"For the next 60 years they will commemorate her birthday and the day of her death," a political analyst in Chennai tells the New York Times. "For sixty years at least. Joyously and solemnly."
J Jayalalithaa's death leaves Tamil politics topsy-turvy. Her party has no clear anointed successor and will have to figure out whether it can survive without its most charismatic figure.
But for those of us who only watched her from afar, sometimes with amazement, sometimes with befuddlement, sometimes with admiration, even grudging, she leaves a far more vexing legacy.
At a time when populism seems to be the new ism finding political favour around the world, Jayalalithaa showed us how it is entirely possible to be a democratic autocrat and be loved for it.
It's a lesson that has been imbibed all over India. We cannot say Jayalalithaa wrote the playbook for it. But she certainly has been its most successful and most unabashed practitioner. Again for those of us who only watched her from outside, it was baffling — the sight of ministers prostrate before her, the Amma-branded everything from fans to mobiles to gymnasiums.
We snickered at those ludicrous billboards that tried to photoshop her into anything and everything. After the Tamil Nadu floods, Amma showed up in photoshopped Baahubali posters, holding a baby in her hands, safe from heaving waters. Or there was that famous poster showing her marching down a red carpet while the likes of Barack Obama and Kim Jong-Un bowed their heads in deference. She never seemed to mind it, indulgently dismissing the over the top excess as the enthusiasm of her kazhagak kanmanigal or darling cadres.
It was so over the top indeed that we tend to think of Jayalalithaa as unique in the obsequiousness she commanded, and Tamil Nadu as an exception in its frenzied devotion to its leaders. But Jayalalithaa was not that unique, just extraordinarily successful in harnessing that energy.
The Baahubalization of Jayalalithaa during the Tamil Nadu floods prompted eye rolls but it was just a more melodramatic version of what Narendra Modi's press office tried to do during those same floods with a shoddy photoshop job showing Modi peering out of his airplane window at a crystal clear picture of a flooded Chennai street. Modi himself retweeted that picture until it was hastily removed. Modi's supporters heavily shared a "rare" photo of a young Narendra Modi apparently sweeping the floor during an RSS rally in 1988 to emphasize his humble origins. Later that image too was found to be morphed.
As for Tamil Nadu's penchant for Amma on everything, other leaders have taken note and are following in her footsteps. The free laptops from Akhilesh Yadav came with a boot-up image of the young leader to remind the beneficiary just who had given them that laptop. It even led to a rumour that removing the Akhilesh Yadav wallpaper would cause the laptop to crash.
Jayalalithaa understood that her political survival and success required a kind of branding just as the Congress understood that one way to perpetuate the Nehru-Gandhi legacy in the public's memory was to brand everything possible with that family's name. An RTI query showed 450 schemes, projects and institutions named after the Nehru Gandhi family including 15 national parks, 28 sports tournaments and 39 hospitals. But that was about explicitly establishing a dynasty. Jayalalithaa's naming bonanza was about imprinting just her Amma persona into the daily life of her people. It was about branding plain and simple.
It's not a lesson that has gone unnoticed. If you come to Kolkata today you will see Mamata Banerjee's pictures everywhere, looking serious, smiling beatifically, doing 'namaste'. Even a humble bus shelter informs us that it was built by the local MLA's funds and then has an obligatory nod to Banerjee's benevolent leadership. In a party that's built around personality, it's only natural that everything will be branded by that personality just as in CPM years it was branded by the party flag.
Alongside this mega political cult, Jayalalithaa had a clear and marked disdain for the press prompted she felt by vicious coverage and personal attacks. It led to many defamation lawsuits against many who she felt had slandered her.
Almost no Trinamool politician can give a speech without genuflection towards Banerjee even if she is not present at the scene. One must constantly let it be known that you (and the party) exists because of the leader. The leader does not lead the party. The leader is the party.
Alongside this mega political cult, Jayalalithaa had a clear and marked disdain for the press prompted she felt by vicious coverage and personal attacks. It led to many defamation lawsuits against many who she felt had slandered her. As Siddharth Varadarajan points out sometimes you could invite a criminal defamation case just by reporting what her opponents had said in a press conference. Yet despite all this she succeeded electorally. One can say her largesse, those subsidized meals and gold for poor brides-to-be endeared her to poor people. But she showed that it was possible to freeze out the media she did not like and still succeed democratically.
In an age when unfavourable media is routinely dismissed as "presstitutes", Jayalalithaa showed that while the media liked to self-importantly think of itself as the watchdogs of democracy, she could dismiss both their bark and their bite. A reputation for efficiency clearly resonated with voters far more than stories of corruption or vengefulness.
But somewhere along the way in the minds of her voters the Anna in AIADMK became Amma, Now the orphaned party will have to wonder what will happen to it.
She understood the comfort many feel in a decisive leader even if others might call him or her autocratic. It's a discomfiting lesson but a noteworthy one. Jayalalithaa's government went after folk singer Kovan for a song perceived as anti-Amma and the West Bengal police hauled up a university professor for forwarding a cartoon perceived as anti-DIdi.
Jayalalithaa inevitably leaves a vacuum in Tamil Nadu's politics. But unlike many regional leaders she leaves a mark far outside her borders. Indira Gandhi stamped the Congress with her own initial and made it Congress (I). "This time round there wasn't even the charade of pretending that this reinvention was about ideological issues: 'I' stood for 'Indira' and so did her party," writes Mukul Kesavan. Jayalalithaa did not do any alphabetical switcheroo to mould the AIADMK into her own party.
But somewhere along the way in the minds of her voters the Anna in AIADMK became Amma, Now the orphaned party will have to wonder what will happen to it. If your ism is your leader, then what happens when that leader is gone without a succession plan? And it's a question some other parties in India should be pondering as well.
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