Defiance in compliance

Jayalalithaa did not break the traditional moulds, she slipped in and out of them. She believed that in order to show results, she needed to change herself even as she struggled to change the circumstances around her

Updated - December 07, 2016 03:59 am IST

Published - December 07, 2016 12:02 am IST

 161207 - Oped - Jayalalitha — Illustration: Keshav

161207 - Oped - Jayalalitha — Illustration: Keshav

In many ways Jayalalithaa was atypical: a woman politician heading a patriarchal party, a Brahmin leading an offshoot of the Dravidian movement, a film world recluse directly interacting with her admirers. But she did not break the traditional moulds; instead, she slipped in and out of them.

At the individual level, she defied conventions and social norms both as an actor and as a politician, in her personal life as well as in her film and political careers. But, at the same time, as a person wielding public office, she did not undermine or even threaten extant power hierarchies; she merely worked her way around them. She did what she had to do to succeed or achieve results, but rarely, if ever, on her own terms.

Within her defiance of patriarchal structures or caste barriers in her rise to the top, she showed compliance, a respect for established institutions and existing hierarchies. In this, she was a quintessential conservative, and not “ puratchi thalaivi ”, or “revolutionary leader”, as she was hailed by her supporters. More than anyone else, she saw the limitations of the system, the barriers to change. She believed she had to work within the system in order to show results; she needed to change herself even as she struggled to change the circumstances around her.


The unquestioned patriarch

Much of the patriarchy within the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) remained untouched under her. The number of women inducted as ministers or elected as legislators saw no dramatic rise during the years she was at the helm. Like the AIADMK founder M.G. Ramachandran before her, she continued to rely on money bags, musclemen, and caste chieftains to deliver the votes. If there was another way of doing this, it was not clear to her.

Indeed, Jayalalithaa slowly assumed the role of the unquestioned patriarch in the organisation. She continued to call herself “ anbu sahodari ”, a “dear sister”, of her partymen, who, in turn addressed her as “Amma”, or “mother”. But she ruled with an iron fist, and made sure there was no scope for internal dissent, surrounded as she was, in the initial years, by former rivals. The assertion of her gender identity went hand-in-hand with the use of muscle and money power within the party organisation.

True, Jayalalithaa relied heavily on her proximity to MGR as his leading lady in films to endear herself to party-persons as his political heir. When MGR died in 1987 , she refused to move away from his body. She is on record that she held back her desire to commit sati as she stood next to the body, because of the suffering she had to endure at the hands of political opponents within the party. She made full use of her stature as “MGR’s heroine” to climb up the party rungs, but once she rose to the top, she was careful not to give the impression that she leaned on any man for counsel or support. M. Natarajan, the husband of her friend V.N. Sasikala, was banished from her house because he tried to wield influence within the party and outside by misusing her name.

When Jayalalithaa required her male party leaders to show their obeisance to her, she was not undermining the patriarchal structures in the party. Neither she nor the men were ‘unsexed’ when they bowed before her; actually, she, as a woman, derived additional authority from the very fact that patriarchs within the party were falling at her feet.


Demands of the system

Even during the time of MGR the AIADMK was a very different creature from its parent party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam with its roots in rationalism and the non-Brahmin movement. MGR, an upper caste Malayali, even briefly flirted with the idea of doing away with reservation on the basis of caste in favour of income-based criteria, but gave it up after an electoral setback. Jayalalithaa never hid her Brahmin roots. Indeed, on one occasion, in an apparent response to taunts from the opposition benches on her Brahmin roots, she told the Assembly: “ Naan pappathi thaan (I am a Brahmin woman).” But she never wavered on the caste-based reservation system: she actually managed to win constitutional protection for a piece of legislation guaranteeing reservation up to 69 per cent in Tamil Nadu.

She was not uncomfortable with the Brahmin label, but her political commitment to the welfare of backward castes and Dalits was never in doubt. She recognised the importance of reservations as a political plank. Jayalalithaa evidently saw no conflict in either retaining or defying her gender and caste identities as long as she could comply with the demands that the system made of her.

Her entry into politics from a career in films was not entirely accidental, but nor was it well-charted. As a sought after actor in south Indian films in the 1970s, she kept to herself and a few close friends within the industry. Her reasonably long stint in films might have helped her political career, but she did not prepare herself for it. Having to deal with scheming and jealous politicians was an unexpected requirement. But she learnt quickly .

While her circle widened, she still stuck to her few close friends. Like under MGR, the AIADMK under her remained a loosely representative organisation that depended heavily on the personal charisma of the top leader for votes. This suited the celebrity in Jayalalithaa, as she liked to be insulated from having to deal directly with a large number of people. Not surprisingly, as Chief Minister, she found it easier to deal with bureaucrats than with her own party men. Officials too found it less problematic dealing with her and her office than with others. The interaction with party workers too was limited to occasional visits to the party office or election-time meetings.

Perhaps for the same reason, the AIADMK did not have a strong second line of leadership. If it had not been for the legal setbacks that unseated her twice in the last 15 years, the AIADMK would not have had an automatic choice as a successor in O. Panneerselvam .

Mapping the void

Just as Jayalalithaa adapted to the nature of her party, the AIADMK too adapted to her nature. It is for this reason that Sasikala Natarajan and the new Chief Minister Panneerselvam will find it difficult to hold the party together like she did .

In the hands of anyone else, the AIADMK machinery is a very different animal. Jayalalithaa herself took a long time to bring together the disparate elements of the AIADMK, which is a mass organisation without a streamlined cadre base. Though the party is not as faction-ridden as it was when she took over, in the absence of an undisputed leader, it could come under new pressures. The true extent of the void she has left will be clear only in the years to come.

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