History may perhaps remember Jayalalithaa as the Amma of the welfare wagon. Her lasting legacy will no doubt include her pioneering initiative, the Amma Unavagam, or the Amma Canteen which continues to sell a plate of idlis at Rs 1. From its launch in 2013, the Amma Canteen has grown into a chain of low-cost eateries across the state. Its success had not only ensured electoral victory for the AIADMK supremo, but also got Chief Ministers from Delhi, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh among others taking notes to replicate the Amma Unavagam in their respective states.
While Tamil Nadu has garnered the reputation of being the freebie state of India, thanks to the competitive politics between Jayalalithaa and her arch-rival M Karunanidhi, the vision for the “welfare scheme” lies with Congress’ last Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, K Kamaraj.
It was in the 1960s that Kamaraj introduced the mid-day meal scheme that has since been implemented in schools across the country. As the story goes, Kamaraj who was then the Chief Minister, was on a visit to Tirunelveli district, and came across a boy who was herding cattle. When he asked the boy why he was not in school, he reportedly asked the Chief Minister if he would give him food to if he went to school. And thus the mid-day meal scheme became public policy.
While Kamaraj conceived the scheme, its scope was largely limited to rural primary schools. It was Chief Minister MG Ramachandran who propelled the mid-day meal scheme in 1982, expanding its base to cover all primary school children in the state, providing them one square meal a day. It became a benchmark scheme for the rest of the country. As reported by Prabhu Chawla for India Today in July 1982, “The scheme is probably the shrewdest political move of the durable matinee idol's career, combining as it does social benefit with political profit. At each of the feeding centres, the people in charge of the feeding do not fail to remind the children that the food is a gift from MGR...”
This populism, instituted by MGR, has since grown leaps and bounds in the Dravidian state. In 2006, many pollsters and political pundits predicted that Chief Minister Jayalalithaa would return to power, a feat that was last achieved by her mentor MGR in 1984. But this was before DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi announced the party manifesto, promising free colour TVs with a cable connection, and 1 kg rice at Rs 2 among other sops. The 2006 DMK manifesto became a game changer in Dravidian politics, ushering in the era of the freebies.
Jayalalithaa went all out in the 2011 Assembly polls. Strategically playing the waiting game until the DMK announced its election manifesto, the AIADMK leader offered everything and more that her rival had fallen short of. Jayalalithaa promised a fan, a grinder, and a mixie to all women in the state. She offered a free laptop to all college students in the state. She also promised 20 kg of rice free of cost to all family cardholders as well as 20 litres of drinking water a month to all BPL families. The AIADMK swept to power in 2011, with Jayalalithaa sworn in as Chief Minister for the fourth time.
Since then the Amma brand has rolled out canteens, drinking water bottles, cement, salt, baby kits, pharmacies and a whole list with some more.
Jayalalithaa made history in May 2016 when she returned to power for a consecutive term, a feat last accomplished by her mentor MGR in 1984. While her Amma brand may have certainly played a role in helping her retain power, her poll manifesto was seen as a continuation of her populist schemes. Free mobile phones for all ration card holders, free laptops with internet for 10th and 12th students, and 100 units of free electricity every two months were among the freebies on offer for voters in 2016.
The Amma brand wagon, however, showed no signs of stopping after the AIADMK’s re-election. As recent as August 2016, Jayalalithaa announced Amma Gyms for the state’s fitness conscious youth and Amma Parks for the public. The Chief Minister lost no opportunity to remind her voters that she had their welfare in mind. The branding that has come with all her populist schemes could rival some of the biggest brands in the country, and perhaps the world.
Her face bears down from bus stops, from outside hospitals and from those ubiquitous canteens. You can’t miss her even if you’re sitting inside a movie theatre, as her advertisement on preventing dengue and malaria plays out for the film-going audience. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa ensured that anyone who visited the state knew exactly who was power.
It remains to be seen whether the freebie culture, that has dominated the state for the last decade, will continue in the years to come. But what will survive is Jayalalithaa’s legacy – of taking the populism of a welfare scheme and making it her own.