Tamil Nadu’s ‘Amma’ of everything

Jayalalithaa Jayaraman's own extravagances and scandals could not detract from Brand Amma or the image of a beneficent matriarch loved by her people

December 6, 2016 7:54 PM (UTC+8)
Indian supporters of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram react as they wait to catch a glimpse of her funeral procession in Chennai on December 6, 2016.
Photo: AFP / MANJUNATH KIRAN
Indian supporters of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram react as they wait to catch a glimpse of her funeral procession in Chennai on December 6, 2016. Photo: AFP / MANJUNATH KIRAN

Her photographs were everywhere in Tamil Nadu — from government offices to small shops. They exuded a sense of both power and fear.

Her party faithful greeted her by laying on the floor — even if she was just passing by in a car or hovering overhead in a helicopter.

Sacking ministers and stripping party men of their posts, or even their party membership, on account of some misdemeanor or other, was a regular occurrence. In turn, they feared — and worshipped — Jayalalithaa Jayaraman, to the point of obsession. They called her “amma” (“mother” in Tamil) and went to the greatest of efforts to appease her. Loyalty was well rewarded.

O Panneerselvam, perhaps the most loyal of all Jayalalithaa’s acolytes, has been sworn in as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu following her sudden demise on Monday. It wasn’t his first swearing in.

In 2001, he became the CM when Jayalalithaa was jailed. Famously, he refused to take the chief minister’s seat. In September 2014, when a Bangalore court sentenced Jayalalithaa to four years in jail in a corruption case, he again became the state government’s caretaker, though it was said that she continued to rule “by remote control.” As a mark of his loyalty, Panneerselvam refused to occupy the office of the chief minister and instead carried on working from his own.

Praying for the release of their leader, several AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) members used their blood to sign petitions to the President of India and the governor of Tamil Nadu to intervene on her behalf.

In a demonstration of fealty yet more extreme, a well-known karate champion — Shihan Hussaini — hung himself from a cross, hammered a 6-inch nail into one palm and then got his associates to do likewise on his other palm and ankles. He remained “crucifixed” for six minutes and seven seconds on a wooden cross custom-made for the exercise. A day later, on her 67th birthday, Jayalalithaa’s supporters suspended themselves with hooks attached to their backs and spears lodged in their cheeks.

On her 67th birthday, Jayalalithaa’s supporters suspended themselves with hooks attached to their backs and spears lodged in their cheeks

Amma’s populist initiatives included a scheme, introduced in 2013, to sell clean drinking water (“Amma Kudineer”) to the people of Tamil Nadu for a small price. “Amma Unavagam” (Canteen) was founded in the same year to serve food for as little as one rupee (US$0.015). In yet another gesture of her largesse, the state government gave away “Amma” laptops freely to school and college students.

What else? Three varieties of Amma salt (double fortified, refined free flow iodized, and low sodium); Amma baby care kits, comprising 16 baby-care products and offered freely to mothers who deliver at government hospitals; Amma cement, which was launched in 2015 when the price of cement rocketed; Amma grinders, food mixers and table fans; Amma seeds for farmers; and Amma mobile phones, given freely to self-help groups. The Amma pharmacy sells both branded and generic drugs at low prices; an Amma theater project has been proposed to screen U-certified Tamil films in corporation-run theaters; and there are even plans for Amma Gyms to be constructed in rural areas. Most of these schemes have taken a heavy toll on the government’s exchequer. But despite widespread criticism, they have continued.

Jayalalithaa’s political career was plagued by controversy. When she was arrested in 1996, press reports said that the treasures found at her residence included 64 lbs of diamond-studded gold jewelry, thousands of saris, 750 pairs of shoes, 91 designer watches and 19 automobiles. Yet Brand Amma was untouchable. A recent scandal involving the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (Tasmac), in which money earned by the state’s monopoly seller of alcoholic beverages was used to fund Jayalalithaa’s pet schemes, threatened to become an issue in Assembly elections earlier this year. Or so outsiders speculated — in the event her party went on to win 136 of 234 seats.

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