The crowds at Apollo hospital, at Poes Garden, at Rajaji Hall and at Marina Beach said it all — J Jayalalithaa was a people’s leader. She knew the pulse of the people, fine-tuned her schemes for the welfare of the people of Tamil Nadu and cultivated her profile as a leader who lived and died by the Tamil slogan: “Udal Mannukku Uyir Thamizhukku” (loosely translated it means: Body for the land, soul for the Tamil cause/people).
But with her demise are we seeing the end of the last mass leader? Will there be a political icon like Jayalalithaa? Most agree that she is the last of that league of leaders who enjoyed popular love and support merged with blind sycophancy.
“Jayalalithaa was not just a mass leader; she was an icon, much like MGR,” says R Azharagasan, an academician and observer of Tamil Nadu politics. AR Venkatachalapathy, historian of the Dravidian movement, goes a step further and says when it comes to popularity, “Jaya eclipsed even MGR”.
She earned the title “Iron Lady” for her unwavering stand on inter-state disputes and for ensuring that Tamil Nadu’s voice was heard in New Delhi. What makes her stand out in the crowd of “tall leaders” is a determination, often obdurate, to carry out her policies. Whether on the Mullaiperiyar Dam issue with Kerala or the Cauvery River dispute with Karnataka, Jayalalithaa refused to take a stand that was seen as compromising Tamil Nadu’s interests.
On the political front at the Centre, the AIADMK commands the respect that numbers bring to the House. With 37 MPs in the Lok Sabha and 11 in the Rajya Sabha, the party is second only to the Congress, which has 44 seats, in the Opposition. This is entirely on Jayalalithaa’s charisma.
What also made her dear to the masses were her social and welfare schemes. “Jayalalithaa saw welfare politics as an effective tool to control electoral politics. While MGR had cultivated a pro-women image and had welfare schemes, the gender-sensitiveness in Jaya’s welfare programme made her popular among women”, says S Anandhi, associate professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies.
Many of her social policies, like the Amma canteen, water or pharmacy, which provided services at subsidised rates to the underprivileged in urban areas, were discussed as astute schemes addressing urban poverty. Her schemes for the girl child, school- and college-going girls, her schemes for self-help groups, etc, helped reinforce her position among women.
“What she has innovatively done is to divert and fine-tune welfare programme to address women’s needs. Social justice with a distribution face is very unique to Jayalalithaa’s regime,” says Anandhi.
A leader close to this status is DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi. He is a chip off the old block but he is not a mass leader like Jayalalithaa. According to Ramu Manivannan, head, department of politics and public administration, Madras University, “M Karunanidhi is a popular leader within the traditions of Dravidian politics, but it was Jaya who was the charismatic and populist leader.”
It is this iconic status of Jayalalithaa that will act as a double edged sword for the AIADMK leadership that takes over now. Popular goodwill will help the party initially, but if it fails to maintain the lofty standards Jayalalithaa has set, the tables could turn for the party.
However, now the sun rises in the Bay of Bengal to a Tamil Nadu where its Puratchi Thalaivi is resting in the cold sands of the Marina Beach. Dravidian politics will continue, but it’s unlikely that a leader of her appeal with emerge in the near future.