Saturday, December 10, 2016

A Tribute to Amma

Last week, a giant in politics died. J Jayalalitha, five-time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, proud Hindu and a nationalist, fought for three months in Chennai, until she finally lost after a cardiac arrest. Her death, understandably, brought much grief to the state - indeed, to the entire country. Perhaps the most striking picture from the funeral was Prime Minister Narendra Modi consoling Chief Minister O. Paneerselvam and Jayalalitha's longtime friend, Sasikala.

Of course, Modiji's friendship with Jayalalitha was always well-known, but her death came as a shock to the entire country. Jayalalitha, Tamil Nadu's Amma, was always a difficult figure to place. Her relentless, even reckless, socialism and self-aggrandizement are the stuff of legend. Indeed, no state government in India has gone to the level of subsidizing private goods as much as she has, both during and after elections. And at the same time, she kept the state's finances strong, protecting manufacturing jobs in the state. Her opposition to GST was in the same light.

In Tamil Nadu, being a Hindu in public can be a very bad thing. And yet, she had no hesitation. She famously donated an elephant to a Hindu temple in 2001, and her opposition to the destruction of the Ramsetu in the Palk Strait was far more vociferous than what has now become the old guard of the BJP. And of course, her strident anti-conversion law, for which she was willing to take on even Pope John Paul II, made her the stuff of legend. And yet, Tamil Nadu's control over temples and plundering of its wealth to fund crony socialism went on unabated. In a state where publicly being a Hindu was a risk for any politician, she clearly had to measure her deeds.

Unlike the DMK, whose anti-India stand is well-known, Jayalalitha never faltered from standing up for the unity and integrity of the nation. She often spoke of national issues, even as she was mostly fixed on her own state's affairs. In the heydays of the Third Front in 2009, she surprised everyone by addressing a rally in Hindi, which she may have picked up during her film career, or perhaps even earlier. And yet, she tried to free the killers of former Prime Minster Rajiv Gandhi for cold, political gains, until she was stopped by the Supreme Court. Certainly, she was not bound by ideology.

In the campaign of 2014, it was often speculated that the AIADMK would join the NDA to support Narendra Modi's ascension to the PM's chair. But when the BJP shocked the world by winning a majority of its own, her party maintained stoic silence, choosing to support the Central Government on some issues, and attacking it on others. She always made it clear though, that her focus was on Tamil Nadu, presumably having forgotten her short-lived national ambitions.

But perhaps the greatest legacy of Amma was in that she was a self-made leader, having first defeated MGR's wife at the hustings, and then fighting the DMK for power over the state. Her surprise victory in 2016, making her the first incumbent to win an election in decades, marked the pinnacle of her popularity, even as her sins from the past through her association with Sasikala caught up with her. It is said that Subramanain Swamy's achievement of getting her locked up behind bars is what started the downfall in her health, and she never did recover. What an irony - the same Swamy who she once allied with to bring down the first NDA government.

Was Jayalalitha a nationalist or an anti-India force? Was she pro-business or a crony socialist? Was she a Hindu or one of the many opportunistic anti-Hindus? Was she a political friend or foe to Narendra Modi? Did she truly trust Sasikala, or was there more to it? These questions will be debated for eons by historians. But one thing is for certain - there never was someone quite like the Amma of Tamil Nadu. In her death is India's loss.

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