Popularly and affectionately known as ‘Amma,’ meaning ‘mother,’ Jayalalithaa is the queen bee of Tamil Nadu politics and beloved by millions of Tamils. She had a rapid rise to the top of state politics and her legend has only grown. Here, we take a look at some of the factors that have led to her deification among her supporters in Tamil Nadu.
Here, we take a look at some of the factors that have led to her deification among her supporters in Tamil Nadu:
1. Her blockbuster success in Tamil film industry
Following the footsteps of other politicians in Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa too continued the tradition of politicians emerging from the film industry. Atleast 5 of the last 7 Chief Ministers of the state were once active in the film industry. Jayalalithaa started acting in films while still in
Jayalalithaa started acting in films while still in school, and released 140 films over the course of a successful artistic career during the 1960s and 1970s. Her film career brought her both public popularity and critical acclaim. She acted alongside leading stars (and future politicians) like Sivaji Ganesan and M.G. Ramachandran.
The affection she had earned from the Tamil public was to ease her entry into active politics and provide the platform on which the rest of her legend would be built.
2. Public sympathy as AIADMK leader
Jayalalithaa joined active politics in 1982 under the guidance of her former co-star, the charismatic and much loved M.G. Ramachandran (also known as MGR). When MGR died in 1987, she appointed herself his political heir and managed to secure public sympathy in her role as his grieving protégé; so much so that she even managed to upstage MGR’s widow Janaki Ramachandran, who had emerged as a rival for the AIADMK leadership.
As leader of the Opposition in 1989, Jayalalithaa was the victim of a disgraceful attack in the assembly where, amid scenes of heavy violence, she was visibly molested by members of the ruling DMK party. Brilliantly, Jayalalithaa turned this into a huge victory for herself by comparing the incident to the shameful disrobing of Draupadi in the Mahabharata. She effectively secured the public sympathy in her favour and rode this momentum to victory in the 1991 assembly elections to become CM for the first time.
3. Public handouts and the ‘Amma’ brand of products
Jayalalithaa has benefited greatly from the culture of political handouts in Tamil Nadu. While she may not have originated the practice, she has certainly adopted it and escalated it to never-before seen levels. Every election season comes with promises of freebies for the public, only if elected of course, such as TVs, cell phones, laptops, cycles and so on. This, however, is fairly standard practice in Tamil Nadu by now. She took this idea further brilliantly by associating the sale of very popular subsidised goods with her own self.
Rising food prices in 2012-13 led to the introduction of ‘Amma’ brand foodstuff at highly subsidised rates. Since then, the program has grown to include a diverse array of products, including drinking water, medicines, salt, cement and the hugely popular ‘Amma Canteens’ for the urban poor. In doing so, she indelibly associated herself with the popular benefits of cheap products enjoyed by the public.
4. A strong personality cult
Jayalalithaa has managed to build on her public image over time to create a strong personality cult around herself as leader of AIADMK and, by extension, all Tamils. This started within the party itself, as Jayalalithaa gradually centralised all power around herself until she was able to rule the party as an autocrat. By making herself the personification of the party, she inspired complete devotion from the party cadre (who first started calling her ‘Amma’) that later spread into the wider Tamil society.
She furthered her reputation of invincibility by publicly playing power politics (when she brought down the Vajpayee Government in New Delhi by withdrawing support in 1999) and by appearing invulnerable to legal prosecution in her years-long disproportionate assets trial. The strength of her personality cult is so strong that when she was finally convicted in the aforementioned trial in 2014, her followers went on strike, organised protest marches, and some even went as far as to publicly set themselves on fire in an extreme form of protest.
This is one of the most successful examples of a political leader creating and capitalising on a personality cult in India. Other leaders around the country, like Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal or Bal Thackeray in Mumbai, have had a similarly devoted following. Jayalalithaa, however, has taken this phenomenon to the furthest possible extent and ridden the wave of devotion to establish an unassailable position at the top of Tamil Nadu politics.