All who did and most who did not support the chief minister are in mourning, in some form or another. J. Jayalalithaa is no more. A cinema star-turned-leader, whose determination in the face of massive adversity had won her the titles of ‘Iron Butterfly’ and ‘Revolutionary Leader’, Jayalalithaa captured the imagination as a woman not necessarily of the people, but certainly with the people as a ubiquitous presence and force in political and popular life.
It’s hard to fathom the Tamil landscape with the knowledge that all of those portraits of the leader no longer point back to a living, sentient being. The outpouring of emotion she commanded in life and now in death never cease to amaze those do not have a feel for how the political and popular affect have been collapsed into one another, for better and for worse. Without getting into the task of proving the sincerity of sentiment leading some to go so far as to take their own lives in acts of political devotion, or the opposite and equally misguided one of showing that those who participate in public displays of mourning are doing so because of some culture of political ‘sycophancy’ as it is often dubbed, we must shift the terms of debate on the nature of her power while appreciating the massive loss Tamil Nadu has sustained with her passing.
Has a political impasse sustained by the binary opposition, nearly devoid of ideological content, collapsed? The state of Tamil Nadu will now be forced to face what it was unwilling or unable to in the assembly elections held in May: a political world no longer sustained by this structural deadlock between two of the greatest leaders in Indian politics that has become ever hollower over the decades. Not completely hollow, of course. The gender politics underpinning an opposition between Jayalalithaa’s appeal to women as well as a certain technocratic middle class, and Karunanidhi’s bearing the legacy of the radical but oftentimes masculinist Dravidian movement could not be starker.
In many respects, the gender dynamics animating both cinema and politics made Jayalalithaa who she was. But the competitive populism that has come to define the political field in Tamil Nadu has ensured the increasing emptiness of the signifiers of political difference at the level of explicit ideology. There are minor differences in policy between parties, but all can claim a direct appeal to the people as mediated through commodities and welfare schemes. In the end, it mattered little whether it was televisions, mixies, grinders, goats or hard cash. The image attached reigns supreme.
This is a politics of branding, that intangible asset underpinning the political image in our age. And Amma was its master. Having come up under MGR’s tutelage in a world of ‘cine-politics’, to borrow a phrase from M. Madhav Prasad, Jayalalithaa’s whole life from adolescence was tied to the commodity image, well before she became ‘Amma’. It was not only the image of the movie star she lived with, it was also that of a woman who defied compulsory gender roles to such a degree as to provoke an attack in many forms, physical and symbolic. Jayalalithaa inherited MGR’s support and fan base among the newly christened and recognised thaaykulam, or ‘community of mothers’. But in eventually coming to embody the figure of a mother whose children and siblings were none other than the people themselves – for she had no conventional family of her own – Amma had outdone MGR, not to mention her bitter rival Karunanidhi.
To call this a politics of branding is not trivial, nor is it to dismiss it. While everyone knows about the Amma canteens, drinking water, cement and pharmacies that proliferated in recent years, this phenomenon is a symptom of a much deeper structure animating politics. Jayalalithaa’s mastery of the political image is in many respects the result of the DMK’s early embrace of the commodity image as a means of mobilising the youth in 1950’s Tamil Nadu. Under Anna’s leadership and by means of Karunanidhi’s pen film became such an important vehicle for politics that it could be severed from the sphere of political ideology. Through a strange dialectics in which the once-vehicle image replaced conventional politics in importance, MGR’s body and personal charisma had a life that outlived even the films in which he acted or the political office he came to monopolise, as M.S.S. Pandian argued in his book, The Image Trap.
Jayalalithaa followed suit, but not without bitter struggle, within the party against a faction led by R.M. Veerappan and MGR’s wife V.N. Janaki, and without though ignominious attacks on her person both from DMK MLAs in the Tamil Nadu State Assembly and in the DMK-supporting media. Jayalalithaa vowed to return to the assembly only as the chief minister and she did.
It is in her capacity to craft and control her image as chief minister that Jayalalithaa, in her shift to ‘Amma’, outdid her predecessors. She was a tragic figure who had taken on the Herculean task of building her own symbolic order, made of the materials she had inherited from the politics of the Dravidian movement and the dreamscape of the film. Ruthless against a press that had encouraged and oftentimes led the attack on her, the chief minister filed 180 criminal defamation cases between 1991 and 1993. She withdrew all the cases on December 30, 1993, in a dramatic act of sovereignty premised on the exhibition value of official pardon. This was also a period of more physical forms of violence against those perceived to be inimical to a person, Jayalalithaa, who was blurring her image more and more with that of the state itself.
The use of law to control the contours of what could be said in public about the leader culminated in the midnight arrest of Karunanidhi in 2001 and the subsequent mass arrest of reporters working for Sun TV and other media outlets. But if we remember these as attacks on freedom of the press, we must also bear in mind the media world that has made its living through depictions of Jayalalithaa and her companion Sasikala that are grounded in aggression against women occupying, indeed shaping the public sphere. Jayalalithaa and her critics have produced each other in a substantial fashion, and the now generalised fear in reporting that has resulted has produced a peculiar world in which public secrets rule political discourse.
Consider the lack of information available to the public since Jayalalithaa first entered Apollo Hospital in September. Chennai has been rife with rumours of the chief minister’s ill health before, but the last year had witnessed a normalisation of official public silence, now extended to nearly all big media, and endless speculation in the parallel public sphere that finds its oxygen in the very lack of information or debate in big media.
Many will find in Jayalalithaa’s story much that is exceptional. Her abilities to inspire such a range of emotions and reactions, all strong, was remarkable. It was her self-diagnosed vulnerability and sensitivity to the often hostile eyes of others that appear to have sat at the core of her iron image; just as it was the adoration of her supporters that forced her to continue a political career that was so filled with pain, in addition to victory. But it is also worth bearing in mind elements of these politics that are not exceptional.
Jayalalithaa’s friendship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not only one of personal affection or political convenience. The image machine that the chief minister had mastered as an art of politics appears to have meaning and use beyond the state of its birth. When claiming that Amma was a master of the art of political branding, we must also place her within a wider field of image politics that extends even beyond the shores of India. The struggle to forge a new symbolic order, exemplified even in her funeral rites that unfolded as I wrote this, is one will be taken up by others. Jayalalithaa’s artistry in the field of popular politics will remain an important reference point, however, one filled with pathos for all who have been captured by her iron image.