Since late 2015, if not longer, the health of the late J Jayalalithaa—the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu and the erstwhile head of the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam—had been the subject of not only repetitive hospital and government bulletins, but also of rumour and anecdote, fantasy and fiction. In the months that preceded her death on 5 December 2016, an air of deliberate secrecy kept many citizens guessing. Amid the prevailing confusion, a frustrating moment brought home the absurdity and poignancy of her situation.
After Jayalalithaa won the assembly elections in May 2016 and took over as chief minister for the second time in succession, she expected to go from victory to victory. Once the usual rounds of cabinet re-shuffling were concluded—these happened so often that it is hard to keep count—it seemed that her government had settled down to business. But her being admitted to a hospital in September changed everything: while her party and ministers tried to reassure themselves and the supporters of AIADMK that Amma, as she was known to them, was indeed recovering, there was a clear diktat that one ought not speculate on her well-being, or even wonder whether she was getting better or not. This anxiety surrounding her health, or rather her mortality, acquired an absurd resonance, when those accused of spreading rumours about her worsening condition were threatened with legal action. The injunction to even imagine that her health could be deteriorating, showed her in a new and vulnerable light: she was literally being placed outside the pale of what we consider human, as it were, and disallowed her mortal and suffering status.
However, it was hard to hold the poignant moment, because the menace—of state action against those who wondered aloud about her health—embedded within this moment was all too real. It was also in character with her mode of governance as it had unfolded during all her terms in office. Jayalalithaa spoke in her own voice and person, made it clear that it was she and not her party that was in power, demonstrated that her will was sovereign, and that neither the executive nor the legislators from her own party could dare consider it to be otherwise. If they did, they would have to risk facing punitive state action or veiled civil menace.
This imperious manner of functioning earned Jayalalithaa grudging praise and also admiration, especially from women. Indeed, it would appear, if one were to go by media reports, that she was sensitive to women’s issues, and that her successful rise to power and ability to hold her own in a misogynistic, patriarchal political culture proved inspiring to many women. It is certainly true that hers was not a life devoid of struggle. But it is important to remember that while she displayed remarkable courage and steely resilience in pursuing what was important to her, she was not entirely without support. For one, Jayalalithaa had social capital. Her caste privilege ensured an English education that made it possible for her to speak back to the English media and her urbane liberal critics. It also helped cement her appeal to the middle class across India, which scorned the politician in white who preferred to speak in the vernacular. Further, she made good use of the gendered culture of allure that is associated with the stage and theatre. This culture, to be sure, was not easy on her, but she also learned to deploy it to great effect, transforming herself from a popular actor to a woman with a distinctive public presence that commanded instant attention, if not devotion. This transfiguration was made possible by a party organisation that effectively orchestrated the loyalty she appeared to command, and reflected this loyalty, in turn, by being servile towards her.
Meanwhile, Jayalalithaa had set in place a complicated system of political rewards and punishments to ensure political obedience. She also established an effective system of quashing all those party men and women who were either popular with their constituencies, or showed signs of what she considered upstart ambition. Finally, she deployed state power expertly, cultivating a ferocious populism that combined welfare and coercion in equal measure. She made it clear that she would only tolerate those whose political authority derived from her own. It is telling that hundreds of men did not mind that Jayalalithaa demanded this of them, and they were willing to comply, because it meant power of office, access to resources and participation in a culture that thrived on perceived impunity.
In a sense, Jayalalithaa embodied female empowerment that was actually grounded in social class and caste. It was expressed in and through acts of individual defiance, transgressions and displays of strength. This is why her political style enjoyed traction with sections of the media, and amongst some women—for it could be read as a comfortable fable of women’s freedom that restricts itself to making it in a man’s world, ignoring the contexts and contents of this making. If we are to cut, for a moment, to Mayawati, the president of the Bahujan Samaj Party, and ask ourselves why she is seldom seen as an icon of female self-actualisation, the power of the social capital that Jayalalithaa wore as a matter of right and entitlement—as indeed only upper-caste women can—becomes evident.
Mayawati did not possess social or cultural capital. While she enjoyed the confidence and mentorship of the redoubtable Kanshi Ram, the late BSP founder, she was also an active party member who worked with the BSP’s mandate. She strove to translate both, this mandate—albeit within the limits set by electoral politics—and the unlimited power that pliable state structures make available to elected ruling party leaders. Yet, neither her considerable administrative and political skills and achievements, nor her tough demeanour that survived the chauvinistic lawlessness of the hinterland, elicited admiration beyond the circle of loyalists and admirers. None but Dalit or Bahujan women have sought to claim her, and tellingly, such claimants do not interest our media, nor are they present in the public sphere in which opinions are traded.
It can and is being argued that imperious or not, Jayalalithaa understood the common citizen’s need and was sensitive to women’s suffering. Many examples are cited to support these assertions: the manner in which she worked the Public Distribution System in the state to ensure a minimum quantity of free rice to all poor homes; the health insurance scheme she launched to allow the working classes to access private hospitals; the freebies such as computers, school bags, goats and cows she distributed to empower girls and working women respectively; the setting-up of Amma canteens; and the subsidised rations her government provided. All of these are viewed as indices of Jayalalithaa’s commitment to welfarism.
Tamil Nadu has a long history as a welfare state, starting with the late K Kamaraj—the former chief minister of the state who was a member of the Congress. He extended the midday meal scheme—which was available only in limited schools at that time—to cover more and more institutions. He also initiated several education-support measures, worthy precursors to today’s educational freebies. Students in elementary schools, for instance, were given free uniforms, and special scholarships were made available for children from Harijan families, as they were then called. Most importantly, Kamaraj set in motion a massive campaign and budget to build a good public library system. This proved to be an enormous success, as poor students, particularly those in middle and high schools used these libraries to expand their knowledge. Under MG Ramachandran, Tamil Nadu’s former chief minister and AIADMK’s founder, the midday meal became a flagship scheme, and since then, all successive governments have sought to improve it. Similarly, the provision of free rice goes back to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s 1967 poll promise of subsidised rice.
Jayalalithaa appropriated this heritage with great aplomb. She made it clear to her adoring public that she, and she alone, was responsible for the government’s largesse. Whenever economists or opposition leaders brought up issues regarding budgetary deficits or financial inefficiency, she blamed the union government’s parsimony, its overweening authority. This made her an unlikely supporter of state autonomy—and in her case, she used it to show up the lopsided powers invested in the union government.
Significantly, freebies and welfare schemes, however enabling, marked the recipients of welfare as permanently needy, and as deserving only the bare minimum. This in turn, created an electorate that played the welfare card to its own purpose, and in the bargain settled for a less-than-modest democratic existence. Meanwhile, the state continued to renege on substantive policy-making: be it funding sustainable measures in health or education; creating employment; or punishing those who hoarded and garnered wealth beyond legal measure. Under Jayalalithaa, such reneging was fudged with great expertise—freebies existed and were flaunted as decorative icing to obscure an ailing system of state provisioning, for both health or education.
As for appealing to women: in her first term in office, between 1991 and 1996, Jayalalithaa was innovative, especially with her cradle baby scheme (to forestall female foeticide and infanticide) and the establishment of all women police stations. But since then, neither of these two measures have been critically audited or studied for what they have achieved. During this very period, the state also witnessed some of the worst custodial crimes against women, despite the presence of a woman chief minister. Neither did it matter when it came to the state’s liquor policy—the Tamil Nadu government runs the state’s liquor shops, with the revenue thus earned ostensibly financing the state’s welfare schemes. The anger of women and their protests against liquor did not really grab the attention of the government, except during the last elections. Even then, all that was promised was a phased withdrawal. Subsequently, although the government publicised its decision to shut down close-to 500 state-run liquour shops soon after it was elected in 2016, there is little clarity on how the planned prohibition is working on the ground, in what is clearly its initial phase.
Notwithstanding the welfarism they practiced, successive governments in Tamil Nadu, and Jayalalithaa’s in particular, have been viciously undemocratic in their day-to-day functioning, relying on the police—who are constantly pampered—to quell and contain public discontent and dissent. Jayalalithaa’s tenures as chief minister consistently witnessed a period of extreme tolerance for the high-handedness of the police. One has only to consider the incidence of custodial violence and police excesses during the periods in which she was in power, ranging from the infamous assaults on Adivasi women and men in Vachati in 1991, to the violence against Dalits in Kodiyangulam in 1995 and in Paramakudi in 2011. The state coddling of the forces has gone hand-in-hand with cynicism towards the functioning of democratic institutions. The State Human Rights Commission and Women’s Rights Commission, for instance, have, for over a decade, either been non-functional or functioned in a perfunctory manner. The last head of the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women, the late Visalakshi Nedunchezhiyan, was a political appointee. The wife of the late M Nedunchhiyan, a former AIADMK political leader, she was an ailing 92-year-old and passed away in November 2016.
The legal and administrative protocols required for the effective implementation of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 are not entirely in place, as reviews of the act’s functioning in the state have made clear. In each of the terms that Jayalalithaa held office, there have been crimes against Dalits, and not once did she or her government display the requisite political will to send out a strong message to the dominant-caste Hindus who indulged in such acts of violence. Whether this had to do with the Dharmapuri arson and violence in 2012 or the so-called honour killings that were widespread through her last term in office between 2011 and 2015, to name only a few, the Jayalalithaa-led government has been tight-lipped on caste-Hindu criminality. While the AIADMK-led government did the bare minimum that governments are forced to do in a democracy—such as offering reparations—politically, not once did it take a critical position on caste-Hindu violence.
This brings us back to the populism that brought Jayalalithaa to power and earned her devotion: she made it work for her, with much panache and grit. Nothing stuck to her, neither corruption charges nor charges of being an autocrat, or for that matter, accusations of land-grabbing. This is because in her person, she reconciled popular need and state action, and to doubt her meant that one was casting aspersions on the notion of popular sovereignty itself. This explains all those defamation cases, and her unwillingness to listen to criticism, unless it appealed to her. How could one doubt the ultimate democrat, one who not only stood for the people, but was their point of origin, their ultimate ground? Amma was not merely a symbolic or gendered form of address, but a cry of political affirmation—she existed as the very source of popular legitimacy, never mind her disinterest in democracy. Now that she is no more, her loyalists are bereft, for the ground of their existence has been shaken. As for democracy, the conundrum remains unchanged. It will have to plough its difficult path.