The streets are silent, the gates are locked, the doors closed, the shopfronts shuttered. The wheels have stopped spinning, the engine is mute. Fear, respect or lasting grief, everyone in Tamil Nadu is affected by the death of AIADMK general secretary J. Jayalalithaa, whose persona as chief minister defines the state in so many ways. It is a measure of the dominance she exercised over her party that only on the day of her passing did her colleagues muster the courage and the dignity to take the baton from her nerveless hands. The May 2016 victory was hers, the party was her self, and the voters at one with her. Beside those facts, nothing else mattered.
Her life was, by any standard, extraordinary and extraordinarily successful. From obscure beginnings in Bangalore to Madras cinema heartthrob opposite the master of sentiment, M.G. Ramachandran, it was a long, complicated journey into politics: first as MGR’s shadow and then as his ideological successor (insofar as he had an ideology), and finally as chief minister in her own right, winning four elections from 1991 to 2016. She nursed and expanded MGR’s most loyal constituency, his thaikkulam (womankind) to an extent that put even the rival and mother ship, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, in danger of electoral irrelevance. Her constituency of women know her only as Amma and their devotion is personal. Few leaders have commanded so large or so committed a following. It is one of the reasons she repeated what MGR swore when he first became chief minister: his great rival and DMK patriarch Karunanidhi would take the helm only after his death.
Jayalalithaa was the opposite of a politician in some ways. Imperial aloofness sits ill with populism; yet she managed that, even if the strain showed at times. As actor and politician, MGR always seemed at ease with ordinary people. He leveraged his fan clubs, a peculiarly Tamil Nadu phenomenon, to great effect, a lesson learned from his days as the Dravidian movement’s face in popular culture. That helped him cultivate a larger-than-life image as the man who would always give anyone a hand to help him up. He retained it even after his enfeeblement from the stroke that nearly killed him in 1984. Indeed, the election of 1985 was fought with his photograph as the sole campaigner even as he lay comatose in an American hospital. This was MGR’s legacy to his successors and it proved to be a priceless asset once Jayalalithaa realised how deeply it resonated with the voter.
That unstated bond was what kept her going through the years of exile and humiliation, which started with MGR’s death in 1987. His family and hangers-on unceremoniously kicked her off the gun carriage taking his body to the burial site on the Marina Beach near that of Annadurai, one of the founding spirits and first chief minister from the Dravidian movement. But voters unequivocally rejected the pretenders to his legacy in the state election of 1989. Jayalalithaa was completely sidelined in that process though she won an assembly seat in her own right. Her humiliation was compounded in the assembly when the DMK patriarch called her a “whore” and one of the party’s various goons tried to disrobe her in one of the most shameful episodes in Indian democracy. To make matters worse, Chennai’s Newspaper of Record austerely omitted to mention Karunanidhi’s epithet.
The various slights that she suffered, including being called MGR’s kept woman, seemed to steel her resolve but also perhaps ensured that she would keep all but a select circle of intimates at a distance. It did her no harm simply because the core of her agenda was the voter, not a political programme, the true mark of a populist.
She understood, like MGR, that the ordinary voter preferred practical assistance to soaring rhetoric on freedom, human rights and abstract justice. His nutritious noon meal programme for school children, of which she was the executor, is a testament to that truth. Poor people see a free meal for their children not as a freebie but as a form of empowerment, a move towards a better life. It is for them an acknowledgement both of their existence and their significance. That said, few chief ministers have gone so far as Jayalalithaa in her previous term, with the Amma range of subsidies, including canteens serving meals for everyone, vegetable outlets, pharmacies, water, movie theatres, and so on. It’s become a template for both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Perhaps Athenian democracy would have done better if its progenitors had recognised that it was as much for helots and slaves as it was for the gentry. The corrupters and tyrants such as Kleon probably realised this better than the idealists who were, after all, partisans in their own cause.
Her contribution in improving the lot of women and children in the state is without parallel for an Indian politician. From maternal health to school and college enrolments she touched lives in ways it mattered the most. It is also a helpful reminder in these times of relentless pursuit of growth that governments are elected first and foremost to provide well for the most basic of their citizens’ needs, and that massive outlays for health and education should be a moral necessity.
Economists and fiscal experts frown on what they see as sops and giveaways, but for the politician it’s a gift that keeps giving. That is why so many states have hastened to provide some version of a lunch programme in schools and other schemes for the poor, such as free bicycles, sewing machines, laptops, and so on. Take a public welfare initiative in another state and it’s a good bet that it will be a clone of something tried out first in Tamil Nadu. It’s also the reason the state is always near the top of the social welfare index. Call it handouts or bribery, but the effect is tangible and positive. In the longer term, of course, there’s a bill to be paid, usually left to posterity.
The latest estimates of that bill are put at Rs. 2.11 lakh crore, but that is the total deficit, not just the price for welfare. It seems like an enormous sum but economists are sanguine about it, as long as there is economic growth. The legacy that Panneerselvan inherits—in some ways the zenith of Dravidian welfarism— may be unsustainable in the longer run, unless the state creates more jobs and raises per capita income.
Jayalalithaa leaves behind no line of succession. As long as she was at the helm there was no question of factions, but her departure opens the field. Politics in Tamil Nadu is synonymous with a personality cult; even the weakest parties have one unquestioned supremo. That is not the case with the ruling party now. So this will be a test for the AIADMK, which has succeeded only under two charismatic despots.
If her welfare record is impressive, Jalalalithaa’s rights record is abysmal. She treated ministerial colleagues as servants and fostered a culture of servility that the party will find hard to shake off. Her capacity for petty vengeance was apparently endless, as evidenced in her attitude to the release of Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam, which she delayed on the specious pretext of hurt minority feelings. Her government’s arrest and detention on sedition charges of the folk singer and poet Kovan for his protest against the state liquor policy and again over his support for agitating JNU students is of a piece with the Indian state’s disregard for individual liberties, but she was worse than most in her persecution of anyone or anything that looked remotely like a threat to her reign.
The virtual ban on the works of Tamil writer Perumal Murugan and his self-declared “artistic death” were orchestrated by the Namakkal district administration. It was a stark reminder of the arbitrary use of state power, a regular feature of her tenure in many contexts. As with the Centre, so with Tamil Nadu, where the individual has rights only if the government concedes they exist.
On social justice, her failure mirrors that of the Dravidian movement itself. The many landowning middle castes in the state are its biggest beneficiaries as they have gone on to acquire political and economic power. Dalits or Adi Dravidars as they are called in Tamil Nadu continue to suffer discrimination and caste violence at odds with progressive ethos of the movement. Jayalalithaa let this state of affairs be; perhaps this change wasn’t rewarding in terms of vote bank arithmetic.
On two counts of democratic culture, respect for the individual and for institutions, Jayalalithaa fails the test resoundingly. On the third count, as election winner and a popular leader, she passes with flying colours. To her devoted followers, Amma was “My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song” and that is how they will remember her as they await a true successor.
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