Amma’s Death Marks The End of a Phase in Dravidian Politics

Without anointing an heir, Jayalalithaa has left behind a party which is in shambles, writes Rohini Mohan.

5 min read
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As crowds thronged the Rajaji Hall in Chennai to pay their respects to J Jayalalithaa (1948- 2016), the drama that was her life seemed to continue. Only 68-years-old, she was admitted to the Apollo hospital in Chennai on 22 September, and after months of secrecy surrounding her illness, a cardiac arrest at 11:30 pm on 5 December, 2016, did her in.

Over a career spanning about three decades, the strongest woman politician in south India was blown up as a larger-than-life icon, criticised as an insecure autocrat and held the country in bafflement with her charisma and corruption. Jayalalithaa was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu five times, heading an assembly she swore she would not enter till it was safe for a woman.

She rose from the position of a celebrity member in the late eighties to the incontestable leader of the AIADMK, one of the two pillars of Dravidian party politics. She was an exacting nemesis of the grand old man of Dravidian politics, M Karunanidhi, in Tamil Nadu, and at the national level, her electoral clout in coalitions and stubborn bargaining has felled governments. Amma, the maternal leader, created a most paternalist government that not only provided before the subject asked, but also ruled with an iron fist.

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Without anointing an heir, Jayalalithaa has left behind a party which is in shambles, writes Rohini Mohan.
Supporters paying tribute to AIADMK leader J Jayalalithaa in Madurai on Tuesday. (Photo: PTI)

Larger Than Life Persona

Even as she was hailed as Puratchi Thalaivi, or the revolutionary leader, Jayalalithaa defiantly kept the title Selvi or Kumari – spinster. She commanded tens of thousands of party cadre in the electoral rallies, but trusted no one enough to appoint a deputy or delegate responsibility.

She was solely responsible for the survival of the AIADMK after its founder and her mentor MG Ramachandran passed away, but she is also to blame for the empty shell it is today, without empowered second or third rung leaders. Her legendary jousting with Karunanidhi put the underprivileged over the elite, but it also often narrowed social justice ideas to reservations and freebies.

Jayalalithaa evoked fervent loyalty, particularly among women, for her battles against an ugly patriarchal Indian politics. The horrifying incident in 1989, when she was attacked and her sari pulled in the state assembly – by DMK MLAs – remains vivid in public memory. She helmed policies such as the cradle baby scheme, cycles for school-going girls, and a steady healthcare focus, all priorities today in Tamil Nadu politics.

Her highly subsidised Amma canteens and pharmacies were meant for all the poor, but given the high indebtedness and unemployment in Tamil Nadu, it specifically rescued women from the increasing financial burdens of running a family. Politically, her own party was only marginally more friendly to women than the DMK, but the optics of men falling at her feet, and the rhetoric of female power held the public in thrall. During the 2016 assembly election campaign, a woman supporter in Trichy told me after Jayalalithaa’s speech, “She seems invincible but she is so vulnerable. I don’t feel sad for her. I feel proud.”

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Astute Politician

She led a hard, eventful life, reluctantly becoming an actress at 13, and then entering politics – reluctantly again – under MGR’s tutelage. A Brahmin from Mysore, she lacked a rooting in the Dravidian movement (she took first oath as CM swearing on God, not Nature like other Dravidian leaders), but made up for it in administrative prowess and oratory. In a rare personal interview to Simi Garewal in the nineties, Jayalalithaa had remarked on how far she had gone from the shy, academic girl she used to be. “Today, I give it as good as I get or even more than I get.”

She single-handedly built her epic image, playing both victim and protector, but never the hapless damsel in distress. Unmarried and estranged from her brother after their mother’s death, she presented herself as a politician wedded to her public, a shrewd contrast to the growing family politics of Karunanidhi’s sons, daughters, wives, and grandnephews.

Her tough love politics inspired both intense devotion and fear. In a state with political divisions generations deep, after MGR’s death in 1987, Jayalalithaa consolidated a vote bank for the AIADMK: women, extremely marginalised Adi Davidars, and business castes such as Thevars and Goundars. She lost ground when she turned authoritarian as chief minister, had Karunanidhi dragged from his home for an arrest, and after the obscene display of wealth in a foster son’s wedding in 1992.

But repeatedly, she bounced back with massive financial backing, efficient administration, and well-timed policies. It was her government that passed a state ordinance to increase the reservation from 50 percent to 69 percent. She also took to issuing an array of highly subsidised gifts and welfare policies (many of which she named after herself) for the poor. Her most recent vindication was the sweep of the assembly election in May 2016, unexpected by nearly every pollster.

Also Read: I’ve Never Wept in Public: Jayalalithaa on Politics, Love & MGR

Without anointing an heir, Jayalalithaa has left behind a party which is in shambles, writes Rohini Mohan.
Football Players From Tamil Nadu pay tribute to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa by holding her posters in Jammu on Tuesday. (Photo: PTI)

End of Dravidian Politics?

Jayalalithaa’s legacy in governance is unparalleled, and the public adoration will remain for decades. But it was she who introduced to the otherwise argumentative, dissenting, democratic state, extreme strains of sycophancy and oppression. Although she rarely stooped to direct communal or casteist attacks, she sought to crush the smallest dissenters, whether a singer or a journalist. From 2011 to 2016 alone, she filed over 250 defamation cases on other parties and the media. She did not give interviews to the media, and neither did any of her ministers, all fearing the consequences of speaking out of turn.

With Jayalalithaa’s death, her party is without doubt, lost. She resurrected the AIADMK, but today, has left it without a successor. O Pannerselvam has stepped in to fill her shoes as chief minister and party general secretary, but there are no mass leaders, young or old. At the Rajaji Hall, the family of Sasikala, aide and co-accused in the disproportionate assets case, flanked the leader’s body, reminding many of how a young Jayalalithaa stood resolutely next to MGR’s body in 1987, anointing herself his heir, “a piece of his heart”. Whether Sasikala’s act is a message, or an aspiration, only time will tell. In the moment of mourning, the party stands together, but the next few months will decide its fate.

Tamil Nadu too is at a crossroads. With one of the two stalwarts of Tamil politics gone, and the other, 92-year-old Karunanidhi, also unwell and barely holding together a warring litany of children and partymen, the already shaky Dravidian politics stands on its last legs. Political observers say churnings around overt caste violence, Hindutva emergence, and youth unemployment – all kept at bay until now by the Dravida political habit – could throw up a new phase of politics in the state. Frustrating and awe-inspiring, the flawed feminist Jayalalithaa might have been one of the country’s last links to a headily emotive, people-centric politics.


(The writer is a Bengaluru-based journalist and can be reached @rohini_mohan. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Jayalalithaa   Tamil Nadu   O Panneerselvam 

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