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Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Jayalalithaa, adieu

Puratchi Thalaivi, Amma, Selvi Jayalalithaa has died at age 68. The whole of Tamil Nadu is apparently in shock, and 26 people have already died on receiving the news. Mourning on this scale was apparently last seen when M. G. Ramachandran, her mentor in both filmdom and politics as well as erstwhile chief minister, passed away in 1987. 'She attracted a level of support that verged on the bizarre', says the BBC obituary. Bengalis might also read this article.

I have lived a long time, so I cannot deny that I had read and heard a lot about her, but I must candidly admit that in the last 24 hours I learnt much more than I did before. She was apparently a diversely talented woman – a child prodigy at dance, a much above average student, a superstar on the celluloid screen, very different from all her political colleagues from down south because she could hold her own in Parliament with aplomb in English (besides being able to quote the likes of Chanakya fluently in Sanskrit), a lover of books, much hurt and abused in the course of her rise to power (and she was always very proud that unlike most Asian women leaders, she had done it virtually all on her own), the only chief minister who was disqualified and briefly went to jail, but one who came back again and again to rule in unabashedly despotic and lavishly self-indulgent style, who became more and more fiercely reclusive as she kept growing old, accused of extreme corruption and shameless populism yet successful not only in winning and keeping the passionate adoration of millions but in taking (or at least keeping) her state to nearly the top of the list in terms of literacy, prosperity and order… truly, the stuff of legends quite out of keeping with the age! What does that teach us about India? 

I wish Sonia Gandhi, Mayavati and Mamata Banerjee would take a few leaves out of her book. And her life is one more confirmation of several things I have said, namely that a) vast numbers of voters do not mind ‘corruption’ and self-aggrandizement as long as the leader can ‘deliver’, both in terms of personal charisma and worldly lollies, b) populism* pays, especially in a poor country, so long as you don’t bankrupt the exchequer, c) every politician is not ‘uneducated’ compared to the average engineer, and d) women with energy, talent, grit and clear goals are neither objected to nor thwarted from rising to the top by this so-called male-dominated society. So if most women want to whine instead, they shouldn’t expect much sympathy. Feminists might chew this over. This is what I have taught my daughter anyway.

P.S., Dec. 08: *And maybe it wasn't 'populism' in the pejorative sense that word is normally used. I just read this extract from a recent book by Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze.

P.P.S., Jan 08, 2017: I also read this article in today's newspaper. And I wish India had more Chief Ministers like that.


Tanmoy said...

Still the wealth she apparently made in terms of jwellery etc will always be part of her legacy, isn't it?

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Quite right, Tanmoy, but as I observed in the post itself, the electorate apparently doesn't care, and, after reading the article that I have put in the last link, neither do I. To my mind, any leader who does so much good for the common man (and woman) is welcome to amass as much personal wealth as she likes on the side. It may not appeal to our tastes, but that is beside the point here.

aranibanerjee said...

I write after a long long while though I keep following your blog. I could not overcome the temptation of responding to this one--I completely agree and adore your point. Every leader makes something on the side unless they are a Gandhi or a Martin Luther. We live in the age of Trump, Modi and Erdogan and we can consider ourselves immensely lucky that they are not as powerful to become as dangerous as Kim Jong or Putin. Coming back to 'Amma', she mostly kept her promises, stood by the womenfolk and was largely tolerant of racial and religious difference. And, in a deeply patriarchal society and party, she was immensely independent and popular. For that matter even Mayawati is a pretty likeable leader and her ignorance is often misread as bigotry. Her politics is radically different from the pseudo-liberal discourse of the Congress's but is definitely less dangerous in its myopia and bigotry than what Modi champions. It is a shame that she is not leading the charge against these right-wing thugs and Rahul Gandhi is pretending that he is doing as much. Whatever wealth she might have amassed, her reliability as far as social delivery is concerned is much more than that of the vacationing leader of the opposition.

Suvro Chatterjee said...


Very surprised and truly delighted to hear from you again, after, as you say, 'a long, long time'.