How an enigma called Jayalalithaa Jayaram conquered Tamil Nadu
Chennai. 2 pm, December 6. The local train takes a weary, unusual pause on the elevated track between Chepauk and Chintadripet stations. From inside the compartment one gets an airy view of Rajaji Hall where the body of Jayalalithaa Jayaram (1948-2016) is kept for the public to pay their last respects. An undisciplined crowd swirls about inside the compartment and gathers near open doors and blurry windows. A cry breaks out. A lady in her fifties wearing a big, yellow pottu on her forehead slaps her skull in uncontrollable agony as she takes a peek at the undisputed queen of Tamil Nadu’s ruling party, AIADMK, who died on December 5, reportedly battling multiple organ failure for nearly 75 days at Chennai’s Apollo hospital. The women screams in pain and shouts: “I may have given birth to five children, but you are their real mother, Amma!” She takes a pause and cries: “You gave Selvi cycles and books, a good school to Punithan, food and cradle to Rajesh, Revathy and Arasu. You are The Mother, Amma!” She sobs as the train moves away from the view, as a bigger crowd, including media and political honchos, assembles near Rajaji Hall to bid adieu to Jayalalithaa.
There were many Jayalalithaas. Unfortunately for her, the wrong ones got more press. To her admirers, Jayalalithaa was the omnipotent Mother, or Amma as they fondly called her, possessing unimaginable powers. But her detractors, which include the powerful Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Muthuvel Karunanidhi and son Stalin, she was someone who strangled democracy and built a regime of sycophancy. Jaya’s admirers included most women — urban, rural, educated, working, jobless — in Tamil Nadu. Among them she enjoyed immense popularity for the very fact that she did things most of them could only dream of —things most of them always longed to do. She broke the proverbial glass ceiling with a happy vengeance, by standing up against a ruthless world of misogyny and stamping a woman’s mark there.
Leave a mark Jaya did. And she did that with a high degree of uppity. Over the years, she ran amok through alleys reserved for masculine swashbuckling and merrily reversed the order in favour of the woman. Of course, the State’s women clapped. And so happy they were at her performance that they cared zip about the arrogance she aired or the scams she allegedly orchestrated — some of which jolted her political career so wildly that she had to resign twice from chief-ministership. But on both occasions, she came back to power with phoenixian resilience.
Resilience was her capital, always. Her determination and discipline, hence, made her a darling of the State’s law enforcement force. Police was Amma’s department, as an IPS officer wrote after her demise. Jaya laid a lot of emphasis on maintaining law and order in the State, especially in making its streets safe to walk for women and children even at nights. And she did enjoy a fair degree of success on that front. Official data show Tamil Nadu has the lowest crime rate against women in India (17/100,000 people). Rate of crime against children is also low in Tamil Nadu — 13/100,000 people. The crime rate against scheduled castes stands at 12.3, the third lowest in India.
Equally impressive is Tamil Nadu’s infant mortality rate; 21 deaths per 1,000 live births. That’s the 2nd best performance in the country. So are the state’s maternal mortality rates: 90; again, second best in India. Jaya gave undivided attention to improving healthcare and education. The much-praised ‘Cradle Baby’ scheme was her idea. Launched in Salem, in 1992, the initiative helped address Tamil Nadu’s low sex ratio and curb female infanticide. It was with a reason Jaya was called the Mother of Welfare. She didn’t mince words and money when it came to doling out sops for the poor and the underprivileged. These ‘freebies’, as the middle-class and the elite media contemptuously termed them, including the Amma Canteens and many similar social welfare measures, helped enhance considerably the well-being of the poor in the State. As a result, migration of lumpen workforce from Tamil Nadu to neighbouring States such as Kerala came down significantly over the past decade. Of course, Tamil Nadu witnessed a 92 per cent jump in debt over five years ending 2015. But the strategy worked. And the Tamil Nadu model of social spends got accolades from the likes of Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze. Over the years her governments had played a key role in the state’s industrialisation as well.
That said, in the larger scheme of things, Jaya and AlADMK didn’t bother to enhance or sustain the social reformist movement that had been initiated by the likes of Periyar V Ramaswamy Naicker. On that count, her actions matched that of her rivals at the DMK. Like her mentor and philosopher MGR, Jayalalithaa was also accused of fake encounters and safeguarding caste interests. She couldn’t break the mores of feudal culture and untouchability in the State. In a way, Jaya reversed contributions of Periyar, allege social scientists, who, with right reason, say she was a soft tyrant and friend of the Saffron. Her views on religious conversions and the Ayodhya dispute were not fundamentally different from that of Sangh. Yet, the downtrodden in Tamil Nadu was ready to forgive her for all her misgivings. And that’s why many think Jayalalithaa’s life will remain a sociological wonder for many decades.