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The Jayalalithaa mystique

She understood where to be flexible and where to be rigid. While scrupulously avoiding tampering with the politics of caste, she imparted a new meaning to welfare economics..

By: M. K. Narayanan | December 21, 2016 (Ref: thehindu.com)


As the midnight hour approached on the night of December 5-6, doctors at the Apollo Hospitals, Chennai, made the formal announcement regarding the demise of six-time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalithaa. With this announcement, a remarkable era in Tamil Nadu politics came to an end.

Part of the formidable line-up of outstanding women leaders of India, viz. Indira Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati, Jayalalithaa helped define the true meaning of ‘woman power’. Imperious elegance, however, distinguished her from the other three leaders. In the immediate aftermath of her demise, it was no surprise that people across the State, and elsewhere in India, should wax nostalgic about the achievements of a departed leader who had braved all odds to succeed.

What gave her a special place in the heart of Tamil womenfolk, and captivated their imagination, was her posture of ‘Davidic’ defiance of all detractors. These ranged from the male-dominated political plurality, to those who cavilled at her gender and her caste. She walked tall among the many contemporary leaders on the Indian political scene.

Secrets of success

Notwithstanding the many controversies that surrounded her tenure, few will contest or fail to acknowledge her many achievements, specially those concerning the welfare of the girl child and women, health care of the deprived, and the ‘revolution’ wrought by her signal programmes such as ‘Amma Canteen’, ‘Amma Water’, ‘Amma Salt’, etc. — all made available at affordable prices. These programmes not only gave her a larger-than-life image but also invested her with a kind of ‘maternalistic charisma’. It also helped obliterate some of her ‘excesses’, including the charge that she deliberately cultivated a personality cult, which required even her very senior Cabinet Ministers, apart from sycophants of every description, to genuflect before her.

None of this can, however, erase the fact that she was paranoid when it came to criticism of her actions or policies. She maintained a tight control over the administrative and security apparatus, and was unforgiving of anyone who deviated even the slightest from her set prescriptions. She kept her ‘eye on the ball’ at all times, which possibly was the secret of her success. As far as the people of Tamil Nadu were concerned, the balance sheet of her years in office was positive — a sentiment that led to her truly epic victory in the 2016 Assembly elections.

This, in itself, was no mean achievement. There is, however, much more to the Jayalalithaa mystique than this. Political pundits need to ponder how she managed to successfully navigate between the Scylla of caste and the Charybdis of gender, in a State where consciousness of such differences has been extremely high. That she was a high-caste single woman breaking into, and breaching, a male stronghold tends to make her achievements even more spectacular.

The political inheritance

Over the years, it had become evident that politics in Tamil Nadu had undergone fundamental changes since the heyday of the Non-Brahmin/Self-respect Movement under Periyar (in the early part of the 20th century). By the middle of the 20th century, even as the Dravida Kazhagam was undergoing a seminal split leading to the formation of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1949 under C.N. Annadurai, it had become obvious that many of the goalposts were shifting. Within a few years of the formation of the DMK, Annadurai drifted away from Periyar’s rather constrained approach to Indian federalism, advocating a more enlightened form of federalism. Contrary to Periyar’s viewpoint, Annadurai also saw considerable virtue in cooperative Centre-State relations.

Further changes occurred with the formation of the AIADMK under M.G. Ramachandran. The latter’s advent as Chief Minister broke at least one glass ceiling, viz. universal acceptance of a non-Tamil, and someone belonging to a forward caste, at the apex of the State pyramid. Taking over the mantle of her mentor (MGR), Jayalalithaa was to carry this several stages further.

Status quoist on caste

Jayalalithaa, implicitly, was a good student of history. She realised — much in the manner of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party — the inherent dangers of weakening of controls over the party, and too much liberalisation in ideological and other matters. She revelled in magisterial control over the levers of authority even while enlarging the many unique welfare measures introduced by MGR during his tenure in office.

Jayalalithaa was hardly a believer in political experimentation. In this respect she differed from leaders like Buddhadeb Bhattacharya (the former Chief Minister of West Bengal) or for that matter the erstwhile Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev (with his Glasnost and Perestroika). She could avoid their fate by taking care not to overreach through radical political changes and shifts. She scrupulously avoided tampering with the politics of caste, realising the fundamental importance of the caste arithmetic in Tamil Nadu politics. In particular, she took care not to disturb existing equations involving major caste groups, understanding that she was an ‘outlier’ as far as dominant castes in the politics of Tamil Nadu were concerned. While maintaining the supremacy of the caste structure, she essentially confined herself to providing a new twist and imparting a new meaning to ‘welfare economics’.

The elite across the country have not taken kindly to what they pejoratively refer to as ‘freebies’ doled out by Jayalalithaa while in office. What they fail to recognise is how much these ‘soft’ welfare measures contributed to not merely enhancing her personal image, but keeping under control any kind of popular discontent over her so-called ‘high-handedness’. As many of these schemes began to be copied by governments in other States in the country, her model of welfare measures became the touchstone against which steps, policies and programmes of other State governments were assessed.

There were many differences between the mentor and the disciple. MGR was paternalistic. Jayalalithaa was far more ‘iron-willed’ and believed in crushing dissent at the earliest opportunity. She was conscious of the inherent weakness that derived from her caste and gender, which left her little room for manoeuvre. Where she proved more adept than her mentor was in successfully managing the ‘revolution of rising expectations’ of the lower tiers of her electoral support, without having to compromise on her basic policies and principles. In this sense, perhaps, her contribution was comparable to that of leaders like Annadurai who helped integrate Dravidian consciousness with India’s federal polity.


Finger on the pulse


Right through her tenure as Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa eschewed any kind of rigid doctrinaire approach vis-à-vis either politics or policies. Often portrayed as disdainful of the masses, she seemed to sense the people’s mood and the pulse of the masses better than leaders of other political parties such as the DMK led by the nonagenarian M. Karunanidhi.

Political debates often seemed to convey an impression of a single woman without any obvious support battling a ‘macho world’ of male enemies. How she converted this into an existential conflict between the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) led by her and the DMK led by Karunanidhi and his family is worthy of deeper study by political analysts and researchers.

Jayalalithaa’s true success lay in the image she created of being against the ‘status quo’, while the ageing leadership of the DMK (M.K. Stalin’s presence notwithstanding) appeared risk-averse and wallowing in the same brand of politics it had practised since the mid-1950s.

In real terms, Jayalalithaa was ‘individualistic’ rather than a ‘statist’. Even more than organisational strategising she perfected redistributive and welfare policies and populist mobilisation. She had incredibly persuasive communication skills when it came to the masses, specially women voters, and combined this with a certain magisterial control over political opinion.

While the two main Dravidian parties had few differences regarding their commitment to State autonomy and fiscal federalism, Jayalalithaa seemed to give a new shape to the social reform movement. Moving ahead of MGR’s political philosophy, she could adjust to the prevailing winds of change sweeping through the corridors of an aspirational India. She understood where to be flexible and where to be rigid — caste-based reservation and the caste arithmetic were crucial — but she did see that there was somewhat great scope for trimming the AIADMK’s sails to the winds from the North and the East, and thus create a new political brand. Generations of Tamils will possibly remember her best for her evocative slogan, “Makkalal Naan — Makkalukaga Naan (I am by the people — I am for the people)”.

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