These days, Tamil Nadu is all about Amma. It doesn’t simply mean mother — or Jayaram Jayalalithaa, for that matter — it’s also the Assured Maximum service to Marginal people in All villages scheme and more.
Created and named to identify with the redoubtable AIADMK chief minister, the AMMA scheme aims at making the babus go to even the poorest villager and serve him — part of Amma’s (read: Jayalalithaa this time) brand-building initiative.
Another, and perhaps the most popular scheme of the AIADMK, is running a network of more than 300 Amma Unavagams (canteens) to serve hot and hygienically cooked food at unbelievably cheap prices.
Amma’s children — from rickshaw-pullers to college students and even corporate executives — can be seen having their lunch peacefully at the canteens located all over Chennai.
A square meal at the Amma canteens is priced at R5 per person, while it costs at least R45 at any restaurant. There are Amma vegetable marts and Amma mineral water too to round off the meals.
The Jayalalithaa administration has solved the problem of funding subsidies in an innovative way: Cash-flush city municipal corporations subsidise and run the canteens.
After the initial success in Chennai, the Amma canteens are sprouting all across the state. Although the menu is limited for now, there are plans to offer chapatis before the year-end.
Even the rival DMK cannot deny the utility of the canteens. RPE Sasikumar, a DMK councillor in Vellore in central Tamil Nadu, recently bought up all the day’s offerings at a local Amma canteen to distribute food among people on Karunanidhi’s 89th birthday on June 3.
Sridhar Ramanujam, CEO of image management company Brand-comm, said, “The AIADMK has succeeded in using the brand very cleverly. And it helps if you are the ruling party since you have enough to spend.”
But what does this mean for Amma? With an eye on the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Jayalalithaa has chosen the subsidy route to protect her nine Lok Sabha seats — and snatch some more from the DMK — to play a pivotal role at the centre in the case of a hung verdict.
Her arch rival, DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi, will have a tough time to fight off the mother-of-Tamil-Nadu image that emerged gradually from the very official sounding descriptor, chief minister of Tamil Nadu Jayaram Jayalalithaa.
The DMK camp is not amused, naturally. Party spokesperson TKS Elangovan said what the CM had done was only repackaging the DMK’s welfare schemes. “The AIADMK schemes are nothing but old wine in a new bottle.”
And although he alleged that there are lots of complaints from the people, political commentator and theatre personality Cho Ramaswamy said, “Expect her (Jayalalithaa) to do well in the Lok Sabha elections.”
For, when the DMK is at a loss whether to highlight Karunanidhi or Stalin as the supreme leader of the party and is content only with criticising Jayalalithaa, Amma is fast becoming a strong brand as a caring and a strong but benign mother-leader.
But Ramu Manivannan of Madras University is not so sure. “It’s a double-edged sword. Overexposure may affect her electoral prospects. But the metamorphosis of Jaya as Amma is something that she worked very hard for.”
For now, Jayalalithaa is perceptibly happy with what she has achieved so far. “I consider being called Amma as the biggest gift in my life full of struggle.”