Why women in patriarchal Tamil Nadu worshipped Jayalalithaa

A lone woman fighting the world.
A lone woman fighting the world.
Image: Reuters
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One of the visuals that has defined the reaction to Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa Jayaraman’s hospitalisation, before she passed away late on Dec. 05, is the throng of distraught women keeping vigil. Some have been there from the start, over a month-and-a-half ago. She is their champion. A wronged woman who has overcome the odds, sacrificed and provided for them, earning the honorific Amma—mother.

Jayalalithaa wanted to become a lawyer but instead went on to be described as the “Golden Girl of Tamil Cinema.” She acted in over 140 movies, many of whose titles or plots revolved around the female protagonist played by her, a marked divergence from the otherwise hero-led industry. It was a theme that played out in her very successful maiden speech titled Pennin Perumai (a woman’s greatness) as propaganda secretary for the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). The then chief minister Marudur Gopalan Ramachandran, popularly known as MGR, recognised that unlike many actors, Jayalalithaa’s charisma translated unbelievably well in the real world. Her ability to speak in multiple languages and an inherently cultured image also helped. Her induction as the propaganda secretary was intended to foil the opposition leader and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam supremo M Karunanidhi’s inroads into the electorate with his fiery speeches. It was a rivalry that ended late last night.

Amma’s idiosyncrasies

The start of the Mahabharatha war is often attributed to the disrobing of mythical Draupadi and her vow to destroy the Kauravas. Jayalalithaa’s rise is said to have started with a similar vow—to enter the assembly only after she became chief minister—taken after a budget session of the state assembly where she was physically assaulted by members of the ruling DMK. It was a price she paid for interrupting the budget speech by M Karunanidhi. But unlike Draupadi, it was not the first time she had faced public humiliation and assault. In December 1987, she was manhandled off MGR’s funeral procession and attacked physically and verbally. Public sympathy grew and it was the catalyst that drove her to the top of the party, overcoming opposition from a faction led by MGR’s wife, Janaki. It was a strange phenomenon: The “other woman” won over the wife and an avowed Dravidian party unified under a Brahmin woman.

It was just the first of many such idiosyncrasies that characterised her political career.

In 1991, she was sworn in as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. The actress who introduced skirts, swimsuits and glamour to Tamil cinema now appeared scrubbed of makeup, completely covered in a sari, and ready to assume her mantle as Amma. The movie connection would haunt her and help her. Senior politicians used the tag to demean her constantly. Meanwhile, her television channel aired her movies non-stop during election time. The character assassination did not stick in the public mind for long but the movies did. She had transformed herself into Amma, above all the muck they could throw. After all, the position of a mother in the Indian psyche is one of purity and is always above reproach, striking a chord with AIDMK’s traditional vote bank: women and the poor. The vein of patriarchy that ran through Tamil Nadu’s political system had found a counterweight.

Jayalalithaa in power

Jayalalithaa’s first win has been attributed to public sympathy and the tense period after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Her subsequent wins were said to be the result of the umpteen welfare schemes that pockmark Tamil Nadu’s political landscape. They have often inspired extreme reactions, yet there is no question that they are much loved by a large section of the state because many of these were unabashedly pro-women and targeted towards children, from MGR’s noon meal scheme, which markedly increased school enrollment, to Jayalalithaa’s cradle baby scheme, which sought to address rampant female infanticide.During her first term between 1991 and 1996, she also introduced all-women police stations and drove up women’s enrollment in the force. Tamil Nadu currently has the largest number of women-only police stations and the second largest percentage of policewomen in India. She was also instrumental in the creation of women’s self-help groups across the state. Liberalisation hit India during this period and Tamil Nadu with Jayalalithaa at the helm reaped the benefits.

The dream run did not last. The people who had helped her win eventually saw an ostentatious display of wealth, particularly during the wedding of her foster son, and voted Jayalalithaa out of office. However in 2001, she found her way back. But the iron hand with which she kept her party men and the opposition in line was a double-edged sword: It helped with discipline but led to the criticism of her so-called personality cult and revenge-driven policies.

In Tamil Nadu, Amman is one of the reigning deities. She is a mother, but not exactly known for her benevolence. She rains disease and destruction on her adversaries, yet she is a favourite of the women in the state. Jayalalithaa radiated and wielded power like an angry goddess.

The 2001-2006 tenure also saw a number of schemes but the one that stood out was rainwater-harvesting. Women and their fights among multi-coloured plastic pots for water became less prevalent for a while.

Again, she suffered a loss in 2004 due to repeated allegations of corruption. But the next election in 2011 saw her winning. The deteriorating law and order situation was one of the key reasons for her victory, and she won again in 2015. The government tried to battle the criticism of inertia from the industrial sector with the Enayam port project and a Global Investor Meet, but the populist measures also gained intensity. The government rolled out Amma canteens, which provide extremely low-cost food (curd rice and sambar rice at Rs3). Alongside came Amma water, Amma salt, Amma cement, Amma farm-fresh consumer outlets, and other products. Free blenders, grinders and fans were given out to women, together with free master health check-ups. For students there were free laptops, a large number of scholarships, and free bicycles for school-going girls.

In hindsight, it was like a final show of strength before the race ended.

Eventually, every party in the state jumped on to the populist bandwagon, and freebies became just one aspect of the admiration she inspired among her ardent followers.

In a state obsessed with the celluloid, the story of a beautiful girl from a respectable family forced into movies, then assaulted and humiliated, leading to dramatic comebacks and epic revenge sagas, was cinematic gold. With no blood ties, they saw a lone woman fighting the world.

Then, there is the dichotomy. The razor-sharp intellect and streak of refinement, which are at odds with the coarse world she inhabited. The book and music-loving introvert who first became a superstar and then a political heavyweight. There was also her enigmatic personal life. And the obsessive loyalty she demanded, despite her refusal to heed anyone’s advice other than her own. But above all, there was the persistence with which she overcame insurmountable odds, time after time.

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