After a 75-day struggle for her life, Tamil Nadu’s former Chief Minister, J Jayalalithaa, breathed her last on Monday. So much has been written and spoken about her in the last few days that there’s little one can add as new. But this is as good as a time as any to look at her legacy — both social and political. That she reached the pinnacle of power and stayed there till the end in a suffocatingly patriarchal political structure is a remarkable achievement in itself.
There was little doubt that she was adored by her followers, especially women, who seemed inspired by her life and achievements; to them, she was simply ‘Amma’.
But she was also an authoritarian leader who demanded nothing less than absolute loyalty and obedience from her party men and women. She had little time for democratic niceties and her relationship with the media was, at best, frosty. She also diligently cultivated a personality cult where she was the ‘Amma’ — an object of deification. Of course, corruption was an issue that would haunt her throughout her political career. Her conviction in a few corruption cases was overturned on appeal but the disproportionate assets case dogged her till the end.
What she will be remembered most for, though, is her unique welfare state model in Tamil Nadu. Though often derided for being populist for her welfare measures and the freebies she gave out, there is no doubt that she was several steps ahead of the economists in ushering in a unique model suited to Tamil Nadu’s social needs. Tamil Nadu has a rich history of ‘welfarism’, so the welfare model was already in place when Jayalalithaa came to power for the first time in 1991. She then proceeded to expand it and give it a new dimension, especially in the field of women’s empowerment.
The much-admired mid-day meal scheme was first introduced by then chief minister K Kamaraj in the 1950s in a small way. The scheme was scaled up significantly by MG Ramachandran in the early 1980s and its success became a model for other States to emulate.
Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze, in their book An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions , are effusive in their praise for Tamil Nadu’s remarkable achievements in social development. Though they do not mention Jayalalithaa specifically, as a four-time chief minister she deserves a good deal of the credit. Whether it is nutrition, primary education, literacy, healthcare, child mortality or maternal mortality — Tamil Nadu comes out either at the top or second in most of these indicators.
Sound delivery systems
What sets Tamil Nadu apart from other States is its quality of delivery. Other States too come up with impressive schemes but the delivery aspect remains sadly neglected — creating a huge gulf between promise and reality.
An example of this is the Amma canteens, started in 2014 to provide subsidised cooked food for the poor and underprivileged. The reason why this scheme was such a resounding success was that the food provided was not only cheap but also tasty and served in hygienic and clean surroundings. The canteens are run efficiently and are very hygiene-conscious — aspects that have hugely impressed observers and which clearly show that Jayalalithaa’s concern for the poor was indeed genuine.
Another crucial feature of Tamil Nadu’s welfare model was its universal aspect. When the policy framework for social schemes is moving towards greater ‘targeting’ of beneficiaries — Tamil Nadu’s politicians, especially Jayalalithaa, instinctively understood the pitfalls of this process and, hence, had little time for it. This aspect finds mention in Sen and Dreze’s book too. That Tamil Nadu’s public distribution system is universal, and everyone has access to it, has come in for a great deal of praise.
Rural job scheme
The AIADMK has also been quite enthusiastic in implementing the rural job scheme MGNREGA — launched by the rival Congress-led UPA government. Writer Vinay Sitapati, when covering the 2014 general elections in North Tamil Nadu, heard Congress workers grumbling about how the AIADMK is reaping the political benefits of a scheme launched by their party!
But there was also a huge underlying contradiction in Jayalalithaa’s welfare model. The edifice of this model was built on revenues generated from liquor sales. It was under her earlier regime that liquor retailing became a State monopoly, which the subsequent DMK government did not reverse — cleverly sensing that liquor was the State’s golden goose.
The unfortunate fallout of this was that Tamil Nadu has now become the top liquor-consuming State in the country, surpassing Kerala and Punjab — traditionally the top consumers. Alcoholism has become a serious issue with most political parties, with the exception of the ruling AIADMK, clamouring for Prohibition in the run-up to the last Assembly elections.
Jayalalithaa was perhaps one of the first chief ministers to have taken advantage of the liberalisation of the economy in the 1990s and understood the importance of inviting industrial investments to the State. It was under her first stint as chief minister that Ford Motor set up, on the outskirts of Chennai, its biggest plant outside Detroit. This ushered in the ‘auto revolution’ in Tamil Nadu, making the State a hub for the auto industry. The DMK government that followed also encouraged industrial investments. But this early enthusiasm seemed to have ebbed in her later stints as Chief Minister.
With the demise of Jayalalithaa, the last tenuous link that the film world had with politics in Tamil Nadu has been snapped. It’s unlikely that a film star will, in future, blaze a trail in Tamil politics and become a Chief Minister. The State’s politics in future is also likely to be far less personality-centric and more consensual in nature, which won’t be a bad thing. Hopefully, one has seen the last of the sorry sight of ministers prostrating in front a chief minister!
But will we also see less corruption, the bugbear of Tamil politics for long? As much as I would like to answer this in the affirmative, the reality, unfortunately, points in the other direction.