jayalalithaa added to the aura around a leader with an almost hysterical following. Devotees of the 1960s screen idol have immolated themselves in her defense in the past.
Now, she faces a backlash from residents fed up with the sight of her image on billboards, aid packets and her own Jaya Plus TV channel. She has been seen in public only twice during the crisis—once with Modi.
Angry youths heckled a state minister and officials in Jayalalithaa’s north Chennai constituency, where people were sitting on the roadside amid sludge and mountains of garbage, their shanties swept away by the worst rains in a century.
“Forget about Amma coming here, there was no sign of the party cadres,” said one of them, called Dorairaj.
About 280 people have died across Tamil Nadu since torrential rains on Dec. 1 submerged tracts of Chennai under up to eight feet (2.5 meters) of water, trapping people on rooftops with no communication.
There was further revulsion after a party legislator put up a poster of Jayalalithaa lifting a baby above the floodwaters, in a scene from a blockbuster movie. “Adding salt to the wounds,” said one Twitter post.
Avadi Kumar, a spokesman of her ruling AIADMK party, said there was anger among the people but the administration was doing all it could to bring relief: “It is impossible to reach all areas immediately or be present everywhere at all times.”
Modi’s own promise to voters of good days to come for India is also starting to face disenchantment, 18 months into his five-year term, with key reforms stalled by bureaucratic inertia and political gridlock.
Ambitious initiatives, such as a “Clean India” campaign, have made little headway—even as Modi has built up huge followings on social media and addressed enthusiastic diaspora Indians at packed stadiums on his many trips overseas.
“If today he appears to have lost control over his own narrative, it is his own fault,” commentator Tavleen Singh wrote in Sunday’s Indian Express, urging Modi to hire a professional media team. Modi does not have an official spokesperson.
Jayalalithaa, 67, in the past considered as a possible prime ministerial candidate backed by regional groups, faces an election in Tamil Nadu next year.
Modi’s nationalist party has little presence in Tamil Nadu, a state of 70 million. It would rather the iron-fisted Jayalalithaa stays in power, believing she is more inclined to back his reform agenda in parliament than her rivals.
But there are concerns around her health and that she may have to curtail her campaign.
Earlier this year a higher court acquitted her in a graft case for which she was briefly jailed which had caused an outpouring of anger from her supporters. Some lay down on roads and tried to persuade bus drivers to go over them.
“She is supposed to be a fantastic administrator. But this time there was no presence of government at all. Ordinary people did all the work that government and police were supposed to do,” said S. Raja, one flood-hit resident of Chennai.