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It is rather reductionistic to explain Jayalalitha away as a matinee idol who miraculously made it big as a populist leader who bribed her electorate or as a legatee of a big mentor. She was all this and much more. Also, she was what the masses wanted. To understand her is also to understand the Tamil masses. They are not schooled in caste politics, the way the Yadavs of the Gangetic plains or the Marathas of Maharashtra or the Lingayats of Karnataka are. The Tamils were raised on Tamil pride. They vote not for the caste of the leader but for the idea of tanka tai tamizh (the golden mother Tamil). So, whoever worships well at the altar of goddess Tamil can aspire to become their head priest. So, a Malayali upper-caste Nair held sway over the masses for 10 years as their undisputed leader because he was the one-man propaganda machinery for the Tamil self-respect idea. His career as a caring administrator bolstered the screen image. It wasn’t really an image that he built to trap the masses but a welfare machine he created to supplement and complement the scripted character on screen. So, the real-life MGR made the reel-life MGR look better, rosier.
It is in this context Jayalalitha ought to be assessed. There was a silvery silhouette on celluloid and there was a tough woman in real life: attacked in public after her mentor’s death, assaulted inside the legislative assembly, derided for amassing wealth, defeated in her own constituency, jailed for corruption and yet, able to brilliantly bounce back to power. Why? The rise of MGR and Jayalalitha is also the tale of the hollowness of the Dravidian movement. It proved beyond reasonable doubt that the masses had enough of the loud, empty rhetoric on the bygone golden Tamil era (something akin to the Brahminical claims on Sanskrit and river Saraswati), which had no emancipatory solution for the caste-ridden society. The voters realised that the so-called Dravidian leaders were merely making a lot of money for themselves and their children, while talking about race, language, culture and such pseudo social signifiers. Finally, Dravidian politics was exposed as a family enterprise that refused to break the barriers of caste, community, prejudice and privilege in the countryside. Dalits have been routinely murdered and made to drink from a different tumbler.
MGR and later Jayalalitha were shrewd enough to embrace the Dalits, the marginalised and the illiterate. While their opponents ridiculed the unwashed and uncultured ruffians of the AIADMK, these poor people were silently getting empowered, enriched and educated. The doles went beyond populism, they meant that the worst-off could have a mid-day meal in schools, or a house or household goods. To think about a poor woman’s canteen is to think about the poor. That idea should be saluted. Jayalalitha was never a great administrator and the management of the last Chennai floods proved it. But unlike her earlier tenures, her last one was mindful of her constituents.
Still, outsiders simply don’t understand why Tamils beat their breast, tear their hair, tonsure their heads, wail and whimper for a politician. Well, the answer this time is rather simple. That is how they mourn their dear dead. They are long suffering people like other Indians, but they are not stoic in sorrow. They say it as they feel, loudly.