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Selvi J Jayalalithaa


FROM the age of four Jayalalithaa trained in the art of classical dance, eventually performing across India. From there she graduated to the Tamil film industry, starring in more than 100 films – though this is nothing compared with some other ‘Tamilwood’ stars, who have clocked up as many as 1,200.

She took a routine step from the silver screens of Tamilwood to populist political influence, which she has exploited with great skill and ruthlessness ever since. She followed her co-star and friend Ramachandran to become Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for the first time in 1991. Proficient in English, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi, Jayalalithaa expressed her political views in the language of Tamil chauvinism. The All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party, which she leads, claims to represent the cause of ethnic Dravidians in southern India, and she is influential within the Hindu supremacist ‘Hindutva’ movement at a national level.

Perhaps it was the glamorous world of Tamilwood, however, that first whetted her legendary appetite for luxury. She once needed a reported 48 suitcases for a three-day trip to Delhi. In the mid-1990s, 30 kilograms of diamond-studded gold jewellery, not to mention 10,000 saris and 750 pairs of shoes, were seized from her during an investigation into corruption. She indulged her foster son by throwing him a wedding of multi-million dollar extravagance.

Tamil Nadu stretches from its capital Chennai (Madras) in the north to the coastline facing Sri Lanka at the southern tip of India. According to the World Bank, it is among the ‘better-off’ Indian states in terms of average income per capita, but has the highest levels of inequality in the country. Jayalalithaa’s personal wealth makes a significant contribution to that statistic.

During her first five years in office, from 1991 to 1996, she developed a personality cult worthy of Mao. Cut-outs of her punctuated the Chennai skyline. Her ministers would publicly prostrate themselves before her.

Soon after returning to power in 2001, however, she was tried for corruption and suspended from office following her acquisition of government land in a murky deal. She spent a brief period in jail in 2002 before the verdict was quashed on appeal for ‘lack of evidence’.

Undeterred, Jayalalithaa has stamped on all opposition with an authoritarian boot. She has been widely criticized for misusing the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), intended to deal with cross-border terrorism in Kashmir. She accuses rival Tamil nationalists of extending moral support to the violent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. She is anxious to implement ‘anti-conversion’ laws to prevent lower-caste Hindus converting to other religions.

In 2001 her main political opponent, Karunanidhi, and many of his supporters were arrested. When The Hindu, a leading newspaper based in Chennai, published an editorial entitled ‘Rising Intolerance’ that criticized her ‘crude use of state power’, the main editorial staff of The Hindu and the editor of Murasoli – which reprinted the piece – were sentenced to 15 days in prison. According to the loyal Privileges Committee of Tamil Nadu’s Legislative Assembly, the editorial ‘lowered the dignity’ of the legislature by ‘tarnishing the image’ of Jayalalithaa.

A pioneer of privatization, she has implemented neoliberal economic policies with great zeal. Enormous cuts in food subsidies contributed to an increase in hunger and the death from starvation of handloom weavers and farmers.

After crushing a 2001 transport workers’ strike, in 2003 she dished out draconian punishment to state government workers who went on strike to oppose pension cuts. She used the Emergency Services Maintenance Act to sack around 200,000 employees, de-registering 26 trade union federations and 200 affiliated unions. When this provoked an outcry, she rehired the workers on condition that they signed a humiliating pledge not to strike again.

The indomitable Jayalalithaa floats on the politics of Tamil Nadu like a rather large, overloaded ship, sails billowing in the brisk breeze of her own self-esteem. To potential investors she likes to project a ‘knowledgebased’ image of her state. In January 2003 she told a gathering of women scientists and entrepreneurs in Chennai that she regretted the paradox that the ‘prosperity of nature’ could co-exist with the ‘poverty of the people’.

A more obvious paradox is that Jayalalithaa is idolized by large numbers of impoverished people whom she oppresses. Indian politics is indeed a tough world, especially for women. Whether that requires the ‘mindset of a tin-pot dictator’ – in the words of The Hindustan Times – is another matter. She may deplore the poverty of Tamil Nadu’s people but, given her attachment to her own wealth, that hardly seems to matter.

New Internationalist issue 366 magazine cover This article is from the April 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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