Deconstructing Jayalalithaa's Cult of Personality

Jayalalithaa's deification may make for comedic gold, but what drives the political success of a leader and a party so devoid of ideology?

 In Coimbatore, a group of party workers performed ‘milk abhishekam’ (pouring of milk) on a portrait of Jayalalithaa after she got acquitted in a court case in 2015. Credit: PTI

In Coimbatore, a group of party workers performed ‘milk abhishekam’ (pouring of milk) on a portrait of Jayalalithaa after she got acquitted in a court case in 2015. Credit: PTI

Ever since Jayalalithaa was admitted to Apollo Hospital in Chennai on September 22, there has been much unease in Tamil Nadu. Official information about the chief minister’s health has been elusive but wild speculations have taken its place. Social media users have had cases filed against them for allegedly spreading rumors about the AIADMK supremo’s health, even as local political observers cast almost cinematic predictions on the party’s future in a post-Jayalalithaa scenario.

As far as her supporters are concerned, this is the time to demonstrate their faith, not only in religion but also in their leader. Special prayers have been held across Tamil Nadu and AIADMK leaders, cadres and supporters – Hindu, Christian and Muslim alike – gather at the doors of Apollo Hospital, calling on their respective gods to protect their common leader. The contra-rational declarations of loyalty to the supreme leader resemble what one may see in North Korea.

The political mystery that is Jayalalithaa

For political scientists, Jayalalithaa is a mystery. Her victory in the recent election has thwarted many exit polls that predicted a DMK win and has left many commentators stunned. The AIADMK did not ally with any major party in the state, a decision that was too bold for even MGR, and still won a majority of 134 seats out of 232.  While the DMK won a credible 89 seats, communal and caste-based parties were routed in the polls. The much hyped Third Front led by DMDK’s Vijayakanth also bit the dust – the irony of the CPI and CPI(M) being part of an alliance whose leader campaigned for the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was not lost on voters. It could also be said that the division of the anti-incumbency votes was a boon for Jayalalithaa.

The run-up to the elections saw a mostly unruffled AIADMK that seemed confident in its performance despite the fact its leader had been temporarily imprisoned on corruption charges. Though the party did release its manifesto, albeit only 10 days prior to the election date, it was evident that a combination of populist policy measures implemented during Jayalalithaa’s previous reign and the power of her personality were behind the party’s win. And the AIADMK machinery made sure that the public was reminded time and again that Jayalalithaa was solely responsible for this political miracle.

The intensity of adulation that Jayalalithaa receives from her supporters rivals that of any godman in the country. Elderly AIADMK leaders, including the ex-chief minister of Tamil Nadu, O. Panneerselvam, openly prostrating before her; local leaders sponsoring special offerings in temples on the occasion of her birthday; AIADMK cadres tonsuring their heads to pray for her victory and tattooing her name on their chests to prove their loyalty are common sights in Tamil Nadu.

Charismatic leadership, not fascism 

In their work on the Indian mind, psychoanalysts Sudhir and Katharina Kakar note the role charisma plays in shaping an Indian’s political imagination. Yet, it is the masses that retain their agency in conferring the charismatic authority on the leader. “It is only when an Indian grants authority to a leader, his critical faculties disappear in the waves of credulity that wash over him.” They further argue that there is a psychological preference for authoritative, even autocratic, but not authoritarian, leaders who function as benevolent patriarchs.

That Jayalalithaa is charismatic, authoritative and autocratic is common knowledge. Her supporters’ ardent veneration of her has been subject to much ridicule in the local media, even as the state’s lack of democratic functioning has been criticised. The AIADMK is not particularly known for fostering a culture of criticism, debate or intra-party democracy. Decisions are taken via a strictly top-down, hierarchical process. When ministers are shuffled or sacked from their posts little or no explanation is given, nor is it demanded.  The leader herself is inaccessible. She rarely gives interviews to the press on what her party programme or ideology is about. In fact, the functioning of the party itself is secretive, much like an efficient corporate firm.

It is easy to read these facts, Jayalalithaa’s own personal attributes, her promotion of leader worship, affinity for self-aggrandisement and her disrespect for dissidence as hallmarks of fascism. But this is a very reductive inference. At most, Jayalalithaa fits only two of the nine variables of the Fascist type elaborated in an interesting study titled the ‘Authoritarian Personality’ conducted by Adorno and others. Namely a belief in “uncritical attitude toward idealised moral authorities of the ingroup” and a “belief in mystical determinants of the individual’s fate.” But such tendencies are not unique to Jayalalithaa and her party.

The conspicuous absence of ideology

More importantly, Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK is not hostile towards any minority or ethnic group and does not claim to represent any nationalism or ethnocentrism. It even eschews the progressive anti-Brahminism of the erstwhile Dravidian movement and claims to represent all sections, upper-caste and lower-caste alike. Although it has a strong base among the Thevar castes, AIADMK also enjoys considerable popularity among other intermediate and lower castes, as proven by its win over the Vanniyar-based PMK and the Adidravida-based VCK in the recent elections.

The AIADMK is also not anti-Communist in its discourse since its Puratchi Thalaivar (revolutionary leader) MGR and his protégé Jayalalithaa, the Puratchi Thalaivi (revolutionary leader, feminised), claim to be spearheading societal progress and change. In practice, neither MGR nor Jayalalithaa have allowed any form of trade unionism to emerge under their rule. For instance, brutal police operations against Naxal supporters under MGR’s rule caused no public outrage. Likewise, whenever parliamentary communist parties have fought elections against Jayalalithaa, they have been  faced with electoral decimation.

That leaves only the DMK as a powerful and credible challenge to the AIADMK. If the party is consistent on one thing, it is its opposition to the DMK and even this is not on ideological grounds; it only claims to be a better DMK.

AIADMK is marked by an explicit absence of ideology. But then, it is only in its absence that ideology becomes most imminent.

Capitalism, socialism, Annaism

MGR once famously remarked that his ideology is Annaism, which is capitalism plus socialism. As ridiculous as his statement may sound, this approach to politics is not unique to MGR. A good comparative example would be the Peronist regime in Argentina. The Partido Justicialista founded by Juan Peron, which won nine out of twelve presidential elections in Argentina, was based on social and economic justice. Claiming to be an alternative to capitalism as well as communism, it sought to combine elements of both into a third option. Under the charismatic leadership of Peron, the Partido Justicialista offered a slew of welfare measures for the poorest sections of society. While they encouraged foreign investments, the Peronists also nationalised certain industries and service sectors. Even critical thinkers like Ernesto Laclau considered the Peronists a better alternative to the blatantly pro-imperialist Argentinian military junta that favoured a big land-owning oligarchy style of government.

Yet, Peron’s rule was autocratic. Dissidents were killed and radical movements diffused. Revolution was deemed unnecessary because the leader had already guaranteed the revolution in and through his person. The Peronist state’s measures benefitted the poor and served as better providers than previous regimes, but their policies also filled the coffers of the rich. In the 18th Brumaire on Louis Bonaparte, Marx commented on Bonapartists’ role as the “patriarchal benefactor of all classes” who could not give to one class without taking from another. Both the Peronists and AIADMK workers are examples of the same.

The two facets of the AIADMK must be interpreted as representing the super-poor and the super-rich – the two classes that have traditionally supported the party. While the question of which class of people benefitted more is debatable, it is the poor who are crowding at Apollo Hospital’s gates, praying for the speedy recovery of their political deity. Although images of AIADMK ministers and cadres performing religious rites verge on being comical, dismissing these displays of loyalty from the lower classes towards their leader as cynical calculations would be intellectual snobbery.

The problem with Bonapartism is that it actually works.

Karthick Ram Manoharan is Senior Lecturer at the School of Development, Azim Premji University.

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