The mirror that is Jayalalithaa

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In all the adulation and sycophancy that the late Chief Minister demanded and got, in all the political U-turns that were ignored, in all the condemnations that tapered off in Time's hollow vacuum, we must realise that Amma knew us as a society better than we ourselves acknowledge.

The late Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu once told a journalist that her persona was a product of the media narrative. Thus, she was a reflection of us as a society. | The Hindu

In times such as these, when it is easy to allow oneself to be swept away by the emotion of the moment, it is tempting to allow oneself to think in poetry, not prose, as we mourn the loss of Jayalalithaa. And yet, if we give in to that temptation, we lose an opportunity to reflect, to introspect, and to think about where we are and where we are heading as a society.

Hers was the story of an underdog; an outsider who fought her way to the top. We cheer for the underdog, and yet make no move to reform the system that made her an underdog to begin with. Her origins aren’t unique — the story of Jayalalithaa’s childhood is the story of the childhood of many Indian women; women who are trained in the fine arts because they are not expected to have successful professional careers; women who are told that it is better to have ‘realistic expectations’ about their role in society. We celebrate her life because hers is the story of the woman who fought back and is a testament to the limitless possibilities that can be unlocked by a combination of imagination, intelligence, ambition and sheer hunger for success. And yet, even as we applaud her success, we do not address the underlying misogyny that made her success even more remarkable.

Jayalalithaa ploughed on through pain and condemnation.


As is the case with any successful outsider, there is a tendency to define or qualify their success by the circumstances that made them different. To suggest that Jayalalithaa’s story was remarkable only because she was an upper-caste sophisticated woman in a male-dominated Dravidian political landscape would be doing her a terrible injustice. Jayalalithaa was a flawed Goddess — a formidable leader, a survivor with an appetite for battle, and a spectacularly successful politician with superb instincts and an intuitive ‘feel’ for the pulse of the electorate. She broke many stereotypes, exploded many myths, and created a few of her own.

We are in awe of her rise within the AIADMK even though, as a rookie politician, she was often taunted as ‘the other woman’ by her detractors. And yet, we do nothing to discard the deeply ingrained prudery and prejudice in our society. Five decades after her first movie with MGR, we still look with disdain upon any relationship that doesn’t conform to our sense of middle-class ‘morality’.

We admire her for her achievements as a single woman, someone who didn’t need a husband to define her or protect her, and yet we expect women to marry, ‘settle down’ and bear children. We look down upon and sometimes pity women who haven’t done so, irrespective of how much they have achieved. We celebrate Jayalalithaa’s strength, and yet, 25 years after she first became Chief Minister, we worry about our unmarried sisters and daughters, and our biggest fear is that their lives will be ruined unless they find a husband.

Some television anchors referred to her as ‘The people’s CM’ and made references to how much the people of Tamil Nadu loved her, and always have. Have we? Really?

We are, after all, the same electorate who have alternated between the AIADMK and the DMK for the past two decades. (The AIADMK victory earlier this year broke that alternating pattern, but it was a precarious victory with far lower margins). The news anchors on TV have reminded us several times over the last couple of days that she had won four elections. What they didn’t mention as often was the fact that she was routed by the DMK in two elections in between those victories. It would be reasonable to say that based on the voting patterns over the last two and a half decades, the electorate isn’t really satisfied with the prevailing quality of politicians from either party.


It is possible to stretch that point a little bit and argue that the electorate believes that both options are either equally good or equally bad. Nothing has really changed, nor are there any fundamental differences in policy or philosophy of governance. Both the DMK and the AIADMK were essentially populist governments. If one gave away colour TVs, the other gave away mixers/grinders. If one offered scholarships, the other offered laptops. Both claimed to stand for ‘Dravidian’ culture; both claim to be ‘secular’, in favour of ‘development’ and ‘women empowerment’.

In reality, the only thing that both of these parties have been committed to — the only thing that they have been consistently passionate about — is the pursuit of power. They point fingers at each other, accusing each other of not doing enough for the State. They accuse each other of corruption, malpractice and organised graft . We agreed with both of them at different points in time.

And yet, when we grew tired of one, we turned to the other. Our collective memory only lasts for a maximum of five years, after which it resets. We don’t hold our politicians accountable to statements that they made in the past. From being a critic of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), and one of their prime targets, to being sympathetic to their cause, Jayalalithaa made a full U-turn. No-one asked her why, or how her views changed.

From being an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party, to an ally of the Congress, to an ally of neither, her position changed frequently and conveniently, not unlike a skillful autorickshaw driver who negotiates his way through the traffic on Mount Road, weaving his way in and out of lanes, committing neither to the lane on the left nor to the one on the right, focussed only on getting ahead. Maybe she realised that flexibility is more critical to survival than steadfastness in the Indian Political Jungle. Perhaps she was fickle, because she recognised the fact that we are fickle and, perhaps, she didn’t have any real commitment to ideology because she recognised that we didn't really care.


No-one can blame her for political expediency because the electorate didn’t demand answers to the hard questions.

The sustainability of Jayalalithaa’s welfare politics was always questionable. Except that we didn't really question it. We were more interested in comparing the AIADMK offerings with freebies the DMK were doling out in response. In the battle between a former screenwriter and an erstwhile movie star, rhetoric mattered more than substance; gestures mattered more than policy.

Didn't we know that many of those free laptops, TVs, mixers and grinders were being sold by the beneficiaries for cash? Did we wonder whether the noble intentions of providing access to technology, information and nutrition were being met at all? Did we demand to know who was paying for this populism, and how? Or how much the real cost was? Can we judge her for being populist when no one demanded or valued prudence and pragmatism?

Is a government elected by the people as a sort of charitable benefactor to give handouts to individuals in need? Isn't the role of the government to support and enable the public in general, rather than hand out gifts for individual consumption? Could that money have been put to better use, to ultimately bring greater benefit to more people? Is it really ‘Revolutionary Leadership’ to basically give away free stuff to poor people?

We were angry when the floods came, and made a few noises about the effects of poor urban planning, storm water seepage, poor contingency planning and poor infrastructure. Did we have the courage to ask ourselves, let alone those who govern us, whether those Rs.-2 idlis and free laptops had been paid for by insufficient infrastructure? Can we really blame the State government for not caring, when barely a year later, all the noise and anger has subsided and references to the horrors of December 15 are purely anecdotal?


We couldn't really make up our minds on whether we found it cringeworthy and repulsive when grown men prostrated themselves before Jayalalithaa. How would we react if that was the expected norm of courtesy in our workplace? Why was subservience the only acceptable way of demonstrating loyalty? Didn't it violate all forms of human dignity and decency?

And yet, at some level, isn't there a part of us that admired the resilience of a woman who was once manhandled, scorned and abused by uncultured male chauvinists, taking on a new magnificent avatar, where she demanded groveling subservience in a spectacular display of absolute power and total control? Did we secretly admire her for it? Were we disgusted by it? When she was alive, many of us condemned it by calling it ‘sycophancy’. When she is no more, we call it ‘love and respect’.

Jayalalithaa understood her people well. She showed us what we wanted to see, told us what we wanted to hear and gave us what we deserved. Her life is a mirror of all that is good and bad in our society. Amidst the lingering maudlin tributes that are inevitable after the passing of a powerful personality, we must look at ourselves in that mirror, very closely.

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