Jayalalithaa’s flawed legacies which TN should discard, but never forget

This is not about Jayalalithaa as a person, but her brand of politics which, as citizens, we must introspect.
Jayalalithaa’s flawed legacies which TN should discard, but never forget
Jayalalithaa’s flawed legacies which TN should discard, but never forget
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J Jayalalithaa, Tamil Nadu's charismatic Chief Minister and trailblazing woman politician is no more. But as several of her devoted cadre have been repeating ad nauseam, her legacy is still alive. And it's likely to loom large over the party for many more years to come.

But Jayalalithaa was not without her flaws. They say one should not speak ill of the dead but this is not about Jayalalithaa as a person, it's about her brand of politics which, as citizens, we must introspect.

Jayalalithaa was an exceptional leader in many ways. After MGR's death, it was she who held the party together despite efforts to shove her off the position. Her life was far from easy and she has openly spoken about the exploitation that she faced in the film industry and her struggle as a woman trying to make it big in a state where Periyar's black shirt was popular but not his views on female morality. 

Her iron grip on power was a heady mix of caste-politics, compulsive adulation, an open disrespect to democracy and government and a non-transparent way of functioning.

It is true that she was a bold woman fighting her way through a misogynist, sexist world, and that her political opponents were no saints. But Jayalalithaa has left behind a lasting legacy like few others in Indian politics, and to embrace it without seeing the dangerous flaws in it would be a mistake. The opposition parties in Tamil Nadu are also guilty of many of these flaws - this is not a contest to see who is worse - but it is her party which is currently in power, dictating the state's agenda.

Vendetta politics: Vengeance was Jayalalithaa's fuel. It was partly the force that made her push aside obstacles in her path that might have broken the will of a lesser person. From the disgrace she suffered at the hands of a DMK minister at the Legislative Assembly in 1989, Jayalalithaa began marking her enemies and going after them with all the powers that she had. IAS officer Chandralekha, lawyer Vijayan, and politicians within her party and outside it became her victims. 

Jayalalithaa sometimes played the woman card here, dismissing very valid criticism which had nothing to do with her gender, as society's way of punishing her for being a "self-made woman". 

The state became a victim too, when it suited her. Projects started by the DMK were stalled or sabotaged when she came into power. The Anna Centenary Library and the new Assembly complex are fine examples.

In the cat and mouse game that the AIADMK and DMK played, the collateral damage was sometimes people who had nothing to do with either party. Like the three students who were burnt to death in a bus in Dharmapuri when enraged AIADMK party cadre set fire to the vehicle after Jayalalithaa was convicted in a corruption case. 

Caste violence: Jayalalithaa was a Brahmin woman heading a Dravidian party that had taken birth in the hotbed of caste politics. She was also the leader who pushed for the Tamil Nadu Act of 1994 which brought 69% reservation to the state. But Jayalalithaa chose to turn a blind eye to caste-based politics and violence when she knew it would hurt her vote bank, especially the Thevars and Gounders.

She may not have been anti-Dalit, but whether it's the time when the state police fired at a gathering in Ramanathapuram killing seven Dalits or the time when the Vanniyars set ablaze over a hundred homes in Dharmapuri following an intercaste union, the AIADMK government did little, fearing that they'd upset the powerful caste groups who'd unleashed the violence. The blood of an Ilavarasan or a Shankar turned to water off a duck's back as far as the government was concerned. 

Autocratic style of functioning: Jayalalithaa was a democratically elected autocrat. She transferred bureaucrats who did not agree with her. She shunted ministers out of power when they fell out of her good books, shuffling her cabinet like they were a pack of cards at a casino. 

Her style of functioning also made her an unpredictable ally. In 1998, she joined the NDA under Vajpayee but pulled out when the latter wouldn't meet her demands. 

The autocracy meant that there was nobody to question her or even caution her on her over dependence on Sasikala or her obsession with astrology and myriad superstitions. There was no "who will bell the cat?" because the cat was a tiger who'd rip their heads off. 

Muzzling the media: From intimidation to filing defamation cases, the Jayalalithaa government went after the media whenever the story wasn't to her favour. Whether it's The Hindu or Ananda Vikatan, anyone who asked uncomfortable questions or even made a joke that she didn't like had to pay a price. This culture of shooting the messenger was in sharp contrast to the neighbouring state of Kerala where political satire has always flourished. The Tamil Nadu press had to tread softly around her or face the consequences. 

Sycophancy: Jayalalithaa liked her yes-men. She surrounded herself with people who treated her like an ancient queen, prostrating themselves at her feet and treating every word of hers as the gospel truth. Far from being embarrassed at this display, she actively encouraged and rewarded those who displayed their submissiveness, even as the press criticized her for it.

While it was sometimes amusing to see the extent to which this absurdity could go on, at other times, it positively hurt public interests. Like the time her enthusiastic cadre stopped relief supplies from moving until they were stamped with the Amma brand name during the devastating Chennai floods of 2015. 

Jayalalithaa was a target of patriarchy and misogyny all her life. She was either at the mercy or receiving end of men who saw their benefit in her, but not for her. Her worldview, especially in her later years as a politician, was shaped by the events of her earlier years. To see her flaws in that context is imperative. But it is also important to remember the consequences of her weaknesses

Note: Views expressed are personal opinions of the author.

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