Why so many people are out on the streets celebrating Jayalalithaa’s bail

Larger than life.
Larger than life.
Image: Reuters/Babu
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Tamil Nadu is rejoicing, after jailed former chief minister Jayalalithaa was granted conditional interim bail by the Supreme Court on Friday morning.

There are some disappointed by the decision, given the massive allegations of corruption levelled against the powerful All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader. But they can barely be heard over the cacophony of celebratory firecrackers.

Enduring admiration

Jayalalithaa’s sycophantic fan following has been on full display over the last few weeks. School kids, housewives, priests, men and women across numerous towns and cities all over Tamil Nadu apparently feel a personal connect to her. Some of them worship her as a goddess, literally, using printouts of her movie appearances. Jaya TV—which is backed by the AIADMK—frequently shows people performing abhishekam in temples.

Sixteen supporters have reportedly died following her conviction late last month, while others have openly vented out their anger, rioted, burnt public property and harassed the rest of the populace. The influential Tamil film industry came out in full force to protest her arrest. Elsewhere, numerous curfews were declared.

“Her political career was at its peak before her arrest. If there is a chance of conducting an election now, she will definitely get over 200 seats in the Tamil Nadu assembly,” said writer and journalist Mayavarathaan.

It’s not that Jayalalithaa—known to her supporters as Amma, mother in Tamil—hasn’t entirely delivered. When Tamil Nadu’s power crisis was at its peak, with frequent power cuts, Jayalalithaa took control of the sector and reformed it quite dramatically. Her government introduced the solar-powered Green House Scheme for the rural poor, a public healthcare system, and approved the monorail project in Chennai. Free laptops were distributed to students.

But where she has excelled at is furthering her brand.

Brand Amma

Her more recent initiatives include Amma Canteens, which offer extraordinarily low-priced food items. Re1 idlis and Rs5 sambar rice have attracted a large and loyal clientele. Run by women, they are standing room-only and have no take-away options. But these 1,000-odd canteens may not be entirely profitable.

The Amma brand now also offers low-priced mineral water, salt and a ‘fair-price’ pharmacy. Apart from straining the exchequer, these low-cost offerings are disrupting the market by forcing push-cart sellers as well as restaurants to lower their prices. Yet, the benefit of these subsidized prices, particularly to the poor, is difficult to deny. And as a consequence, she remains an aberration among chief ministers in touching the lives of ordinary people through her personal brand every day.

Women supporters

Jayalalithaa’s followers aren’t overwhelmingly male. Women are everywhere, beating their chests and wailing in sorrow at her arrest, and now celebrating her interim bail with beaming smiles and impromptu jigs.

During her second term as Tamil Nadu chief minister between 2001 and 2006, she put in place numerous initiatives targeted at improving the lives of women. She commissioned India’s first batch of female police commandos in 2003. She distributed electric fans, mixers and grinders to women free of cost. She set up all-women police stations and initiatives to improve safety in public transport for women. Even movie star and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was reportedly impressed.

Even before she entered politics, Jayalalithaa already had the glamour of a movie star—and the popularity and hero worship that came with it. Once in government, she found her magic formula in populist schemes, which helped cement her own role in Tamil Nadu’s public imagination.

So Jayalalithaa may be in a spot of bother at the moment, but that matters little to the followers of Amma.