Indeed, for Jayalalithaa, women’s loyalty and worship of her authority offered enormous confidence and support to oppose anyone who questioned her power and policies.

A benevolent matriarch The gender politics of Jayalalithaa
news Politics Saturday, December 10, 2016 - 14:50

On December 6, 2016, like most Tamil middle-class women, I was glued to the television watching events unfolding after the demise of the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. It was a Deja vu of sorts to see a large number of poor women beating their chest and wailing. When they were intercepted by the press, many of them repeatedly said, “Amma is everything for us. She is our protector and our goddess. Now she has gone. Who will take care of us?”

The day after the funeral, poor women continued to march to the MGR memorial at the Marina Beach, where Jayalalithaa is interred, to carry out the Hindu ritual of tonsuring, usually only performed by men in the family. When MGR (the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and the party general secretary of the AIADMK), the mentor of Jayalalithaa passed away in December 1987, innumerable young men tonsured their heads and many killed themselves. But this time, one could see that women too were making the beeline to get their heads tonsured as a mark of respect and love for their ‘Amma’.

This again may not surprise many since Jayalalithaa inherited the massive support that poor women gave MGR, even as his regime served the interest of the rich. Until the last assembly election, poor women have consistently voted in large numbers for AIADMK, and in particular for Jayalalithaa. In a very close contest during the 2016 election, when DMK lost by one percentage point, women voters brought back Jayalalithaa to power for the second consecutive term. The Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey for the Tamil Nadu assembly election of 2016 shows that despite the AIADMK government’s non-performance in the previous term, as never before, the largest number of women voters (46% as against 35% who voted for DMK) across, caste and class divide voted for Jayalalithaa.

The report also shows that women voters considered Jayalalithaa as the best administrator who cared for women and that she carried out welfare measures more diligently than the DMK.  Their massive support to Jayalalithaa was attributed to the successful delivery of welfare measures to women in the state.

With Jayalalithaa, the gendered nature of the Tamil Nadu’s welfare politics had come a full circle, combining maternal content of the welfare policies and her embodiment as a benevolent matriarch.  This was carefully orchestrated politics of maternalism, which included worship of Jayalalithaa as a mother goddess that enjoyed enormous support among the Tamil women. Expanding the welfare policies of the DMK regime, Jayalalithaa had carefully and cleverly reworked, and some time reversed the previous ones to suit the needs of the poor women.

The recognition of gender-based needs is an important aspect of Tamil Nadu welfare measures which goes back to the DMK’s rule, when numerous schemes were introduced for women. They ranged from marriage and maternity assistance to poor women, child protection schemes, small-business loans and fair prices shops for women, housing, medical insurance to distribution of sewing machines and color TVs.

However, what is unique to Jayalalithaa’s welfare measures is the way in which she used these measures to personalise and project herself as a benevolent matriarch. Her distributive politics bore the face of maternalism and gave a maternalist twist to the welfare policies in Tamil Nadu.

Here was probably one of India’s wealthiest woman politician championing and defining the needs of poor women, ostensibly offering social protection to women to carry out their ‘maternal responsibilities’. A conscious reversal of some of the earlier policies that targeted the entire poor household including the menfolk.

The poor men became invisible and redundant under these maternalistic welfare measures. Women beneficiaries consciously subordinated themselves to the authority of protection offered by a powerful elite woman as they knew the indomitable power of this matriarch who is lovingly called “Amma”. For them, her benevolence surpassed her political excesses in the state.

Undoubtedly, Jayalalithaa’s regime was a totalitarian one which had curbed the inner party democracy and the civil rights of people. The media consistently faced severe repression. During her regime, violence against women, both in the public and private sphere, intensified without adequate state intervention.

The National Crime Report Bureau noted that in 2013, there were 53% cases of molestation and cruelty by husband and there was only one conviction out of 198 reported cases of dowry deaths in the state. Again in 2011, Tamil Nadu recorded the highest number of domestic violence cases (3,983) and much of these were alcohol related abuses by men. Incidentally, most of the welfare measures that address the needs of poor women and other subsidies for the poor household came from the liquor sale in the state (the liquor revenue to the state is roughly estimated to be Rs. 36,000 crores per annum) where men in large numbers from the poor household consumed liquor.

Some surveys have found close connection between alcoholism of men and sexual abuse of women in the state, thus making a mockery of state protection to women.  Anti-liquor protests in the state were severely repressed. Kovan, a radical social activist, who demanded the closure of government liquor shops for the devastation it caused to men and women in the poor households, was arrested and incarcerated under charges of sedition.

‘Honour Killings’, suicides, and girl child sexual abuse were also significantly on the raise during the Jayalalithaa’s regime. Several scams were also reported, which pointed out that she was not noncorrupt, unlike what the women voters thought of her. There was the Aavin Milk scam, the granite scam, irregularities in procuring pulses etc. for the public distribution via civil supplies corporation and many others.

Jayalalithaa’s notorious anti-people measures included dismissal of 1.7 lakh government employees and the 10,000 road workers and the later the infamous ‘fiscal discipline’.  All through her period of governance in Tamil Nadu, her words had the force of law for the party and for the poor women.

Her so-called able administrative skills only resembled a “commissarial dictatorship” which coalesced the executive and legislative power to produce the effect of efficiency and order. The politics of protectionism, be it maternalistic or paternalistic, demands loyalty and subservience to the power of authority. But for the poor women who face gender violence in an intensely patriarchal milieu this may be a way out. For women within her party, loyalty to Jayalalithaa was acceptable as that could fetch them some political visibility. As one AIADMK woman MLA once said to the media, “Amma provided an opportunity for women in the party to come up, but in return she only expected our loyalty and sincerity of support to her.”

Indeed, for Jayalalithaa, women’s loyalty and worship of her authority offered enormous confidence and support to oppose anyone who questioned her power and policies. Call it women power or empowerment, it was maternalistic populism that brought Jayalalithaa and the poor women in Tamil Nadu closer to each other.

The writer is an Associate Professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.

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