Jayalalithaa was one of India’s most iconic leaders

The very word “Amma”, her common designation, summed it all. She was mother, a presence, a being, evoking power.

Amma was one of the most innovative figures in politics. Electoral politics has produced a creativity of power and corruption which has provided power with a sense of respectability.

One can think of many names – Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, Indira Gandhi. Yet in terms of completeness, J Jayalalithaa combined populism, demagoguery, corruption into a structure of relevance which made electoral sense


Her style was both exemplary and paradigmatic. Her use of state funds for electoral politics made cynicism appear normal.

Elections were a time for doles, a form of gift giving. Drawing a fine line between gift and bribe, Jaya made sure that election became a potlatch, an orgy of gift which added to the stature of the ruling regime.

Her schemes, many borrowed ideas – the mid-day meals to prohibition – added to her sense of governance and morality.

Women swore by her because they felt she was both mother and housewife. There was a materiality to her endowments which also gave a symbolic power. She was the local mother India, not for the sense of sacrifice, but for the fact she conveyed a sense of governance nurturance.

jayabd_122516103630.jpgAmma was one of the most innovative figures in politics.

She merged the idea of motherhood and governance to create a picture of a leader. Every act of alleged misunderstanding added to her sense of alleged victimhood.

Elections created a legitimacy of styles of corruption which acquired a normalcy, a respectability in political India.

A leading journalist once told me of a southern politician who asked him if “sustainable corruption” was a feasible possibility, or even a thinkable one.

Jayalalithaa did just that; she made corruption sustainable, suggesting that corruption was another tactic of the state to create a more responsible governmentality.

Between her populism and her governance, people felt she worked for them. Many officers meeting her for the first time were stumped by her homework, her grasp of files and equally impressed by her sense of what she wanted from the files.

If she gave you ten minutes, you felt she had given you the world. Such was the power of her focused attention. Her English was immaculate. In fact, she was the ideal convent school archetype, ever grateful to the nuns at Presentation Convent.

Jayalalithaa was shrewd, economical, and made rumours work for her. Rumour, in fact, was an act of governance. Her silence was cryptic, open to multifarious interpretation. She kept rivals guessing through rumour in its sheer redundancy, repetition, variation. She understood the relation between gossip and power.


She knew she was a woman in a man’s world. She understood the rules of the game and she knew that she had and could change the rules of the game. She was literally the only exemplar of her paradigm of politics.

Intelligence, presence, an appetite for power, a shrewdness that verged on the paranoid, her protean sense of survival on her own terms.

Jaya knew how to use power. She reduced DMK’s M Karunanidhi to a hysterical old man when she arrested him. There was something untouched and untouchable about her. There was no Lady Macbeth in her, washing her hands of indelible stains.

She was ruthlessly calculative and showed little signs of regret. There was none of Mamata’s hysteria about her or any touch of Mayawati’s hint of victimhood.

She was too sure of herself for that. She played the gender game at a different level, not by appealing to vulnerability but by appealing to other women as a nurturant yet demonic power.

Her body language, demeanour created an opera of power, subdued but generating deep emotions among her followers who were almost Pavlovian in their loyalties. Her successors like O Panneerselvam acted as if she was the power that galvanised them.

They preferred to be puppets because as extensions of her they wielded unquestioned power for short stints, content that a few moments of glory were worth years of anonymity.


Her feminism wasn’t the protesting kind. She saw herself as a women, and for many in Chennai, she was the women, as exemplar. People praised her for conducting herself like a woman. Her womanliness was more feminist than any feminism.

Sadly, she saw herself as the immaculate conception, a woman who could do no wrong. Her attitude to her rivals added to her prestige. The logic of reconciliation sounded too sentimental.

Power had to create casualties if it had to remain power. That she understood naturally. In fact, there have been only two great narratives of power after Indira Gandhi – Jaya and Modi.

Modi is more of a fabrication, a career put together by design engineers and ideologists of the RSS. Jaya was a growth, a self she carved on her own. She was the true original and had the makings of a myth.

Her public image has an epic quality that few politicians can match. In fact, in a chess game between the two probably most ruthless politicians of the era, she would come up trumps.

Indian politics will feel disempowered without her. Legends like her are not invented too often.


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